Lost amid the flurry — nay, blizzard — of Homeland chatter this season was Showtime's other Sunday night series, Dexter. It makes sense that the old show, which plenty of people still watch, wasn't subject to as much recapping and rehashing: Dexter is seven seasons in, and it isn't nearly as awards-bedecked as Showtime's new flagship series. But it is a shame, because after two lackluster seasons, Dexter gave us the best run of episodes it's had since the storied days of the Trinity killer. Yes, Dexter was that good this year, possibly even better.
Mind you, when I say "good" I mean that in Dexter terms, not necessarily in relation to the broader TV world. It's still mostly a gory soap opera with lots of turns that strain one's suspension of disbelief. But when it is good, my, is it a grim delight. Most Dexter seasons tend to begin slowly, tying up loose ends from the previous finale, and then, by about midway through, you get to the exciting heart of the season. This year, however, we jumped right in to the thrilling plot we'd been waiting for since the show began (spoiler alert, obviously): In the first episode of this season, Debra found out that Dexter is, in fact, a serial killer. Yes! It was a pivotal, show-changing moment and made for a few episodes that were undoubtably some of the series's finest. Jennifer Carpenter seems to be a love-her-or-hate her kind of an actress, or maybe Debra is just that kind of character, so I don't know how you feel about her, but I loved her this season more than ever before. Stronger and more grownup, Debra became the moral center of the show — which isn't to say she did good things.
The middle stretch of this season lost its way a bit, muddling around with plot lines about Quinn and some gangsters, giving Dexter a not terribly engaging love interest (more on her in a minute), but by the last few episodes it had found its way back to grappling with the mythology stuff, which is of course what initially hooked us. Captain LaGuerta, played by the wonderful Lauren Vélez, began to suspect that the notorious Bay Harbor Butcher maybe wasn't dead and wasn't Sgt. Doakes after all, eventually figuring out that it was Dexter, right under her nose this whole time. I love when a show rewards loyal viewing by incorporating plot elements from long-ago seasons, and this storyline — triggered by the discovery of a single blood slide in the season premiere — proved as satisfying, and as suspenseful, as anything the series has done to date. It acknowledged the many obvious problems in Dexter's ever-expanding web of lies and furtive dealings, while also, by the time last night's finale ended, rather brilliantly answering the question of what Deb would ultimately do with this new, terrible knowledge about her brother. In the end, she chose family over morality — really, she sacrificed her own soul — by shooting and killing LaGuerta in Dexter's shipping container kill room. So she winds up covered in blood in a shipping container just like her brother was as a child. That parallel is maybe a little heavy-handed, but everyone played it so well last night that it was hard to mind. What this bodes for the future — besides a forever changed Debra, and a more guilty Dexter — isn't quite clear, but the new moral landscape that the show uncovered this season has made a compelling case for sticking with the series long enough to find out.
And about that girlfriend. Yvonne Strahovski's Hannah McKay mostly felt like a boring repeat of Dexter's previous non-Rita romances — like season two's Lila and season five's Lumen, Hannah is a damaged woman who gets Dexter's darkness — but by the end of the season she'd developed into something more interesting. Strahovski didn't really get going in the acting department until the penultimate episode, when she started showing more of Hannah's innate darkness and slipperiness. I like that we don't know if she'll be coming back or not — the flower left at Dexter's door after she escaped from the hospital would suggest yes — and I love that we don't know if she'll be coming back for romance or revenge. If the show wants Hannah and Dexter to be its OTP, I'm suddenly fine with that, but it would also be interesting to see them square off as foes. Either way, I'm glad the writers decided to really commit to Hannah rather than giving her a season-only arc and then dismissing her, like Julia Stiles' Lumen. Who knows if she'll be back any time soon, but Hannah is lurking out there somewhere and I doubt the writers will let her stay hidden forever.
So, well done, Dexter. Though Homeland's finale — which was preposterous, exciting, oddly moving, and sets up for a bizarre season three — is getting the lion's share of the buzz today, I think it worth noting that a show in its seventh season remarkably found the energy to revitalize and truly reinvent itself. As Dexter approaches its final act — there are two more seasons to come, I believe — I hope we see more of this exploration of the show's central conceits. Gone are the days when a simple season-long Big Bad holds our attention. We need to start answering some of the deeper emotional mysteries that the show so intriguingly set up years ago. Season seven, with MVP Jennifer Carpenter at the center, did a terrific job of starting that gruesome work.