Darkness Still Haunts 'Dexter'

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Don't rest just yet, Dexter.

The Ice Truck Killer's reign is over, but Miami forensics sleuth Dexter Morgan is worrying about another murderer -- himself -- as season two of Showtime's drama series "Dexter" starts Sunday, Sept. 30. Played by Michael C. Hall, the title character secretly uses his professional skills to ensure criminals get what's coming to them. Now his problems become bigger when his victims' final destination is discovered.

"There are a lot of spinning plates," says Hall, whose first-year "Dexter" work won him the Television Critics Association Award for individual achievement in drama (along with Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations). "A lot was resolved at the end of the first season, and I think all of us are aware we have a pretty tough assignment in trying to live up to it. The writers have really been bold, sort of laying down the gauntlet that they aren't afraid to play their biggest hands."

Indeed, the first new episodes demonstrate that significant "Dexter" plot twists come earlier than anticipated. "I'm really pleased that it isn't some sort of watered-down simulation of the first season," Hall says. "This season really has its own chaotic character."

Unlike the first year, which was based on Jeff Lindsay's novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" and earned Emmy nominations for editing, theme music and main title design, the new installments are completely original creations. So is the FBI agent played by cast addition Keith Carradine, who's brought in to spearhead the search for the so-called Bay Harbor Butcher.

That killer actually is seemingly good-natured Dexter, a fact unbeknown to everyone around him, even his adopted sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter). She's a police detective residing with him while struggling to recover from her own near-fatal encounter with the Ice Truck Killer, who was her beau before his full identity was known -- including his being Dexter's brother.

Debra puts on a brave front in returning to work, but her emotions clearly remain frayed, as illustrated by her reactions to men's approaches that don't turn out as anyone would like. And also by her energetic chase of a young vandal who ends up with Debra's gun in his face.

"Of all the characters on the show, she's one of the biggest works in progress," Carpenter says. "Her surviving the situation with [the Ice Truck Killer] was her first masterpiece, and it's been a sometimes ugly transition. I don't think she's very socially balanced, but it is nice to see her expressing herself in different ways."

The fellow who takes a fist to the nose from Debra at a bar might not agree, but her self-discovery also plays out through her complex relationship with Dexter. "It's sort of strange how they're all the other has in this world," Carpenter says. "Each is the other's only connection to the past, so they're trying to operate with some sort of tenderness toward each other."

Julie Benz, Erik King and Lauren Velez also continue as "Dexter" regulars, and adding Oscar-winner Carradine to the mix has changed things up notably. "It's a constant negotiation, an upping of the ante, in terms of Dexter's need and ability to monitor and modify what he presents to the world," Hall says of Carradine's presence as quietly dogged investigator Frank Lundy.

Carpenter has more on-screen exchanges with Carradine, since Lundy selects Debra for his team pursuing the felon they don't know is Dexter. "He is amazing to work with," Carpenter says. "He's so collected. As Debra, when I look at him, he's like a jukebox that flips to a certain record and whatever note you need to hear pops out. At the same time, he's so open; he's your biggest cheerleader when you're in a scene with him."

Particularly with the new threats facing Dexter, Hall admires his alter ego. "In spite of all the other capabilities the guy obviously has, the most impressive is his amazing capacity for stress management," he says. "I don't know how he does it."

At the same time, new self-doubt makes Dexter more vulnerable. Hall concurs that the first season's outcome "left some pretty gaping, wide-open wounds in Dexter. He comes to an awareness of certain vulnerabilities, both internal and external."

Widely praised as David Fisher in HBO's seriocomic funeral-home saga "Six Feet Under," stage veteran Hall didn't foresee that another home-screen role would be as strong an identifier for him. "I thought, 'Well, that's it for TV. I'm spoiled. I'm not going to find anything that will match.' Then 'Dexter' came along," he says. "It was a real surprise for me, the last thing I thought I'd be doing, at least so soon after 'Six Feet Under.' I feel like we've taken some chances and really embraced them."

A trademark of "Dexter" is the thematic darkness it juxtaposes with sunny Florida backdrops, which Carpenter thinks symbolizes the dichotomies the show thrives on. "It's hard to call it just a comedy or just a tragedy," she says. "They're sort of tangled up. It's just so absurd in some ways."

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