Dexter still gets her man. Even when it’s Michael C. Hall.
Sometimes actor Michael C. Hall likes to think about his own obituary. He knows that “Dexter,” the Showtime drama he starred in for eight seasons, will make its way into his first paragraph.
“If not the first sentence,” he said.
A show about Dexter Morgan (Hall), a Miami blood spatter analyst who moonlights as an ironic serial killer, “Dexter” premiered in 2006, at the knife-edge of the anti-hero obsession of television. A perennial Emmy contender during its run, the series has a complicated legacy. It ended in 2013 with an episode, “Remember the Monsters?”, Which often ranks among the worst finals in television history. (Quick recap: Flat Sister, Pen Murder, Timely Hurricane, Dexter is a lumberjack now.)
“It left a bad taste in the mouths of the public and in mine as well,” he said. It was a sunny October afternoon at a beer garden near his downtown apartment, and he was enhancing that bad taste with a scone and an Americano. Hall loves his coffee as he loves his prestige – dark – series and his sense of humor is also dark. He made several jokes about cancer (he survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma a decade ago), which he relieved with his thin smile.
Hall has a square chin, a broad Cro-Magnon forehead, and bright green eyes. (Paleolithic, but sexy with it.) In a sky blue shirt with long underwear underneath, he looked like any other fashionable and rugged Upper West Sider. But fans recognize it quite often, and when they do, they shout “Dexter”, not “Michael”. They ask him to murder them for selfies. They told him they wanted the show to come back. And in some ways, Hall wanted it, too.
“It wasn’t a huge burden,” he said. “But I was concerned about the feeling of an unfinished business.”
Hall laid down this burden. “Dexter: New Blood,” a 10-episode limited series, arrives Sunday on Showtime. Though it appears amid television’s current fascination with reboots, covers, prequels, and sequels, “New Blood” feels less like a cover and more like a retaliation, a deliberate repair of the slackness of the final seasons of the original and an attempt by Hall to reunite with the character who defined his career.
“If I have to do this,” Dexter says of Hall as he contemplates his first murder in a decade, “I have to do it right.”
Set in a snowy town in upstate New York, “New Blood” (“In Cold Blood” has already been taken) finds Dexter living under an assumed name, working in a fish and game store and refraining from murder. (The series was filmed in western Massachusetts.) Swapping Miami’s sweaty pastels for evergreen forests and flannel, this new show calms Dexter’s overworked internal monologue and minimizes the gruesome comedy of the original.
Dexter relapses, of course. But he doesn’t like murder like he used to. His “Dark Passenger”, the motivation that drives him to kill, has taken a back seat, and there is less separation between Dexter the killer and Dexter the man in the snowsuit in town.
“I may be a monster, but I am an evolving monster,” he says in the “New Blood” pilot.
It seems odd to revive a series while abandoning much of what made that series distinct, replacing the equatorial heat with a mood that Clyde Phillips, the showrunner of the first four seasons of “Dexter” and “New Blood,” called “cold and monastic and sober. But the difference is intentional.
“We didn’t want this to be ‘Dexter’ Season 9,” Phillips said on a recent video call. “We wanted to honor the fact that 10 years have passed. (Coming eight years after the “Dexter” finale, the reboot alters the schedule slightly.)
Showtime and Hall had entertained various “Dexter” pitches over the years, including one from Hall’s mother who found Dexter in a monastery. (Monastic? Yes. Monastery? No.) Only the idea of Phillips, who reunited Dexter with Harrison, the son he abandoned ten years ago, seemed right.
When Hall heard the pitch about two and a half years ago, he immediately agreed. He liked how it allowed Dexter to go in new directions while still maintaining the “connective tissue” (that’s Hall’s body horror metaphor, not mine) with the original show.
