There’s a lot more cannibalism in this country than you people realize.
—Vince (C.S. Lee), “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
Role-playing. Such an important part of growing up.
—Dexter (Michael C. Hall), “All in the Family”
Intimacy is a problem for Dexter (Michael C. Hall). Being a serial killer doesn’t allow for much in the way of sharing personal details, memories or trust. And so, as he’s said more than once during Dexter‘s three seasons, he’s spent most of his life finding ways to hide himself, to remain apart, to ensure that any sort of “real” identity he might have remains unknown. He plays the role of an ordinary citizen, with a girlfriend and a job as a blood splatter specialist for Miami PD, but really, only so he can fulfill his extraordinary needs.
Dexter has found a way to rationalize his split, based on his very own concept of “normal.” As he disdainfully notes during the opening moments of Season Four’s premiere, “Most normal people enjoy a sacred pact with society: live a good life and society will take care of you. But if society drops the ball,” he adds, “someone else has to pick up the slack. That’s where I come in.”
The slack, in Dexter’s mind, is something like justice—he delivers it to murderers who get off, due to technicalities or shoddy police work or mistaken identities. In such delivery, Dexter is smarter, quicker, and better prepared than everyone else—until he isn’t (the new season begins with an accident, which sends Dexter into something of a moral tailspin). But the killing—whether pathological or righteous—makes him lonely. True, his adoptive father Harry (James Remar, who appears in flashbacks) trained him how to channel his urges and so knew his monstrosity, but he’s been dead for years now. And he does have Rita (Julie Benz), excruciatingly ingenuous and kind, but he has to keep so many secrets from her that sometimes she only underlines his difference from everyone else. Last season, Dexter tried another sort of girlfriend, Lila (Jaime Murray), a fellow addict he met in group, but sharing with her only made for more anxiety. Needy and conniving, she couldn’t be intimate without conditions and—as it turned out—inordinate payback.
And so Dexter begins the new season feeling alone again. Though he’s found some solace in routines and fictions of control—even a way to have sex with Rita without feeling out of control—he’s still feeling alienated. The upcoming anniversary of his dad’s suicide only makes it more acute, because his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) remembers dad so differently. Now working alongside him in the homicide unit, she’s angling energetically for a detective’s shield, to honor and be like Harry, whom Dexter still resents, he confesses in voiceover, for “turn[ing] me into his own personal vendetta machine.” When Dexter announces he’s rejecting Harry officially, she rolls her eyes. “You are such a guy,” Deb complains, “What is this? You gotta kill your father so you can become your own man kind of bullshit?”
Season Four introduces a new way for Dexter to connect—maybe. Cuban immigrant and ambitious Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits), “top prosecutor in the state,” shows up early in the premiere episode, when his beloved brother Oscar is killed. A former boyfriend of Lieutenant LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), Miguel and a third brother, Ramon (Jason Manuel Olazabal), a lieutenant with the sheriff’s department, exhort Dexter’s unit to find the killer, loading the case with all manner of personal as well as professional weight (which, LaGuerta assures her unit, beyond “the whole Cubano thing”). During his initial press conference on the case, Miguel suggests he now understands the loss felt by other families, less fortunate than his own. “Every family,” he says, “deserves the full measure of our devotion to their dignity.”
If his own sudden “devotion” doesn’t precisely translate to compassion, Miguel does provide Dexter with a complicated new foil-and-friend. This relationship is jumpstarted when Miguel, wily and controlling in his own way, discovers Dexter is working overtime on the investigation (as always, Dexter’s reasons are absolutely selfish and secret to everyone but us). Over the first four episodes, Miguel contacts Dexter outside of the rest of the team, and together they start talking about their backgrounds. Dexter, of course, holds back, but wonders aloud in voiceover whether he’s “actually made a friend.” Miguel seems open, but cagey too. “You got a lot of potential,” he smiles. “Sometimes I think that you’re the only one that doesn’t know that.” Little does he know.
Neither man has a happy father-son story, and so they commiserate over how hard it is to be a son, meeting up at pictureseque spots—beneath a bridge that stretches gorgeously into the rear of the frame, on Dexter’s balcony (no one but Deb is allowed in the apartment), against stark white walls and over on stunning beachfront. After a few drinks one night, Dexter sounds almost tipsy (surely impossible!) when he complains, “My father was disgusted by me,” then notes his own surprise, because he’s never admitted this to Rita or Deb. Miguel understands, he says, in a way that a woman never could. Dexter keeps going: “You grow up to be exactly the father molded you to be and still…” Miguel jumps in, “Not be good enough!” Dexter nods, for the moment, anyway, feeling bonded. “Exactly.”
The perversity of this connection cannot be overstated (Smits makes Miguel both charismatic and creepy, often in the same breath). Dexter sees it, though he also yearns for the friendship, the brotherhood, even. (Miguel describes his childhood nostalgically, founded in loyalty among the three brothers: “We had each other, always have. No matter what kind of horrible shit you would pull, they knew you inside out, the good and the bad, and they were there for you no matter what”) And yet, even as Miguel encourages his new buddy to embark on a mission “together,” Dexter sighs, for us, “That’s the problem, this whole together thing.” Each manipulates the other, but it may be that each needs the other as well.
This perversity is only exacerbated by Dexter’s increased interest in fathering Rita’s kids (and taking them as role models, as he sees in them a capacity to “move on” after trauma). Appearing in Cody’s (Preston Bailey) class for “Dad Day,” he tries to explain the beauty of blood, as he so intensely feels it, or at least the precision of the science of “back spatter, misting, and arterial spurting.” The kids are unimpressed (“Gross!”), because unlike the surgeon who spoke before Dexter, he doesn’t “save lives.” When he suggests that he helps to “catch bad guys,” the close-up on Dexter ensures that you get that he gets the horrific muddling of moral lines he embodies.
This muddling is never resolved in Dexter. The more Dexter insists on his rightness, the more limited his vision appears. In this, he has always seemed an apt metaphor for the self-absorption of absolutist nationalism, the determination to define order unilaterally. He ponders limits and motives, potentials and what’s “real.” But he can only conjure his answers in a vacuum, the result of his utter aloneness. This leads ion the new season to an expansion of his targets, beyond known killers only, to include those who seem likely future killers. Even as his ethical lines shift, he maintains his penchant for moral instruction at the moment of death. “It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?” He asks one victim, gagged and petrified. “Just when you think you’ve answered all the questions, another one smacks you in the face. Life is like that. It’s why I prefer death.”