'Dexter': Will He Finally Lose It This Season?

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The fifth season of Dexter, Showtime's series about the Miami blood-spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer, premieres this Sunday. The upcoming season promises to be something of a doozy following the death of Dexter's wife, Rita, at the end of season 4; previews indicate that Dexter will become the primary suspect in her murder. New faces are joining the cast; Julia Stiles is set to guest star in 10 episodes as a new romantic interest, and Southland's Shawn Hatosy will appear in a multiple-episode arc. But season 5 of "Dexter" will also offer more than the usual cat-and-mouse-with-the-police interspersed with ritual dismemberment. Rita's death isn't just another puzzle to solve; it may signal an as-yet-unseen unraveling of Dexter's stony facade.

Part of the appeal of "Dexter" isn't just the almost banal treatment of his ritualized murders (no matter how much I enjoy the show, his collection of blood slides creeps me out every time I see it) or superb acting by Michael C. Hall. It's Dexter's unusual brand of vigilante activity. Despite his psychotic nature (which he recognizes, once interrupting himself during an interior monologue by saying, "Oh good, the voices are back"), many might sympathize with Dexter as they may Dirty Harry or Batman. He preys on criminals the police could not reach or the legal system forgot, enforcing his own brand of justice.

Like other fictional vigilantes, Dexter operates to satisfy his own psychological (and in his case, psychopathic) needs. But Dexter has shown that despite his blood lust, he has the capacity for morality, for reason, and for compassion, if only awkwardly parroted or bound by The Code taught to him by his adoptive father, Harry. Observing Dexter in 2006, Tad Friend recognized glimmers of humanity from the outset of Dexter's bloody journey: "It's hard to get worked up about Dexter's peril, because he keeps telling us that he expects and deserves to be caught, calling himself 'a very neat monster.'"

Unlike other vigilantes, Dexter's crime-fighting is merely a manifestation of his internal urge to kill, distilled through Harry's Code, and his murderous tendencies frequently conflict with his sense of identity and purpose. Since the start of Dexter in 2006, each season has led Dexter through a new stage in a seemingly perpetual identity crisis. In season 1, Dexter had to come to terms with his past —his "birth" as a witness to his mother's murder by chainsaw in a blood-soaked shipping container, echoed at the end of season 4—and the existence of his long-lost psychotic brother Brian.

After murdering his brother to save his adoptive sister Deb, Dexter's survival instincts are eroded by his changing perception of his own monsterhood as he tried to evade the police in season 2. The revelation that Harry was sleeping with Laura Moser, Dexter's biological mother, and that Harry committed suicide from guilt after walking in on Dexter in the middle of a kill cause his faith in Harry's code to waver, and Dexter loses control.

In season 3, Dexter lets an assistant district attorney into his world, only to become convinced that true, honest friendship will forever remain outside his grasp. While his decision to marry Rita seems like a final conclusion to Dexter's ongoing cycle of internal instability, he finds himself disillusioned with his family and lifestyle by the opening of season 4.

"I'm a human being." "I'm a monster." Dexter constantly vacillates between the two when posed with new information or circumstances that challenge his equilibrium as a serial killer. By the end season 4, Dexter finds himself for the first time at ease; face to face with Trinity's hollow shell of a family—"he uses them as human shields"—Dexter finds himself longing for Rita, his adoptive children, Astor and Cody, and his son Harrison. While Dexter's interactions with coworkers and acquaintances are often staged to give the appearance of normalcy, his relationships with Rita, the kids, and sister Deborah are the only genuine ones he has. Deborah contantly reinforces his sense of humanity, telling Dexter in season 4, "You've been the one constantly good thing in my life." "I've been good for her," muses Dexter, "and Rita says I've been good for her and the kids. Maybe Harry was wrong. Maybe things could turn out differently for me"

But with Rita's death, Dexter's loses everything he's gained since the beginning of the series. Dexter usually avoided arousing suspicion at Miami metro by presenting himself as fairly innocuous ("Dexter the donut guy: just part of my routine"), even when being tailed by Sargent Doakes in season 2 and Detective Quinn in more recent episodes. But Dexter's declaration in the season 5 trailer—"it was me"—will make him the number one suspect in Rita's death. A parallel investigation into "Kyle Butler," Dexter's season 4 alias while stalking the Trinity Killer, presents a specter of incarceration or execution sure to put Dexter's anxieties into overdrive.

Even worse, most of his primary connections to humanity are gone. While Dexter had sources of consistency and stability in earlier seasons (despite his regard for himself as inhuman), he finds himself almost entirely alone in this moment of upheaval. Rita is dead, indirectly due to his involvement with the Trinity Killer. The teaser shows an inevitable rift growing with an angry stepdaughter. Even Deb seems like an unsure bet; despite her unfailing love and support of her brother, her revelations as to Dexter's bloody origins at the end of Season 4 might pose problems for her potential role in the investigation into Rita's death and the mysterious Kyle Butler.

All Dexter really has left is Harry's Code, the primal habit that regulates his murderous impulses. But as he says in the season 5 teaser, "Normally having a target would make me feel good, but now it means nothing." The guilt of his role in Rita's death, his estrangement from his children (including baby Harrison, who Dexter predicts will hate him some day), and the prospect of ongoing police surveillance - if only by Detective Quinn - are a volatile mix for Dexter's already unstable personality. The closing seconds of the teaser—a bloodied Dexter, without his usual tools and dismemberment garb—hints at a potential hiatus for the cool, controlled Dexter of seasons past. Sure, Dexter remains a human chameleon, a master of blending into social situations (albeit with some awkwardness). But the stress on Dexter's life is greater than ever, and without Rita and his family to serve as lifelines to his humanity, Dexter may lose it altogether.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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