Taking another stab at Dexter
Michael C. Hall can guess what you're thinking, Dexter fans: Eight years later, you're probably still mad about that final episode — the one that ended up on countless "worst series finales of all time" lists. And he's mindful of how devoted you are, especially those who've asked him to autograph their kitchen knives. So yes, he feels your pain.
"It was so confounding for people," Hall, 50, says of the series ender, in which Dexter Morgan — forensic-blood-splatter analyst by day, vigilante serial killer, um, also by day — threw his dead sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), into the angry waters off Miami. "I can appreciate how it was pretty dissatisfying for anyone who was hoping for something definitive or some sense of closure," the actor adds of Dexter faking his own death and moving to a mountain town to live as an anonymous lumberjack. "The fact that maybe a less-than-savory taste was left in people's mouths was something that bugged me, for sure."
With all that baggage, you might be looking at Dexter: New Blood, the 10-episode "special event series" premiering Nov. 7 on Showtime, with a cocked brow of skepticism. But hear Hall out: Imagine Dexter didn't go to Oregon (the original intended destination), and that he's no longer felling trees. Instead, he's spent the past eight years living in the fictional upstate New York town of Iron Lake and going by the name Jim Lindsay (a nod to Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter book series). He works as a sales associate at Fred's Fish & Game, dates the local chief of police (Julia Jones from the Twilight films), and lives a quiet and peaceful existence. That peace is disrupted when he encounters Matt (Steve Robertson), the annoyingly entitled son of a local mover and shaker. Suddenly, Dexter's long-dormant drive to kill (a.k.a. his "dark passenger") and his "Code of Harry" (a moral guidebook named for his late father, played for eight seasons with ghostly aplomb by James Remar) emerge from psychic hibernation. "We're turning the cameras back on and finding out where he is, what he's up to, and what kind of life he's managed to carve out for himself," promises Hall. "Pun intended."
There are two aspects of New Blood that Hall would like to make abundantly clear: It is not the ninth season of Dexter, nor is it a do-over of the series finale. "We're not going back in time," insists the actor, sporting Dexter's stubble even on a day off from the set. Hall suggested we meet at the Walden Pond State Reservation, about 30 minutes from the Devens, Mass., soundstage where New Blood is in production. New England was chosen for its frigid temperatures, as the event series takes place over two weeks in December. "The first thing I shot was literally on a frozen lake," Hall says of filming on location nearby this past snowy February — a complete flip from sunny Southern California, which subbed for Miami during his original run as Dexter. "The tone of the show is quite different. Most of the building blocks that create a sense of the show's world have changed. The color palette of the show is different. Every piece of the landscape both externally and internally is altered," he explains. "We're not self-consciously thinking about whether it is less or more edgy, but it's informed by and redefined by a completely different context."
Everyone involved admits they probably wouldn't be here had season 8 ended differently. (Gary Levine, Showtime's president of entertainment, calls New Blood the "silver lining" after years of lament: "It gnawed a little at us, and gnawed a little at Michael, that a series as good as Dexter didn't end in a way that was perhaps worthy of the series.") So how did a drama like Dexter — which, together with Weeds, helped move Showtime out of HBO's once very long shadow — stumble at giving fans a killer ending? The start of Dexter's woes can be traced back to the conclusion of season 4, when showrunner Clyde Phillips, the architect behind the drama's successful launch and massively popular Trinity Killer (played by John Lithgow), left to spend more time with his family. "I was living in California and my family was living in the East," recalls Phillips, who veered from the Lindsay novels after season 1. "I was working my ass off to pay for the lifestyle I wasn't living." A revolving door of executive producers followed, along with a series of dull plot arcs, like the saga of vengeance-seeking victim Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles) and Joey Quinn's (Desmond Harrington) struggle to pass the sergeant's exam. Dexter's later adversaries never came close to captivating audiences the way Lithgow did in season 4 with his Arthur Mitchell, who liked to murder people in cycles of three. Go ahead, try to remember the big bads from seasons 6, 7, and 8. We'll wait.
When asked to characterize his feelings about Dexter's downhill creative slide, Phillips doesn't bother to hide his satisfaction in knowing the series wasn't the same without him. "It was schadenfreude," he declares, sitting in his Devens production office filled with posters of his old projects, including Parker Lewis Can't Lose. (He also has copies of his four mystery novels for anyone who wants them.) "The show was untethered, and the character was untethered. I wasn't in the room, and many factors go into it between executive producers and the network. But as an audience member with a vested interest, the show lost its way."
