'Dexter': Parenting Lessons for a Serial Killer

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Showtime

"Teenagers...they can make you homicidal," a fellow parent told Dexter. True enough if that teenager is Astor Bennett. This week's Dexter proved the show doesn't suffer from complete narrative amnesia. Reenter the character of Astor, Rita's 12-year-old daughter blessed with an outsized and often maddening attitude. We haven't directly seen Astor or her brother Cody since the season's second episode, not since they were conveniently shipped off to their grandparents in Orlando.

Grief, we learn, has not treated Astor well in subsequent months.

Seven episodes later, Astor has returned decked out in giant hoop earrings and heavy makeup (looking like a "raccoon," Dexter innocently jokes), gets drunk, possibly shoplifts, and still sports just as much attitude as ever. All of this, of course, at age 12. Astor and her new BFF Olivia crash the old family house only to encounter a terrified Lumen secretly living there. Cue angsty kitchen chats once Dexter returns.

Cody and Astor were prominent features of the show for its first four seasons and were initially a wonderful way to show off Dexter's flashes of humanity. Beginning last season, however, Astor stopped playing along with Dexter's act, and after her mother's death, she raged against Dexter and blamed him. She barely hugged him goodbye when leaving for Orlando. For Astor and Cody to disappear did make some sense. How else could Dexter continue to kill and carry on his escapades if he was a single father of three? He struggles enough as is with his own infant son, Harrison. Besides, the trauma of Rita's death would have been too pervasive if her mourning children remained always on screen. The show's narrative practically demanded the move to Orlando. But the move, however dramatically necessary, seemed rushed.

This episode provided a nice reminder that Rita's children do still exist and continue to deal with their mother's death. The memory of Rita is demonstrably with the depressed young girl, who now seems more defeated than fiery. Early in the episode, baby Harrison appears to call Lumen his mother, stirring Astor to approach the child and say, "She's not your mama. Your mama's dead."

Astor's real motivation in coming to Miami, we discover, is to protect her friend Olivia, whose mother's boyfriend beats her. The situation nicely parallels the protective instinct Dexter feels for Lumen, another victim of abuse. Upon learning the details, Dexter drives off Olivia's abuser with a brutal beating, which inspires the approval and surprise of ghostly adoptive father Harry. "I'm proud of you," Harry tells Dexter. "You protected Astor. Put yourself out there for another person. I had no idea you had that in you. ... Presumed you to be a monster when you were capable of so much more. If only I had seen that, maybe I wouldn't have led you down this path."

What the episode truly highlighted was Dexter's motivation to be a good father. He sits Astor down. He tries to get her to open up and, with earnest cluelessness, be the responsible grown-up. Naturally he struggles with his own awkwardness, forever at its apex with the teenager. Lumen encourages him to share with Astor, to open up about what he did at her age ("Killed the neighbor's dog." "Well, don't tell her that!"). The strained emotional desire is absolutely evident and often rattles the serial killer. Astor and Olivia briefly go missing during the episode, which prompts a police search. When the police find a suspect, Dexter goes manically out of control in public. "I'll kill you!" he cries as he grabs the suspect. Emotion shatters his cool and manifests in both uncharacteristic anger as well as uncharacteristic warmth.

His fatherly efforts pay off. When Dexter drops Astor back with her grandparents in Orlando, the two characters share a moment closer than any in the prior two seasons. Dexter even forms words that seem antithetical to his personality: "I love you," he tells Astor. Consider this a powerful reminder that Dexter, while he may be a ritualistic killer, has grown far beyond the sociopath he once was.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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