Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) should be a happy man. He’s killed the Ice Truck Killer, thereby saving his sister Debra’s (Jennifer Carpenter) life and eliminating the only person who knew his own darkest secret. But as the second season of Showtime’s Dexter opened, Dexter was anything but happy. Instead, he was confronted with increasing challenges in his relationships and at both of his jobs.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Dexter works days as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. By night, he’s a serial killer. When Dexter was a teen, his adoptive father Harry (James Remar), a police detective, recognized his proclivity for killing things, and trained him to use this desire to execute the most evil among us, and to escape discovery (his lessons appear regularly as instructive or thematically pointed flashbacks). Young Dexter grew up to be an executioner of those villains who have escaped punishment, but the “altruistic” nature of his killings doesn’t mask the fact that he lives for the hunt. As he lamented following a long dry spell, “I really need to kill somebody.”

His desire to kill has been thwarted repeatedly by Dexter’s colleague, Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), who is convinced that Dexter’s involvement with the Ice Truck Killer (last season’s major story arc) was greater than Dexter let on. (Officially, Dexter was only investigating a serial murderer, not being stalked, enticed, and vaguely creeped out by him.) Thus, Doakes has been tailing Dexter for the five weeks since the ITK “left town,” leaving Dexter little time to sate his urge to kill. To throw Doakes off track, and hoping to bore him into giving up, Dexter has taken up lots of bowling.

The Season Two premiere, “It’s Alive!”, found Dexter still struggling with Doakes’ persistence. His sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), also a homicide division cop, has moved in with him while she’s recovering from the fact that she was engaged to the Ice Truck Killer. Add to that Dexter’s continuing inability to perform sexually with his very trusting girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz), and his errors on the job — stepping into the blood spatter of a murder victim and contaminating the crime scene — might seem predictable.

In Season One, Dexter thrived on the “cat and mouse” game he played with the ITK. As the relationship between the two serial killers became more complex, Dexter’s relationships with Rita and Debra improved (he appeared to be more generous and open with them) and his secret kills were clean and relatively problem-free. His “personal growth” continued even after Dexter learned that Debra’s fiancée Rudy (Christian Camargo) was not only the serial killer he sought, but also his own long-lost brother — a detail that suggests a hereditary component in their similar thirsts.

Now struggling with the fact that he killed his brother, Dexter is almost more bothered by the loss of his worthy opponent. His psychological difficulties have led to diminishing murder skills. When in the first episode Dexter was able to lose Doakes, he had two chances to kill, and blew both of them, releasing one intended victim on purpose and letting another escape. Authorities have also discovered his secret burial ground (divers on a deep sea geological expedition found 30 bodies), and a new investigator, FBI Special Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine), has arrived in Miami. And oh yes, his relationship with Rita is also shaky. After her abusive ex-husband Paul (Mark Pellegrino) was killed in a prison altercation, Rita blamed Dexter, suspecting that he framed Paul for the crime that led to his imprisonment.

With Dexter worrying and fumbling, the second season has opened with questions. Viewers may be wondering whether he will get his killer instinct back, or more importantly, if he will have the opportunity to practice it. (The series is notorious for its explicit murder scenes.) The most intriguing and potentially disturbing aspect of Dexter last season was that it had us rooting for the continued success of a serial killer. Now we may be pondering just how far we can feel that support.

RATING 8 / 10