Writer/Producer: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, James Remar, Julia Stiles, Jonny Lee Miller, Shawn Hatosy, Peter Weller, Christina Robinson, Preston Bailey
Original Air Date: 2010
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
How do you follow up one of the most exciting seasons of television to air in years? That's the challenge facing the writers of Dexter as they head into their fifth season. It would seem after the creative peak that was season 4, there's no where to go but down and while this is a step down it's at least not nearly as big of one as I expected. The cliffhanger ending of season 4 was shocking to say the least as they made a brave but necessary decision in killing off a major character who definitely ran her course. We're now just starting to see the results of that risky choice and it's still fair to say after viewing these 16 episodes that it was the right one. No one could argue John Lithgow's chilling guest performance as the Trinity Killer was the key to last season's success. The only problem with huge guest starring arcs is that we know the actor can only stick around for a season so their fate is practically predetermined, even if last season pushed the boundaries of that theory as far as possible. And when the performance is as brilliant as Lithgow's, a void is left that needs to be filled and the writers are faced with the unenviable task of topping themselves. Luckily, they knew the best thing to do in that situation was not worry about that and just focus on crafting an entirely different season that makes sense, but also advances the show's overall mythology. The only season that didn't do that was the third, which was mildly entertaining, but essentially a complete throwaway. If I were forced to rank the all the seasons from best to worst it would probably look something like this:
That's totally bizarre and a testament to just how you really never know where things are going. And of all of them, this is the most convoluted from a narrative standpoint and takes the longest to get going. It's more an observation than a criticism (even if the first few episodes had me a little worried), but once it gets going it doesn't stop and reaches a more than satisfying conclusion. When we last saw Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) he had discovered the lifeless body of his wife Rita (Julie Benz) in the bathtub as baby Harrison sat crying in a pool of her blood, painfully recalling Dexter's childhood experience of he and his brother witnessing their mother's death. Trinity's gone, but not without claiming one last victim and the person most important in Dexter's life. As expected, he doesn't handle it well, or really even at all at first. In a cringe-inducing early scene in the season, he insensitively breaks the news to step-children Astor (Christina Robinson) and Cody (Preston Bailey) they're shipped off to live with their grandparents. It makes sense someone who spends most of his spare time killing serial killers wouldn't be able to grasp how anyone else deals with death. Of course, the only way Dexter can deal with death is killing people so it isn't long before he's back at it for therapy and an encounter with a creepy pest control expert (Shawn Hatosy) leads him to runaway Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles). The sole survivor of a series of rapes and murders, Dexter may have finally found his soulmate, and someone just as emotionally messed up as he is. The challenge is trust each other long enough to pick off the killers and get her justice, before Dex's sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) and his co-workers at the Miami Metro police department follow the blood trail to them.
Julia Stiles is an interesting choice of actress to be burdened with the responsibility of following Lithgow. Skeptics will probably read her character as some kind of a replacement for Rita but that's completely inaccurate since we're not exactly sure she's being set up as a love interest. One of the best things about her story arc is that it takes a very long time to be sure and it could reasonably go either way. The connection between the two is definitely more psychological than sexual and is as much about Dexter exorcising his own demons and coming to terms with Rita's death by helping her. This is far different than the Miguel Prado nonsense from season 3 that served little purpose other than to give Dexter a friend to hang with in the kill room and on the golf course. Watching Stiles is a reminder we've seen too little of her lately and it's an understatement to say this is the most complex role she's ever been afforded the opportunity to play, big screen or small. She's always been at best when inhabiting strong-willed characters and Lumen is definitely that, though the most compelling part of her story arc is how she starts the season as a fragile basketcase, but ends it as someone far different. As a rape victim, murderer, sidekick and runaway she gets put through the wringer in a challenging part, but Stiles nails it with an emotionally raw performance, more than earning her Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Comparing to Lithgow are pointless especially since it's delightfully creepy Jonny Lee Miller as motivational speaker and suspected murder ring leader Jordan Chase who has the pressure of following in his footsteps as the season's antagonist.
As usual, anything concerning the sometimes laughably incompetent Miami Metro police, lead by Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and her new husband Sgt. Angel Batista (David Zayas) holds the least amount of interest, specifically when it's unrelated to Dexter, who spends much of the season on leave from the department. The season's other less involving investigation exists solely for the purpose of creating a feud between potty-mouthed Deb and LaGuerta, who inexplicably still has a job after some of the wild, borderline illegal decisions she's made in command, none more over the top than in this season. Give the writers credit for finally giving us the permission to hate her we've been waiting for all along, but what's great about Velez's performance is that as bitchy as she makes the character she still finds a way to ground it in reality and make her crazy behavior seem at least somewhat believable for a woman in her position. More interesting is Deb's partner and new boyfriend Quinn's (Desmond Harrington) season-long obsession with implicating Dexter in Rita's murder and linking him to Trinity, even going so far as to hire a slimy, crooked cop (played by Peter Weller) to help him do it.
It seems at the end of each season of Dexter I'm telling myself that there's no way the writers will be able to close everything out and tie up all the loose ends so it ends on a satisfactory note, but somehow they're always able to pull through and make it come together. This season is no exception and the more I think back on how it concludes the more sense it makes, and even though many could be disappointed by how Stiles' arc ends, it's the only way it could have ended if you want to move forward. Whether Lumen she makes it through alive or not, I won't reveal. This season (its highest rated yet) has also given the great Michael C. Hall a chance to show a more somber, contemplative side to Dexter in the wake of Rita's death, continuing his struggle to exorcise his "Dark Passenger." As much as I hate to say it, we're at the point now where it's time to start thinking about how this all will end, as it's tough to imagine the series continuing at this pace for much longer than two seasons. At the emotional core of the series has always been the big question of how Dex's sister Deb would react to his dark secret and whether she'd still accept him for who he is. This season cleverly gives us our first tease of what that reaction could be. Even though there's this inescapable feeling the series peaked with season 4's finale, Dexter's writers have shown enough ingenuity to inspire confidence that more surprising developments are on tap before we reach the conclusion.