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

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.

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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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