On Showtime's eighth and final season of serial killer drama Dexter, the writers deftly brought the show's themes full circle by introducing a new budding serial killer Zach Hamilton (Sam Underwood) and putting Dexter Morgan himself (Michael C. Hall) in the mentor seat the way his father before him was for him. Tasked with either killing the kid or helping him control his compulsions through the code, Dexter chose the latter, a bit at the insistence-- or manipulation, depending on where you stand-- of Dr. Vogel (Charlotte Rampling). As it turned out, that wasn't the best decision for either Dexter or his young protégé.
"I knew where I was starting off, and then I would get the episodes and see where Zach went," Underwood said when LA TV Insider Examiner sat down with him in Los Angeles. "So the second episode [was] seeing him wanting to show Dexter how off he is, and the third episode is about him kind of becoming okay with what’s going on, and then episode four for him is like the family.
"Dexter goes from being mentor to, in my head I was thinking, big brother. I never thought of him as dad; I thought of him as big brother, but there’s still that sort of familial angle. But I wasn’t actively thinking about it, so I wasn’t actively layering it on. It was all there in the writing; I didn’t feel like I had to work for it because it was already being written well."
Zach started out as a character who could be wrongly assumed to be a true sociopath-- much like Dexter Morgan himself. The kid kept himself at a distance from others, intensely watching and taking mental notes, and often photographs, and he had an obsession with blood and gruesome imagery. Of course, there was also the fact that he actually bludgeoned someone to death, too. There was no doubt he had it in him to be a killer, but Underwood pointed out that as Zach began to work with Dexter, his more human side began to emerge.
"I don’t think he was planning on having a connection with this guy. I think he was first of all keeping him at a [safe] distance where he can kind of clock him and keep and eye on what he knows and everything. But also, there’s a slight interest in his photography, which is kind of cool. He doesn’t know that Dexter’s a serial killer then. He gets the idea that he’s a little bit off, as well… Maybe he recognizes something: 'You’re a little bit quirky as well.' But I don’t think he plans on having as strong a connection until he’s on the table, and he’s like ‘Oh wait, we both have a blood lust that no one else gets'," Underwood said.
"One of the lines was ‘Could you imagine me talking to someone about this?’ That was something that got me in the audition, as well. Like the ‘I’ve been wanting to talk about this for ages, but could you imagine talking to anyone about this?’ No way. No one understands."
No one but Dexter anyway, and once Zach saw that-- and saw himself reflected in the man-- his need to please him kicked in. But Underwood pointed out that he was just a kid, and therefore, his eagerness and earnest nature often caused him to make a lot of mistakes ("It's a learning process!" He said). It also allowed for the humor and levity to sneak in a bit and explore the "awkward and quirky" side to what otherwise could be a very dark character who has been struggling to find out who and what he is-- just as Dexter had to do years earlier.
"I think the best moment that Zach [had was] when he was in the hotel room, and he says, ‘Look, I took the code, and I did exactly what you said, and I get it.’ That’s the moment when he feels the most normal because there’s purpose; there’s reason; there’s clarity for a second. But it’s brief; it’s tiny," Underwood said.
Unfortunately for Zach, things did take a very dark turn when he was not only framed for a second crime but then killed by the hand of someone who had skirted Dexter's serial killer radar simply because the man and murderer himself had been preoccupied with his new surrogate family of sorts.
"I think the device of having a prospect and then out of nowhere, he’s gone…is really tragic," Underwood said.
"It’s all to serve Dexter, right? It’s very tragic that he loses a protégé, a son type, another him. And he’s failed. Dexter has failed."
And for Dexter, it's just another name to the list of people he has failed-- from his late wife, to his former captain, to his neighbor, and even his sister in many ways. It should be a turning point for him to really look at not how what he's doing is affecting those around him but how those around him being affected actually affects him. The capacity to feel and care is not something he-- or Zach-- would have if they were true sociopaths, but yet they do and did respectively. It was a compulsion, instead, that they had-- an itch and they had to scratch. Zach was obsessive about it, almost tweaky, in that "just discovering a new toy" sort of way, but if you scratch an itch all day, you'll bleed to death, and Dexter was trying to help him get a handle on things.
"Michael was a grounding force for me [on set], and Dexter was that for Zach," Underwood said.
Underwood feels strongly that Zach would have come into his own eventually, had he been given the chance to continue working with Dexter. Zach truly looked up to him, and didn't have it in his nature to rebel against his teachings or the code. He fell behind Dexter "on the leash" quickly, and he would have stayed there and grown into himself as a man, even more importantly than as a killer.
"Every now and then I think about if the end of Zach didn’t end that way, how would he carry on, and I think he really would, hopefully, become okay in the weird way that Dexter is okay with himself… I think he would get to that point," Underwood said.
Dexter airs on Showtime on Sunday nights at 9 p.m.
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