Plenty of awesome things starting on US TV at the moment, and plenty of awesome things returning, so I missed that an intriguing show I read about in the paper months back had started – until Graham supplied the pilot. Played by best-thing-about Six Feet Under Michael Hall, Dexter’s a sociopathic compulsive serial killer with a day job as a forensic analyst for the Miami police, specialising in blood-splatters. And killing murderers. It’s not about him taking out the guys the police can’t prove their case against, it’s about him desperately needing to sate his bloodlust and deciding to at least restrict himself to the more deserving victims. And it is, of course, superb.

Dexter fakes normal, happy life with aplomb, making the atmosphere absurdly sunny and upbeat. His boss fancies him, his sister depends on him, and he has a doting rape-victim girlfriend he dates because neither of them are interested in sex. Forensic science is a world in which everyone has to be ghoulishly indifferent to murder just to get through the day, joking about corpses over donuts, so Dexter’s bona fide ghoulishness blends in seamlessly. Only one cop thinks Dexter’s a sick freak barely attempting to hide it, and loathes him violently and openly. Dexter is relentlessly nice in response, and inwardly slightly saddened that only one person seems to have noticed.

The joke, of course, is that Dexter has a superb insight into the workings of a serial killer’s mind, and has to actively try not to catch them in his official capacity in order to keep himself in potential victims. In the pilot, he comes across an ongoing case in which all victims are found neatly dismembered and entirely drained of blood, a style Dexter admires so breathlessly that he has trouble maintaining a professional veneer when he first sees the body – “Why didn’t I think of that?”. His usual distaste for the killers he kills is completely eclipsed by his awe at this man’s style, and the two of them are starting to become fixated with one another – the killer stalking Dexter in the most chilling way, which Dexter takes as a friendly hello.

Really the remarkable thing about him is not that he’s a serial killer, it’s that he’s a well-written sociopath. Like Highsmith’s Ripley he fakes his civilised persona so well that even you are won over by it, and like Ellroy’s Terror his compulsion is so compellingly depicted that you empathise with it almost as much as Monk’s OCD. It proves that a protagonist can be sympathetic irrespective of his crimes if his personality is appealing enough, and you couldn’t ask for a more delicious twist on the traditional ace-detective archetype.

The comments hereafter may be spoilerific for anyone not up to date with the latest episode aired in the States.

25 Replies to “Dexter”

  1. You’ve really sold this to me in a big way, plus it’s fair to say I’m a fan of Michael Hall. Thanks for the recommendation Tom – will check out Dexter asap.

  2. I loved that Dexter isn’t just a charming anti-hero. He isn’t a good guy, killing serial killers to make the world a better place. He’s actually a proper sociopath, entirely dead inside, and he just really likes killing people.

    It’s certainly the most interesting narration of the new season. I love the noir and odd pace of Raines, and I continue to love Veronica’s wry observations. But the clinical mind of Dexter is unique in the world of television.

    Also: Darla, from Angel, as the rape-victim girlfriend.

  3. Although you’ve just said it doesn’t apply in this case, Graham, I’ve been thinking about that a fair bit lately. Is it just me, or have the last few years seen the dawn of a new lead character? “Charming” and usually “antihero” aren’t words I would use, but much of the best stuff suddenly seems to revolve around characters who are actively, and rightly, disliked by the other sympathetic characters. House, Boston Legal, and to an extent Lost and Monk all feature utter misanthropes who do good not out of empathy or external moral rectitude but because of a rigid self-imposed moral code. Even Mal in Firefly/Serenity has a touch of it. This is distinct from Jayne’s lack of a compass, or e.g. Han Solo’s desperate actions in a desperate situation in A New Hope. I can’t remember anything like it before a few years ago – maybe NYPD Blue? – but I don’t watch much TV or cinema; am I just uneducated or imagining it? If not, does it mean something?

  4. I think broken people are, by and large, more interesting to watch than good, wholesome and well-adjusted people. It’s always been the case that they’ve been the main and memorable characters on television. The difference in recent years has just been how far they’re pushing that out there.

    In the 80s, a main character would have a dark past that, barring a few episodes, wouldn’t encroach upon his day to day life. At the same time, peripheral characters would be outwardly hostile while still being on the side of the good guys – they’d be the guys you love to hate, or the guys you just hate, throwing in needed conflict for the other characters.

    Now though, we have shows where the dark past is much more prevalent, or where the guy you love to hate is actually the main character of the show. Creators are depending a lot less on the formula of a relateable, likeable central character, and a cast of quirky, weird oddballs who surround him. The quirky, weird oddball is taking centre stage.

    I’m not sure why though. It’s either just a slippery slope, where each network is trying to outdo its competition on the scale of the extreme, or it’s because of the establishment and increasing success of a number of cable channels. HBO and Showtime aren’t subject to the rules of the FCC, and so can do much more in terms of pushing character towards an edge. The Sopranos is a good example, and I don’t think we’d have shows like Smith if it weren’t for that. Plus, Dexter, of chourse, wouldn’t happen at all on network TV.

    I blame Jack Bauer. You cut off one prisoners head, and suddenly we’ve got Extreme Doctors and cops more rebellious than ever before.

  5. I love Jack Bauer. His only personality trait is understanding the seriousness of the situation better than anyone else, so his viciousness, disobedience and constant conflict with his superiors, the government, his friends, his family and his colleagues is all an automatic consequence of WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS. Everything he does he absolutely must do or THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WILL DIE. When there’s downtime, he says and does nothing because without urgency he is nothing.