Aside from Harrison, who is played in “New Blood” by Jack Alcott, much of that continuity comes in the ghostly form of Jennifer Carpenter’s Debra, Dexter’s rude adoptive sister. Dexter killed Deb in the finale, disconnecting her from the life support and throwing her body in the bay. But the dead Deb still shows up to raid her brother, reprising the conscientious role of Harry (James Remar), Dexter’s late adoptive father.
Carpenter never felt particularly bad about the final. “Because I was dead at the bottom of the ocean,” she said, referring to her character’s fate during an early morning phone call. But she and Hall, who ran away and then got divorced while the original series aired, remained friends, and when he described the new series, she wanted to join her, even in an ethereal way.
Hall was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during production of the fourth season of “Dexter” – he kept the news private until the end of filming and received treatment during the show’s hiatus. Dexter had a painful secret and for a while did Hall too, which was helpful for the role, he said.
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But he’s been in remission for over a decade and is married, seemingly happily enough, to writer and critic Morgan Macgregor. Which would seem to put him some distance from the darkness that a character like Dexter demands. Where will he find this darkness now?
“Oh, there it is,” he said, making his voice growl slightly. “It’s here.”
It probably is. Hall’s peculiar genius – from his role as funeral director in “Six Feet Under” (2001-05) to “Dexter” to his frequent collaborations with playwright Will Eno to his stints in Broadway musicals – projects a pleasing exterior. , somewhat empty while also suggesting the torment and mess just below.
“He has these great multitudes and contradictions,” said Eno, a close friend of his. “And he covers it all with regular, pretty down-to-earth wrapping.”
A low-key version of this emerged even in casual conversation. (Or as casual as a conversation can be when there are a few digital recorders between cups of coffee.) On the surface, Hall was placid, thoughtful, always polite. But he was constantly fidgeting – tapping his fingers on the table, rubbing his palms on his pants – and was hyper aware of his surroundings, stopping every time an engine was running or a truck was backing up. He may look like a man carrying on a conversation rather than having one.
Hall is aware of this duplicity, which he traces back to his very early teenage years in Raleigh, NC Hall’s father died of prostate cancer when Hall was 11 and Hall had the hunch, wrongly or wrongly. and rightly so, that showing the full range of one’s feelings would not be Appropriate. So he learned to cover up those feelings, and then later to channel them into action.
Dexter, too, has learned to sublimate his most extreme impulses; parallels can seem uncomfortably appropriate. Hall is also aware of this.
“Maybe I’m drawn to characters who have a kind of stormy interiority that they don’t feel free to let out,” he said. “Maybe that’s how I live my own life. Maybe I live it less in my life to have the chance to integrate it into my work.
Then he quivered his eyebrows. “Who knows what I would have done in the past 16 years if I hadn’t been able to fake all this murder?” ” he said.
He simulates it, in the old and the new series, with a mixture of what Phillips calls “absolute control and absolute surrender.” (Carpenter was more pragmatic in his praise: “He works his ass. He’s on time, he never takes sides. He’s just a workaholic.”)
After that first “Dexter” finale, Hall took on other roles – theater, a few movies, a limited series or two. But nobody really talks about their work in “Safe” or “The Defeated”. Nobody wants a selfie with the guy from “Cold in July” or “Lazarus”. “Dexter” even somewhat eclipsed his Emmy-nominated role in “Six Feet Under”. He played a killer so well that audiences don’t seem to want to see him any other way.
“There’s not much I can do about it – other than come back and play this character again,” he said. How long will he play it? “I definitely didn’t come back thinking we were going to do eight more seasons,” he said. So unless the producers botch this finale as well, Dexter may soon put down his very many knives for good. That doesn’t mean Hall will ever escape him entirely. (If you’ve seen the show, you know Dexter has few escapes.)
Does it ever bother him, that his life is forever linked to that of a fictional killer? That Dexter’s name will introduce an obituary?
“Of course,” he said. But then he changed his mind. “I mean, I don’t know. I will be dead. I won’t be there for that.