Did New Blood Redeem Dexter?
Dexter: New Blood had a lot of work to do in redeeming the back half of the original series. Was it able to pull it off?
This article contains spoilers for Dexter: New Blood.
It was easy to be skeptical when Dexter: New Blood was first announced. The descent into ignominy of the original series is well documented by this point, with the Monty Python-evoking finale infamous even among those who never watched the show.
But a dud finale wasn’t Dexter’s only crime, nor the only reason a continuation was a dicey proposition. While the first four seasons remain respected for their dark humor, thorny moral questions, and devastating twists, the second half of the series did everything in its power to squander any goodwill. The finale cops a lot of flack, but it’s still not as bad as the entire run of Dexter’s bafflingly awful sixth season. That the ending would fail to impress after such lows was, really, a foregone conclusion.
As such nobody was exactly losing their minds over the prospect of a revival, but there was reason for hope due to the involvement of Clyde Phillips; Dexter’s original showrunner who left after the high-watermark fourth season and had gone on record as despising the finale. The promise was that this new series would be a corrective of sorts that would finally offer a “real” finale. However it was always stipulated that, either refreshingly or worryingly depending on your perspective, the new series wouldn’t be erasing any of the old one. Lumberjack Dexter still happened. That skin-crawling subplot about Deb being in love with her adopted brother still happened. “Hello whore” still happened. Harrison on the treadmill… the list of embarrassing moments goes on. But to his credit, Phillips chose to honor the fandom by not being selective with canon (cough, Halloween, cough) and used where we last saw Dexter to kick off a new chapter.
New Blood didn’t exactly start strong. There were plot holes, clunky lines and moments of voiceover worthy of the Scott Buck years (Dexter on a video gaming drug dealer – “He likes games. But I’m not here to play”). There was a base level of competence that the final seasons of the old show lacked and the snowy setting provided a fresh energy and atmosphere after eight years in Miami, but nothing in those early episodes really indicated that Dexter had regained its season four glory. ‘Better than lumberjack, not as good as Trinity’ seemed to be the consensus.
But as the season went on New Blood started to play interesting notes that the original show never could. Firstly; the small town setting meant that every kill had real consequences. Dexter could no longer just disappear into a crowd after taking out a bad guy. Kill a murderer in Miami, the police will assume a gang was responsible. Kill one in Iron Lake, the whole town rallies for a search party.
Then there was Harrison. Still only a small child at the end of the original show, the idea that Harrison might have inherited Dexter’s darkness was toyed with but could never seriously be anything more than an abstract. But by tweaking the timeline slightly to allow an angry, resourceful and enigmatic fifteen-year-old to track his father down, New Blood turned what was a plot cul-de-sac in the old show into gripping, complex storytelling. Was Harrison like his father? Could he be put on a different path? Or did Dexter, ultimately, want his son to follow in his blood-stained footsteps?
In its early years, Dexter sometimes feinted towards the idea of its central character as a kind of warped superhero. Think the fantasy parade at the end of season one, or the Dark Defender comic in season two. But with Rita’s death, the last Phillips-overseen moment of the old show, it was made abundantly clear that while there were moral ambiguities surrounding Dexter’s kills, he was ultimately always a destructive force. The problem with the later seasons (at least, one of the problems) was that this idea felt increasingly half-hearted when the show seemed determined to absolve Dexter at every turn, even having Deb tell her serial killer brother while dying due to his actions that he “deserved to be happy”. This after she murdered their innocent Captain so that Dexter wouldn’t have to, because god forbid Showtime’s big hero ever do anything too terrible.
This is one of the reasons the original finale felt so jarring and half-assed: the show wanted to vaguely gesture towards some kind of ‘punishment’ for Dexter but also didn’t want to commit to anything lasting or, well, too much like an actual punishment. Which left it with what the A.V. Club’s Emily Van Der Werff perfectly described as an ending like something out of a Spiderman film – the noble yet troubled hero taking himself out of the equation to protect those around him. Just look at the ending of No Way Home for proof of how on point that assessment was. Dexter’s biggest problem was that half the audience thought they were watching a superhero story, the rest thought they were watching Breaking Bad and an apparent unwillingness to let down either side left very little in the way of potential satisfying endings.
