Image A- Sound A Extras C+
"Cold Snap," "Storm of Fuck," "Smoke Signals," "H is for Hero," "Runaway," "Too Many Tuna Sandwiches," "Skin of Her Teeth," "Unfair Game," "The Family Business," "Sins of the Father"
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It begins with a white buck. Dexter is tracking it through the woods, a regular Natty Bumppo. Though he has a clear shot, something stops him from pulling the trigger, and he falls to his knees in a parody of biblical defeat. A second attempt the following day is foiled when a sharp noise from elsewhere causes the wildlife to scatter, while a third and final try sees him lowering his rifle and surrendering to the beauty of the beast. Dexter and the white buck are kindred spirits--outliers of their species, yet built to blend into their surroundings. Trophies, ultimately, for their rarity. The premiere episode of "Dexter: New Blood", "Cold Snap," might be my favourite of the character's entire television run, because it allows him this brief state of grace. There was a season of "Dexter" where he went searching for signs of a higher power, but it's here that he finds one, and what makes this so different from our serial-killer Pinocchio's previous real-boy epiphanies is that, for once, there's no noise in his head. In fact, this most compulsive of narrators only starts talking to us again after the tranquillity of the moment is shattered, which is a surprisingly understated gambit for "Dexter". It's a crowd-pleasing thing, I suppose, when he finally pipes up (it's Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth, or Popeye squeezing a can of spinach), but it plays to me as bitter commentary on how short-lived inner peace is these days for anyone with a moral compass--even one as faulty as Dexter's.
"Dexter" concluded on a polarizing note in 2013 with Miami native and blood-spatter analyst Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) uprooted to the middle of snowy Oregon, where he was inexplicably working as a lumberjack under an assumed name. (You may recall that after the death of his sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), Dexter decided against meeting up with his murderess girlfriend and toddler son in Argentina, instead pretending to perish in Hurricane Laura.) Taking place a decade later, "Dexter: New Blood" effectively calls a mulligan on the series finale but also sees the seeds of something fruitful in transplanting Dexter to chillier climes and a small-town setting that takes him off the grid while simultaneously making him part of a community so tightly knit he may as well be under 24-hour surveillance. When we catch up with him, Dexter's been on the wagon for ten years and calling himself Jim Lindsay--a name, incidentally, a few letters off from that of Dexter's creator, crime novelist Jeff Lindsay (which is itself a pseudonym). Sure, he works at a sporting-goods store that sells a variety of deadly weapons, but recovering alcoholic Sam Malone owned a bar. Dexter/Jim has lived here in the upstate New York hamlet of Iron Lake long enough to be in a committed relationship with chief of police Angela Bishop (Julia Jones)--keep your friends close and your enemies closer, as they say--but apparently not long enough to have ever crossed paths with Matt Caldwell (Steve M. Robertson), the scion of a local captain of industry who has returned home, prodigal son-style, to hunt game with the biggest, baddest substitute penis money can buy. Including a white buck.
The decision to kill Matt is, for Dexter, a recklessly personal one, although Matt, from his bratty reaction to Jim placing his gun on hold for a mandatory background check to his killing of a sacred deer, is such an entitled prick that his is one of the more gratifying deaths in the show's long history of poetic justice. (Let's face it: he's Trump Jr. by any other name.) Still, "Jim"'s life isn't set up to accommodate the practicalities of a relapse: Without a proper kill room, a place to dispose of the bodies, or a job that provides opportunities to tamper with evidence, it becomes next to impossible to honour the first tenet of Harry's Code ("Don't get caught"). I must admit, I expected the show to devote significantly more time and energy this year to Dexter's MO adapting to the new environment ("Dexter" is at heart a Road Runner cartoon wherein multiple forces--some dumb by design, others just not that bright--are arrayed against Dexter as a collective Wile E. Coyote), but he's still cleaning up the Matt Caldwell mess several episodes later. "Dexter: New Blood" is all about the chickens coming home to roost--literally, in the case of Dexter's estranged son Harrison (Jack Alcott, great), who has followed a trail of breadcrumbs back to his "dead" dad.
