'Dexter' Season 7 Review: It Pulled Me Back In

After almost three seasons away from "Dexter," I'm back on board, and if you'd given up on the Showtime drama too, you might want to think about heading back to Miami.
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When it comes to TV shows, once I give up on a program, that's that. Aside from the occasional nostalgic check-in or series finale, 99 times out of 100, we're done.

"Dexter" is one of the few shows to beat those odds. After almost three seasons away from the Showtime drama, I'm back on board, and if you'd given up too, you might want to think about heading back to Miami.

(In case you're worried about being lost, well, don't be. The "Previously on 'Dexter'" segment in the Season 7 premiere, which Showtime is rerunning frequently, will tell you everything you need to know. And this post, by the way, does not contain spoilers regarding Dexter's new season, though it does discuss the big revelation of the show's Season 6 finale.)

I'm actually glad I exited "Dexter" a third of the way through Season 4; I don't bear the scars of those who put up with Season 5 and 6, which were, by all accounts, increasingly repetitive and formulaic. Even before that, the show -- which I'd found original and heartbreaking in its first two seasons -- seemed to have settled into a rut, which consisted of giving guest actors showy parts and getting secret serial killer Dexter Morgan out of one rote jam after another. Dexter himself seemed less exotic and alien over time, and the idea of watching a somewhat regular guy whose hobby was murdering people never appealed to me.

But a lost, lonely soul who wonders if he'll ever be a real boy? That concept was at the core of "Dexter" best moments, and this season has found much better ways of getting at the show's more evocative themes. Letting Dexter's sister Deb in on his horrible secret has allowed the show to let go of the tiresome Big Bads and focus on the Big Bad that has been at the center of the show since Day 1. Structurally, the whole thing feels fresh again, and even if I have doubts about how the writers will wring two worthy seasons out of the new dynamics (Showtime has committed to airing at least one more season), the three 2012 episodes I've seen efficiently pulled me back in.

Despite generally enjoying those hours, there's a ceiling on how good "Dexter" can be these days. I've lived with this character (and characters like him) for so long that Dexter's quest to align his broken morality with that of normal people will never have the emotional impact it had when the show first arrived. Dexter's plight just isn't as intense as it once was, now that you can buy blood-slide keychains and Ice Truck Killer thumb drives (yep, it's shaped like a severed thumb). And though things feel fresher than they have in a long time, "Dexter" still has a fair amount of obvious symbolism, predictable plotting and unsubtle storytelling. But all those things are much easier to take, thanks to the way the show shook up the status quo at the end of last season.

For one thing, Deb's gruesome discovery goes a long way toward redeeming Dexter's sister as a character, and it gives Jennifer Carpenter some excellent material to play. Carpenter was a diamond in the rough when "Dexter" began, all flailing gawkiness and raw, unpolished technique. But over "Dexter's" seven-season run, she's become a much more accomplished actress, and in the next two episodes, as she struggles to come to terms with Harry's Code and the knowledge she's loved a monster all her life, her natural intensity is put to vivid use.

The shift also gives new immediacy and heft to Dexter's desire to give up the burden of his Dark Passenger. Being able to be honest with Deb allows Dexter to finally exhale -- a note that the ever-subtle Michael C. Hall plays beautifully -- and to wonder whether he might be able to stop killing. Dexter has viewed his off-duty job of "taking out the trash" through the lens of Harry's Code for so long that seeing his serial-killer career through Deb's eyes is a shock. And it's a welcome one, not just for him but for viewers tired of the conceit that a guy who worked for the police would get away with this many murders for this long.

There are still some two-dimensional characters and by-the-book machinations on "Dexter" (as my colleague Alex Moaba noted in his season premiere recap, by indulging in a kill after being outed by Deb, Dex didn't exactly exhibit prudence). But borrowing a few moves from "Homeland" -- the pacing rarely lags for long and revelations are not conserved past their sell-by dates -- has allowed the show to not just up its game but seriously examine concepts like change, hope and redemption. In the next few episodes, Dexter encounters characters who have dealt with their regrets and sins in different ways, and he begins to wonder if Harry was actually wrong to channel Dex's murderous desires into the Code.

And in upcoming episodes, as Deb and Dex debate what to do next, they share very different views about whether power should reside in institutions (like the police) or in individuals (as Harry's Code allows). As they grapple with Dexter's unsettling vocation, both siblings have to re-examine long-held assumptions, and it's that kind of doubt and ambiguity that makes the show's wobblier elements worth enduring.

In fact, in this re-energized season, Dexter's starting to look like the inverse of "Breaking Bad's" Walter White, whose desire for dominance started small but turned toxic. Dexter may not have ever wanted to be "the one who knocked," but his actions are even more damaging, thanks to his dark needs. Are those desires controllable, or is he fated to play out a predetermined destiny? The presence of his son Harrison is enough to give that question an extra jolt of urgency.

The big themes aside, there are smaller pleasures to be found as well. As critic Alan Sepinwall noted, Maria La Guerta isn't useless this season, which is a refreshing state of affairs (though I have to wonder if Deb's boss might end up on Dex's table before the season is out). The dark wit of the early seasons isn't quite as prevalent as it was back in the day, but it still turns up here and there. "Rome's" Ray Stevenson (as a crime boss) and "Chuck's" Yvonne Strahovski (as a woman connected to an old case) do fine work in the new season, and the procedural elements are dispatched pretty efficiently, for the most part.

There is one huge downside to the new season: It's part of an insane Sunday night DVR-maggedon. Our poor, overworked device is already trying to record almost dozen programs that offer up first-run episodes on Sunday nights, and now I've added another show to the queue.

One of these days, my DVR might be added to the tally of "Dexter's" kills. Just not before the season finale, please.

"Dexter" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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