TV: Dexter (Season 6)

Dexter is great TV, and it’s been remarkably consistent over the years. But season six reveals cracks in the foundation, particularly late in the run. On the whole, this season engaged me and mostly delivered the goods, but after fumbling one very crucial episode near the end and stumbling to a tricky halt, I’m worried about how much longer the series can sustain itself.

The season starts strongly enough, in the usual way, with mild-mannered Miami Metro Homicide blood analyst Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), secretly a serial killer, using his police access to get the drop on criminal candidates for his death table. Homicide has another serial killer case in the works, this one involving religious whack job James Gellar (Edward James Olmos) and his wavering protégé Travis Marshall (Colin Hanks). But this slow-building through-line runs secondary, for a while, to the group dynamics and power politics in Homicide, which are fundamentally changed when Dexter’s detective sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) gets an unexpected promotion. Meanwhile, Dexter befriends a reformed criminal named Father Sam (Mos, aka the actor/rapper formerly known as Mos Def), whose born-again outlook becomes a source of unexpected support for Dexter as he struggles to balance his “dark passenger” with fatherhood. Eventually, though, the Doomsday Killer plot escalates, hurtling the season toward its requisite spinning-out-of-control finale.

Season six cooks along nicely for about eight episodes, particularly in its focus on the squad and the police work. The writers finally figure out what to do with LaGuerta (Lauren Velez): make her a bossy villain. Quinn (Desmond Harrington) and Battista (David Zayas) have a good solid season together, as a strong subplot involving Quinn’s irresponsibility threatens to shatter their partnership. Vince Masuka (C.S. Lee) contributes his usual comic relief as he guides a series of interns through the department.

Meanwhile, Michael C. Hall continues to be the solid core of the show as the antiheroic protagonist. His usual murderous impulses are on display, but I’m more interested in his interactions with the wider world, and the subplot involving Father Sam is a particularly well played one. (I loved Mos in this role.)

Ultimately, though, this season (and increasingly, for me, the series) belongs to Jennifer Carpenter. Deb’s promotion storyline thrusts her even more into the spotlight this year, aided and abetted by a deeper look into the impact of all of her traumatic life events over the years. Carpenter is even more spectacular than usual, and this year’s work made me realize that while Dexter may be the main character, Deb is the real, tragic hero of this series. Carpenter really ought to have a shelf covered in Emmies for this role.

So what went wrong? Alas, the central Doomsday Killer plot is not my favorite. It’s part of a thematic arc involving Dexter wrestling with religion, which I found effective in the Father Sam scenes. But the focus on religion as a mind-warping evil force struck me as unsubtle, and the gruesome murders are played too broadly. Olmos is effectively sinister as Professor Gellar, although his role is pretty obvious. As for Colin Hanks: well, I spent much of the season trying to overcome my indifference to him. I think he does everything that’s expected of him, but he just doesn’t manage to intimidate quite the way past villains do.

The biggest flaw, though, is a very specific episode, the ninth: “Get Gellar.” This may be the first really bad episode of Dexter I’ve ever seen, and not just because it blatantly rips off a classic horror movie conceit. (You’ll know it when you see it.) It’s just a ham-fisted, poorly scripted episode. The season recovers somewhat after this debacle, but ends in a tight, tight corner that leaves me very curious to see more, but worried about the show’s direction. Was that a shark I just saw?

At the end of the day, though, I’m still a fan. As long as Hall and Carpenter keep hitting their performances out of the park, I’m in for the duration. But how much longer can the show sustain its premise?

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