When it came time to say goodbye, nobody in the writers' room believed that Dexter should pay the ultimate price for his sins. "At that point, we weren't necessarily thinking about a relaunch," remembers Scott Reynolds, who'd been on Dexter since season 1 and has returned as an EP on New Blood. "We were just like, 'You don't kill Batman.'" But while everyone agrees that the last few minutes of the finale were anticlimactic (Reynolds is bummed that they dropped a plan to have chain saws buzzing in the background as a callback to the way Dexter's mom was murdered), no one feels a need to apologize for the cold and implausible way Hall disposed of his sister.
"I thought, 'He vandalized her and disfigured her entire being, but we are talking about a show about a serial killer who is deranged and prone to hurt others,'" reasons Carpenter, who is reprising her role as Deb in New Blood (more on that posthumous return later). "Everybody wants to look at him like he's someone who feels things like a real man. But he's sick." Adds Hall: "I thought it was incredibly disturbing. We're watching someone who's lost his bearings. That didn't feel dishonest."
Despite airing opposite the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, the Sept. 22, 2013, finale attracted 2.8 million viewers — then Showtime's biggest audience ever for an original episode. But the backlash quickly drowned out any celebration. The AP's Frazier Moore quipped, "If only the producers had dispatched their show with the care their murderous hero showered on his victims." The sentiment was put a bit more bluntly in EW's Bullseye: "Dexter lives; the rest of us die inside." Not long after, Hall found himself on the defensive against reporters wanting restitution in the form of a ninth season. "I'd be at a press conference at a film festival or something, and somebody asks a question about the possibility of there being more Dexter, and I'd say, 'Sure, it's possible.' The next thing I know, it's all over the internet that we're definitely going to do another season. So there's always been an interest, and maybe a tendency to misinterpret me saying it was possible. But I never ruled out the possibility."
Neither did Showtime, which went through two sets of scripts in six years from former and non-Dexter writers before deciding that Phillips should be the one to bring the signature drama back. "Part of it had to do with Michael just feeling it was the right time," says Phillips. "I flew to New York, went to see Michael, put my recorder down, and pitched him between five and 10 pages of what the season would feel like. We talked about a couple of things, and then by the end of that conversation, he said, 'I love it. I'm in.'"
As New Blood's title suggests, we can certainly expect a body count. "I don't know if you read the line at the bottom of the release, but one of you is going to die tonight!" Hall cracks between takes with a few costars, including Clancy Brown. The burly Brown is known for Highlander and voicing SpongeBob's crusty Mr. Krabs, but today he's Kurt Caldwell, the beloved unofficial mayor of Dexter's adopted hometown — and dad of the aforementioned local punk Matt. Beneath Kurt's disarming baritone and Santa-level charm, darkness lurks. "We will get an explanation of why he does what he does, which is kind of interesting," teases Phillips. "It's an explanation where you go, 'Okay....' It's not a reason. It's never a good reason. I wish we had James Remar to come and explain it."
Alas, Remar's Harry is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Deb now serves as the superego to Dexter's id. But don't assume her ghostly presence will play exactly as dear old Dad's once did. "I thought the only reason to bring [the show] back was to see what would become of an unmedicated, unchecked, unpunished, decoded serial killer," says Carpenter. "What would the dark passenger look like if it had an all-access pass to this man? I wanted to come back and haunt him, comfort him, console him, love him, and ruin him. It's such a difficult thing to speak about because it happened in such a way, we never shot any [of New Blood] in order. It feels like this encased season happens on a four-lane superhighway, but I'm this strange, weird, spooky kind of side road that goes somewhere totally different."
Speaking of crazy off-roading, Phillips also rang up his old friend Lithgow to reprise his role, albeit only as an apparition. (Dexter dispatched Arthur Mitchell in season 4.) "Clyde was a genius at electrifying Dexter watchers back then, and in about 40 seconds he described how he intended to do it again. I couldn't say yes fast enough," recalls Lithgow, whose chilling performance won him an Emmy — one of four the series garnered out of 24 nominations. "I've spent my career taking turns making people laugh, cry, and scream out in horror. Trinity took care of that last effort. Scariest thing I ever did. I wish I had a nickel for every time some stranger has said, 'Season 4, oh my God!'"
And while Dexter's long-lost beloved Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) won't show up in Iron Lake, we will meet his teenage son, Harrison (played by The Good Lord Bird's Jack Alcott), and see someone else from Dexter's past (we can't reveal who just yet). Does this sentimental reunion with old friends and family suggest that Dexter will finally meet his maker? Hall won't spoil how this second outing ends, but his optimism about New Blood suggests that Dexter's days of hiding in the woods are over.
"It took what will, in the end, have been almost a decade to have enough space to create storytelling opportunities that didn't exist until now for it to feel right," says Hall. "I had always hoped that something would come together that felt worth doing. And it did."
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