It's incredible, sure; the sooner one accepts that this legacy sequel would go by "Son of Dexter" in another era, the sooner any doubts that a 15-year-old boy would exhibit this sort of savvy are put to rest. There's another understated grace note when Harrison is looking around Dexter's cabin in the woods and spots a photograph of Dexter with his bowling team. (Dexter had briefly joined a police bowling team on the old show to hide the zipper in his human suit.) "We got second place in the Harvest Fest last year," Dexter says, a little too proudly. "Cool," Harrison replies in that teenage way that decimates an adult's ego. Moments later, Harrison says a photo of Jim Lindsay bowling a 300 on Instagram led him to Iron Lake, and Dexter smiles ruefully. We can take this a couple of ways. Harry's Code is a bit of a horse-and-buggy that predates social media; the world has changed significantly since we last saw Dexter. But there's more to that smile; is it disbelief that he forgot himself? For me, it resonates with a provocative notion running through the series: that the Clark Kent put-on is the "real" Dexter after all, and everything else is simply the product of fucked-up parenting. He's a reverse Howard W. Campbell, transforming into a nice guy with each strike bowled and donut delivered. (Dexter looks awfully content line-dancing to Blondie's "Heart of Glass.") As articulated by Deb, who has taken Harry's honoured place as the voice of Dexter's subconscious, Dexter is at first worried that Harrison, who's had a rough, Dickensian upbringing, will take after him, or that Dexter's example will only make things worse. "Born in blood," like his old man, the kid has violent impulses and a shaky grasp of right and wrong that Dexter recognizes from his own past.
Once Dexter reveals the full rainbow of his true colours to Harrison, however, Harrison isn't upset. Grateful for the insight into his fucked-up-ness, he, for the first time, hugs Dexter, who instantly warms to the idea of having a Mini-Me. Suddenly: a chance to pass down his unique brand of fatherly wisdom. Dexter inheriting a shadow is par for the course--sometimes the season-long shadow and villain are one and the same--but this is different. This is the godly appeal of parenthood and Instagram influencers. As funny as it is when Dexter starts saying things to Harrison like, "I generally cut them into nine pieces, depending on how big they are," this is indoctrination in a nutshell. It can be toxic and it can be tragic, but it's how we persist through anonymity and mortality, and it could be how we apologize for the trauma we inflict on our children: by turning them into us--then they'll get it. They might still hate us, but they'll get it. "Dexter: New Blood" pits three generations of Morgans against three generations of Caldwells: Matt, Matt's father, Kurt (Clancy Brown), and Kurt's unseen patriarch, who seems to have gotten the ball rolling much like Harry did. Kurt is himself a serial killer (Dexter attracts those like a planet)--he ritually holds young, beautiful female runaways captive in a makeshift motel room, then turns them loose and shoots them in the back with a high-powered rifle. To prep for the hunt, he dons white camo and listens to Del Shannon's "Runaway." Afterwards, he embalms them and, we eventually discover, puts them on display in cabinets that make them look like offline Zoltars.
He's a suitably baroque foil for Dexter. One of the runaways, the buxom Chloe (Skyler Wright), tries to appease him by taking off her top, causing Kurt to protest, "That's not what this is about!" (Isn't it? The scene's palpable erotic charge creates a gnarl of complicity best left to individual viewers to untangle.) Yet it's kind of gilding the lily, all this business with the women. Somewhere along the line, Kurt figures out that Dexter is responsible for Matt's disappearance and decides to exact revenge by taking Harrison under his wing. That's what makes Kurt a formidable threat. They're a scorned dad and a ferociously protective dad duelling for the prize of a lost soul destined to gravitate towards whichever one is most outwardly accepting of his frailties. Harrison doesn't realize, for example, that Dexter's accusing tone when he figures out Harrison stabbed a classmate unprovoked comes from a place not of judgment but of fear. Kurt doesn't much understand Dexter, either. He thinks they raised a couple of rotten apples because they were nonentities as fathers, but, of course, the truth of Dexter's absenteeism is considerably more complicated than Kurt's run-of-the-mill rich-guy neglect.
Ironically, Kurt is like Dexter in that he, too, has a public face of affability belying the real him, and unlike Dexter, he hasn't been unmasked in front of Harrison. (The more Dexter tries to persuade Harrison of Kurt's disingenuousness, the more Harrison throws "Jim Lindsay" back in his face.) There's a powerful sequence where Kurt sneaks Harrison into the high-school batting cage. Casually stoking Harrison's "Cat's in the cradle" complex, he feigns surprise that Dexter never played catch with him and has yet to cook venison for him. As much as Kurt wants to steal Harrison, he also wants to inflict pain on the lad. This includes setting up the pitching machine to throw curveballs, which repeatedly ricochet off Harrison's torso because he's such a sucky hitter. Harrison finds it cathartic, though--it's a pummeling he believes he deserves. And so, to keep torturing him, Kurt is forced to do the ostensibly kind thing and turn the machine off.
