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TCA Diary: Season Five of Dexter About "Atonement"

At today's Dexter session at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, the cast and crew of the Showtime serial killer drama united on stage--a week after appearing in San Diego to promote the series--to discuss the fifth season, how Julie Benz's Rita fits into the overarching storyline, whether there will be another season-long big bag, and other bloody good fun coming up on the series.

Joining the panel: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, James Remar, C.S. Lee, executive producers Sara Colleton and John Goldwyn and newly minted showrunner Chip Johannessen, who took to the stage after a teaser trailer that showed the bloody aftermath of the carnage in the fourth season finale.

"No," said Sara Colleton answering a question as to whether Seasons Four and Five were planned in concert with one another. "We rarely go beyond one year because we have to have a season arc that has a beginning and a finish... At the end of Season Four, it quickly became clear to us what Season Five was about... The audience had to see what the blowback would be for his culpability in Rita's death. To cheat that would be to cheat our audience."

Will Vince Masuka (Lee) gain any insight about Dexter's secret this season?

"I certainly think it’s a possibility," said Lee. "He works in close proximity with Dexter, and we share labs. That certainly can happen. I certainly hope he doesn’t get too close to that. He will have to be the next one to go."

So will Dexter reveal himself to anyone else in the department?

"The short answer would be no," said Hall. "I think Dexter relishes opportunities to reveal himself covertly and say things that are true on one level but only experiences true on another level by whoever he’s talking to. But, no, I don’t think so. I certainly hope not."

Other than Dexter, Carpenter's Deb had the craziest story arc in Season Four. Carpenter herself agreed.

"I think her arc has been extreme," she said. "I spend a lot of time justifying how she’s not in a straitjacket at this point, and what I’m learning is that life on this show happens not only in TV time, but also in Dexter time. So the healing process is really rapid, and it’s hard to not — because I am so much more emotional than Dexter is, it’s hard to not carry pieces of that into every scene."

"How it unfolds this year, I look at the other cops in the bull pen, and I’m one of them now. Like, they all have this sort of wretched experience they walk around with. And I think she’s sort of playing the game. It’s a new strength, but it’s also just compartmentalizing in a way that she hasn’t before."

This season, the task force gets closer than ever to catching Dexter. How often can the producers go to that well and have him slip away?

"The last time it happened, there was, on the one hand, the big investigation, but there was also the personal version of that, which was the character Doakes, who was going after Dexter, but he wasn’t armed up with a lot of information,
right?" asked Johannessen. "He just had a sense that this guy was bad. [The task force is] going to be spearheaded by Quinn in some form this year, and it’s really going to
look a lot different because, first of all, he’s going to have more actual information. He’s not going to be this bull in a china shop just going after Dexter. And the other thing is, because he isn’t the bull in a china shop, this sort of outsider in the bull pen, Quinn has found a home there, which is one of the nice things about this show, that there’s this kind of work environment that feels very family-like. He’s going to have a much, much more difficult time eventually pushing forward with this investigation as kind of the personal relationships around him weigh on him. So it’s going to look a lot different."

"I guess anybody could find out [about Dexter], but the one that really, really matters, I think, is Deb, the one that matters to all of us emotionally," he said. "So
that’s the important person to track, I think, in terms of finding out more about him, having suspicions about him."

As for the change at Dexter's helm, the producers were quick to play up the seamlessness of the handover between Clyde Phillips and Chip Johannessen.

"Clyde was a fabulous addition and will always be sort of part of the emeritus part of the Dexter family," said Sara Colleton. "He was our showrunner, and now we have Chip. And it has been about as seamless as these things go because we have the remaining pillars in the writing room. And the central idea of Dexter is so strong and so provocative, and we feel that as long as every year we feel there is a new human territory to push Dexter through that mine field, rather than is he going to get caught, is really what brings our audience to us, and so — and particularly after the season arc last year. It was the perfect time, after four years, to bring a fresh view and some new blood. So it’s been about as seamless as it can be."

"The one thing I want to add to that, to Sara, is we were very lucky to get Chip because Chip was a fan, and so he knew the show well," added John Goldwyn. "He knew all of the intimate aspects of the characters, and so he came to it with this wealth of knowledge about Dexter and about all of the characters in the show and the important themes and that sense of discovery that Dexter goes through in every season. So we weren’t starting off with somebody who didn’t have an intimate knowledge of the show and real appreciation, but we were very lucky in that regard."

The producers weren't, however, so keen to offer information about who the huge guest cast will be playing this upcoming season, other than Katherine Moennig, who will play Masuka's friend Debra.