What is thrilling about New Blood is how thoroughly Phillips commits to the half of the equation he always prioritized. He understands that Dexter is not a complete monster, that he even has done some good and that is worth exploring, but that ultimately his actions have always been those of a self-serving addict. The “Code” was only ever a convenient façade of moral righteousness protecting somebody who murders for pleasure and will not hesitate to kill innocent people if they get in his way.
The masterstroke is how Harrison’s New Blood introduction threw all those ideas into sharp relief. Dexter claimed to want what was best for his son, but could barely hide his exhilaration at the idea that Harrison might share his darkness. What made it especially twisted is that Dexter’s need for connection was so well established and so understandable that we couldn’t begrudge him this yearning even though we absolutely should have. But while his relationship with Harrison allowed Michael C. Hall to play new shades to the killer that made us feel for him more than before, it also brought out Dexter’s worst traits, including his murderous selfishness. He barely batted an eye at killing Logan or almost killing Angela to protect what he believed he had found.
The moment that New Blood proved itself to be the corrective it was advertised as came in the penultimate episode. Throughout the preceding eight installments the idea of Harrison harboring his own “Dark Passenger” had been teased and, seemingly, confirmed in a confession to his father. We as the audience didn’t really question it because Dexter didn’t and we’ve long been positioned to see things his way. But crucially Harrison never explicitly said he had a need to kill. Anger, hatred, violence, sure, but plenty of people grapple with those things without tipping into serial murder. So when Harrison watched his father murder and dismember Kurt Caldwell and, as the reality of what he was party to set in, the boy recoiled, it became suddenly, strikingly clear that Harrison might not be as much a chip off the old block as we – and Dexter – assumed.
The original show, in its later years, would likely have conflated being troubled with being a psychopath, but New Blood is smarter. And the final episode underlines the point – Harrison’s personal trauma began with his mother’s murder, but Dexter’s abandonment compounded it. Father and son aren’t entirely the same but the ways in which they fall are at the former’s feet. And as Harrison ultimately stared Dexter down and echoed the show’s very first episode with his demand that his father ‘open your eyes and look at what you’ve done’, New Blood did what its predecessor never could and finally held its protagonist accountable.
There are quibbles with the ending. Dexter encouraging Harrison to kill him is poetic, sure, but deeply questionable – Dexter’s realization of his corrosive nature would surely have allowed him to understand that this could only traumatize his son further. If he was going to die regardless, why not accept the impending death penalty? Also, from the perspective of a viewer, to tease a confrontation between Dexter and Angel Batista but not deliver was deeply frustrating. One of the original show’s biggest failings was that, unlike Breaking Bad, we never got to see the majority of the regular cast react to the truth about the protagonist. At least in a final scene between Dexter and his onetime friend we could have received just a glimmer of what we never got in 2013.
New Blood was not perfect but then, even at its best, neither was the original Dexter. And while aspects of the finale were unsatisfying, my personal feeling while watching it was a surprising degree of relief that a series I once adored had finally arrived at not only a worthy conclusion, but one that chose a thematic position and stuck to it despite the inevitable outcry from fans who believed they were watching a superhero show.
New Blood does not turn Dexter into a retrospective masterpiece. It can’t; the damage to the brand was done the moment somebody in the writer’s room suggested Debra falling in love with her brother. But what it does do is allow the many people who loved this show a chance for closure that at least resembles the show they fell in love with rather than the one they grew to resent. The ending has already proved controversial, but for inverse reasons to the 2013 attempt – whatever your feelings on New Blood’s finale, you can’t accuse it of not taking a position. It might not redeem Dexter, but it does mean that the show goes out with integrity, which could well be the biggest twist this series ever pulled off.