"Dexter: New Blood"'s missteps are plentiful and can be maddening. There are an inordinate number of false starts and red herrings, suggesting the showrunners had difficulty adjusting to a shortened episode order compared to previous seasons. For instance, numerous friends tagged along with Matt on his hunting trip, yet none of them are in the vicinity when Dexter captures him or questioned once Matt's disappearance becomes a police matter. An oil tycoon played to smarmy perfection by Fredric Lehne vanishes without fanfare despite being set up as a secondary antagonist and a threat to Angela's daughter, Audrey (Johnny Sequoyah), specifically, while a true-crime podcaster (Jamie Chung) rather risibly ends up in Kurt's trophy room even after Dexter saves her from Kurt's clutches, with nary a hint as to how that whole comedy of errors played out. I love that Dexter's brought down by Angela, a Native American woman he drastically underestimates (it's not that he's a bigot, he's just used to playing chess with nincompoops), but the ripped-from-the-headlines thread about a missing indigenous teen who's slipped through the cracks feels more of a piece with the series' magpie artistry than like legitimate social commentary. There's a lot of derivative stuff this year, most unmistakably an invented flashback to the time Dexter killed Wiggles the Pedophile Clown (Michael Laurence) that Xeroxes a signature shot from Joker. And I missed the late Daniel Licht's score for the show, even more than I missed the bright, clammy Miami imagery. Replacement composer Pat Irwin's music is wallpaper, whereas Licht's was a proper dirge. Perhaps it communicated a humidity that no longer fit.
For all that, "Dexter: New Blood" distinguishes itself from its forebear with a certain sophistication, formal and otherwise. Where Harry's ghost would prosaically materialize in the background beneath a halo of Robert Richardson lighting like dinner-theatre Hamlet, phantom Deb is granted a kind of trickster omnipresence that extends to split-second changes in costume and expression. In a sense, Dexter is now haunted by Bugs Bunny, which is...perfect. There is, in general, almost a verisimilitude to the new series that wasn't there before; it meant the world to me to see disabled actress Katy Sullivan use a wheelchair in some scenes and prosthetic legs in others, and, moreover, to have no one at any point comment on it. (Except me, I guess.) Mostly, the difference between "Dexter" and "Dexter: New Blood" is that the latter was made by people who are older, wiser, and not burnt-out. It sticks the landing. Dexter's ultimate fate here is more or less what producers wanted to do in '13 (Showtime put the kibosh on it to leave the door open for a revival), but I can't help thinking that it would've come across as Breen-office piety after eight seasons of Dexter executing people for our pleasure. By waiting until we were all going through a moral reckoning in relative exile, it assured Dexter's demise would mean something. Dexter has always held himself superficially accountable for the collateral damage of his crime sprees, as if faking his death were the same thing as dying, and Harrison is guileless enough to call him on it. What Harrison realizes at the end of "Dexter: New Blood" is that he's not cursed or evil--he's an angry, scared kid who's been through a lot. What Dexter realizes is that to die by his son's hand is better than living without his love. Harrison can pull the trigger and it's fair, because they've reached a summit of self-awareness together that evades the best of us. They're both white bucks.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Showtime via CBS/Paramount brings "Dexter: New Blood" to Blu-ray Disc in a 2.39:1, 1080p transfer reflecting a switch to anamorphic lensing. (Note that the "Wiggles" framing device in the penultimate hour is in 1.78:1 to align it with the previous series.) Aesthetically, the show is a significant departure from what came before. DP Hillary Spera (The Craft: Legacy, Duck Butter) eschews the garish colours and blunt contrasts that formed "Dexter"'s signature look in favour of a muted palette with blacks that rarely dip below dark grey. Because "Dexter: New Blood" originally aired in 4K HDR, I streamed an episode in that format for comparison's sake and was as relieved as I was disappointed to discover that we're not missing much in 2K SDR--although the 4K version's punchier highlights curtailed some of the flatness of the presentation. Compression artifacts are a non-issue, but I did spot a trace of banding in the final episode. This is only newsworthy because it has almost an entire platter to itself; I suspect it's a) baked into the source and b) more noticeable due to the low-contrast colour grade. The attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is forcefully loud, obscuring any lack of finesse that stems from being prime-time television. A quartet of featurettes is spread across the four discs, the first three of which--"Why Now?" (2 mins.), "Dissecting 'Dexter: New Blood': Deb is Back" (2 mins.), and "Dissecting 'Dexter: New Blood': The Kill Room" (2 mins.)--are paraphrasings of the fourth, "All Out on the Table", a 30-minute making-of featuring interviews with principal cast and crew that can't escape feeling promotional in nature. Nevertheless, I was gobsmacked to learn they rebuilt Dexter's old bathroom, at great expense, and brought John Lithgow back for a flashback that lasts all of five seconds. The poor baby they got to sit in a pool of blood with him wouldn't stop crying, so Lithgow broke character and sang to him. I love that guy. "Dexter: New Blood" is also available in a steelbook edition.
44-58 minutes/episode; NR; 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 Dolby True HD; English SDH subtitles; 3 BD-50s + BD-25; Region-free; CBS