"She plays a tattoo artist, and I take Debra to meet her," said Lee. "We just shot it yesterday, and she’s a wonderful actor and we had a good time."

"Because there’s a tattoo that is a part of the big crime that Miami Metro is solving this year," added Colleton, "Deb has found a clue and so they need to go
to a tattoo artist to get more information."

Meanwhile, Peter Weller's character was actually informed by, er, Peter Weller himself.

"Well, Peter Weller was part of the original pitch to Showtime," said Johannessen. "He’s going to be a big problem for Dexter, especially in the back parlor. We called him Weller when we originally conceived him, and then we had to change the name once we got the guy we had actually wanted. So he’s kind of an ex-cop, a kind of Cocaine Cowboys-era guy who gets into some trouble with the corruption thing and ends up kind of posing a problem for Dexter."

"One of the things to help you understand, we are taking a break this year from what has been the way we’ve plotted out our seasons in the past four years, which is to have one, sort of, season-long adversary for Dexter," added Coletton. "And we thought this was the perfect year, because of what Dexter has gone through, to take a break from that. And so, as he’s going through different stages of his grief, really, even
though, for Dexter, it’s completely unarticulated and it’s a range of human emotion that he doesn’t know what he’s feeling, but as he goes through different stages,
there will be different characters who will come in, who will interact. And so, as the season progresses, some of these characters interlock, but the through line is, this year, Dexter’s atonement, and different people help him along the way in different
capacities. And that’s why we have a very interesting array of new actors."

(So no details there.)

"We have an ensemble this year with Johnny Lee Miller and obviously Julia Stiles and others that help illuminate what Sara is talking about, which is this
discovery of atonement," said Goldwyn.

"One of the things we wanted to do this year was shake up that single big bad, especially in the wake of John Lithgow, and it did seem like the thing to do was try to top the baroque serial killer thing," said Johannessen. "And also, given where Dexter was coming from, it does become a series about atonement. He’s not a character who experiences guilt or grief like any of us would. So it’s not his intention starting out, but the season kind of becomes about this as he slides into it. As Michael sometimes says, he trips into it, this kind of oddly human experience, at a time where he just feels that everything that he has done that had to do with connecting with humanity has melted down in this horrible, horrible way. And the last thing he wants to do is be involved with people, and yet part of the amazing thing about this character, who is so outside of everybody and so alienated, is that he keeps trying to claw his way back in. In the wake of Rita’s death, you see that over the course, really, of the whole season."

Hall said that he did tried to approach what was coming without advance knowledge of Rita's death at the end of last season.

"I really tried, while I consciously knew that’s where things were headed — I really tried to approach everything that led up to it without that foreknowledge and decided I’d just cross that acting bridge when it revealed itself," Hall said. "But what’s
interesting is this idea of atonement, this idea that Dexter is forced, through what’s written, into those situations where he has to step into waters that he never anticipated stepping in, and it starts out subterranean, but there is some sort of appetite to address his maybe not even consciously acknowledged sense of guilt or remorse or need for atonement, and the circumstances of his life sort of manifest an
opportunity to do that in a way that he doesn’t create consciously."

Just don't expect Dexter to lose his hold on his sanity this season.

"No," said Colleton. "Don’t forget he’s now a single dad, so he has some responsibilities that are really serious. And like all single dads, they don’t know until the wife is gone just how much that means."

"I think one of the things that Dexter is examining this season, though, is his involvement in some way, or perhaps even a little bit his culpability, in the death of Rita," said Goldwyn, "which leads to what Sara mentioned earlier which is the theme of atonement, which is illuminated and dramatized over the course of this year."

"The forum that Dexter takes to achieve atonement is not in a forum that is conventional by any means," added Colleton, "and it will be through the very unique prism of Dexter’s special needs, and that’s what makes it very original."

"[Dexter] saw his mother sawed up in front of him in this container," said Johannessen. "He was born in blood. He now has this adult origin story in a way in the way he brought his own life into this horrible mess that it’s turned into, which is very relatable the way we all kind of melt down our existences, so we’re trying to give it kind of the huge cosmic space it deserves, which is this is almost like a second origin thing in his life and that event at the end of Season Four will kind of... filter through it in the same way that his original story filtered through Season One."

So how will Rita be appearing in Season Five? Will she be handled in the same way that Dexter's dad (Remar) is?

"In this show Harry serves a very unique purpose," said Colleton, "and to dilute that in any way would, I think, fundamentally harm the DNA of our show."

"He’s the only one with keys to that room," added Hall.

"You’ll be seeing her more than dead in a bathtub, for sure," teased Johannessen.

Season Five of Dexter premieres Sunday, September 26th on Showtime.

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