So earlier this week I relented and succumbed to the seemingly relentless pressure to watch Dexter. I have no idea why, when I am recommended something new to watch I just store it in my head for a few years before I can actually venture in. It doesn’t matter too much though, because watching TV all in one hit is much better than having to remember what’s going on each week. The fact that Netflix automatically plays the next episode once you’ve finished the last is perhaps a little too helpful. The only time I actually have to press anything to continue watching is at the end of a season. At this point I try to come up for air and see what’s going on in the world. Not only do my eyes have to readjust, but I have to shave and try not to smell as bad. Then I get to work and wonder why there can’t be any drugs dealers, White House movers and shakers, zombies or serial killers around. The Excel spreadsheets don’t quite measure up in terms of excitement.
Anyway, I was going to write about Dexter. The first thing that people will likely observe about the show is that it puts you in to the head of a serial killer, a serial killer who you’re supposed to empathise with. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether these kinds of media influences shape certain susceptible individuals’ behaviour, and with recent events across the Atlantic this is only likely to intensify. I’m not going to proffer an opinion on that at the moment as it’s a more serious discussion that probably needs to take place in a different context. So I’ll talk about the show.
The first thing I thought as I watched was that although Dexter was interesting, the characters surrounding him were fairly one dimensional. I originally thought that this meant I might struggle with it in the longer term, but what I realised was that this was necessary to begin with in order to help us understand Dexter’s complex character and examine how he interacts with different people. This gives you a solid base to work from when things change and Dexter is presented with new situations and new people. Rita, for example, seems fairly straight forward to begin with but becomes much more interesting when Paul is thrown in to the mix.
Doakes was another example of someone who, to begin with, I saw as somewhat of a joke. To my mind he was a stereotype of a strong, angry, black male with a military background. He was too obvious and fell in to every trap Dexter set for him. However, much later on in some of the scenes where he is alone with Dexter, away from the station, he is shown to be compassionate and to genuinely care what happens to Dexter. You never find out whether he is being sincere or if he’s acting out of desperation, but either way he became a character I cared much more about.
Dexter himself was always going to be the character we were most invested in though, and as we learn more about him we gain a greater understanding of why he does the things he does. He is portrayed extremely convincingly by Michael C. Hall, who really helps to create the impression of a serene killer. This attitude that he portrays so well, helps us to view Dexter’s killing as mundane, sometimes even necessary. The ordered way he carries out his process leaves us less shocked every time and with little empathy for the victims. This helps forge the central dynamic of the show, where we empathise with Dexter on an emotional level yet, on an intellectual level, we’re still fully conscious of the fact that what Dexter is doing is ‘wrong’.
This confusion is aided by the fact that, through certain discoveries and choices, Dexter has a fluctuating sense of certainty and self image. Part of you wants to attribute this to conscience and an intrinsic sort of moral compass, but the less stupid part of you realises that it’s more of an examination of transient standards and the absence of moral absolutes. Dexter comes to the conclusion that the only code that’s worth adhering to is his own.
Your understanding of Dexter is consistently shifting. At the start he is a killer, completely detached from the outside world and having to fake all emotions. This helps us to see him as something ‘other’ than us. There is something fundamentally different about the way he is put together which means that, while we can relate to his feelings of annoyance and awkwardness in social situations, we never have to feel like we could actually be him. However, as the series draws on, we realise that he has very real and very strong feelings towards others. He had essentially projected some of these dysfunctional characteristics upon himself, perhaps in an attempt to rationalise and normalise his urges. At this point our safety blanket, where we felt we could never be like him is essentially pulled away, and we’re left wondering whether there is anything tangible that differentiates him from us.
There is a moment in a cabin where we see Dexter angry and aggressive. Here he’s portrayed in a way that we often see other monsters portrayed; when someone provokes them we see beneath the surface, to an angry, conflicted and malevolent core. This was one of the few moments where I felt the portrayal of Dexter’s character was inconsistent. I understand that he was supposed to be under a lot of pressure, but the way we had seen Dexter react to pressure before always involved internalising that pressure and remaining composed. It felt like the writers were trying to remind us we were dealing with a proper killer. Maybe they felt external pressure to make sure people weren’t too comfortable with the idea of Dexter.
Despite this, Dexter is a great show. It doesn’t need to end every episode on a cliffhanger because it knows that an insight in to Dexter’s mind and his emotional development is enough to keep us coming back. That and the cello in ‘Blood Theme’ by Daniel Licht at the end of every episode.