    My own taste in anti-heroes has a lot to do with the degree to which they get away with it. Dexter does legally, but he’s empty inside and will never be a functional human being. That allows me to like him a lot. I liked House at first because he was in agonising pain at all times (I have strange taste in men), but after about twenty episodes of him coming out on top, every woman falling in love with him, every man coming to profoundly respect him or be defeated by him, I lost interest. I know he gets shot, but it doesn’t shake the feeling that the writers are in love with him. That’s when a charming character dies – when he charms his own writers into making contorting the world to go well for him. At that point I stop believing in the fiction and it becomes like a sad fantasy written by someone wants to be him. The real world doesn’t like anyone, and that’s one feature I can’t accept a fictional universe without.

  6. Second episode: even more awesome. Interesting that his victim of the week (he had two in the pilot, but I think that’ll be unusual in future) wasn’t a murderer per se, more of a serial manslaughterer. I like that he likes court days. I like that he’s good at his job. And the fingertips thing was chilling.

  7. I saw the pilot and I liked it, but I didn’t fall in love with the show until I saw the opening titles in the second episode. Those are some fabulous opening titles.

  8. I was just saying to Graham earlier that I think it’s very similar to the opening credits of American Psycho, another thriller about a murderer who puts on a facade during the day. With that sharp knives and cerise sauce flash by the camera in such a way that you’re convinced it’s blood and violence, until the camera pulls back to reveal an impeccably prepared cordon bleu tiny-portion in a restaurant.

    Both are great – Psycho’s is a little smarter for the deception, but Dexter’s is a little more impressive at making mundane things disturbing even when you know they’re mundane.

  9. Really enjoying it so far. Dexter needs more evil though. As it stands, seeing his motivations, I’m finding him to be a perfectly likeable-enough character so far, and I’m not sure (and a little concerned about) what that says about me.

  10. Indulgent of House or not, I thought tonight’s episode (the flashback class lecture one, people of the future) was damn good. Cue standard but trustingly delivered and therefore excellent minidebate on life after death.

    My family doesn’t have cable and until recently couldn’t get it on terrestrial TV, so we’ve been working through the DVDs. Maybe the intensity of the repetition dulls recognition of the pattern, because no matter how many times the same thing happens I’m still loving it. “In RL, Charisma is not a dump stat.”

  11. Incredible, incredible show and such an emotional ending. Couldn’t have asked for a better finale, and wasn’t even expecting one as good. Thanks for recommending this series Tom; it’s one I’ll be doing likewise to to all my friends.

  12. You’re welcome. I must admit episode 11 didn’t quite grab me – the kidnapping was sort of inevitable, and I didn’t find myself fearing for her safety. Twelve redeemed it – the Dexter/Brian scenes had to be good, and they were.

    There’s been a risk throughout that Dexter’s facade could become so well maintained that he actually /is/ just a regular boring guy – he didn’t end up killing all that often, and his actions that showed genuine care for his family and friends outnumbered the few hints of callousness towards them. Twelve just took us through a bizarre and brilliant spectrum of emotions from him that confirmed him as a fascinating freak: disorientation at having an orientation, confusion at finding someone who understood him, anger at his brother’s naivety, and then devastation at one of his own murders. The scene where he sobs as he drains Brian’s blood was beautifully macabre, and the earlier one in which he snaps at Brian finally asserts his superiority as a monster.

    I still want him to be more of a demon than he is – when I used to describe the concept to people, they’d say “Oh, so he’s basically a good guy?” and I’d say “No, you really need to see it.” Now I’d just say “Yeah.” He kills fewer people than James Bond, and saves more lives in the process. I want him to be hard to sympathise with, for him to go further than we’re comfortable with. As it is we’re usually cheering him on to kill more, he’s too tame for us. We never feel like he oversteps the line, and he never exceeds our own bloodlust. In the first episode his habit was portrayed as an all-consuming hunger that couldn’t be resisted, and there could have been some incredible moments when he’s gripped by the urge to kill but short of a deserving victim.

    Favourite moments of the series: Dexter’s awe at the first blood-drained corpse; “This is a waste of time, I could be killing him right now”; and of course the frying pan.

  13. Great end to a great series, which has been consistently fun throughout.

    I’ve got to agree and disagree though Tom. Sure Dexter has came off as a bit tame so far but i think this is all just building up to the second series.

    We know that we will only kill guilty people at the moment and lives by the code handed to him by his father but eventually he’s going to slip up and his wife and / or the black cop are going to find out who he really is.

    He’ll probably have to make the choice between killing someone to silence them or going to jail and ruining his and other peoples lives. Or maybe his brother has opened up something inside of him, maybe he’ll start to kill innocents.

    I got the impression that if it was anyone other than Deb that his brother had told him to kill then he would have killed them in an instant.

    It’s also inevitable i feel that Deb will find out about Dexter and she will have to make a decision. They might intertwine this with her and the black cop. She has to choose between killing the black cop or killing Dexter maybe?

    Either way the next series is going to be great. I literally can’t wait, so much could happen.

  14. Dexter’s trust in his father has been shattered; he can’t understand why he would lie to him to protect him. He can’t relate, I guess, to emotions he can’t have.

    As a result of that, it definitely seems like season two is going to raise the stakes. The events of the first series seem to have pushed Dex further towards breaking the code, and further towards humanity, all at the same time. With Dokes (Doakes?) on his trail as well, it also seems like it’s only a matter of time before the police start putting bits and pieces together. Conflict and resulting tension ahoy.

    I loved the finale to S1. It felt genuinely bad for both Dexter and his brother, both born from such tragic circumstances, both just yearning to be understood. Part of me really wanted to see the two of them drinking beers and hanging out together; I think they really could have been friends.

    My only problem is that I saw too much of it coming. It’s said that the best ending is one that catches you completely by surprise, but in hindsight feels entirely inevitable. Here things felt inevitable with foresight: Rudy being the murderer, the kidnapping, Dexter being asked to kill Deb, some sort of showdown with Dokes. It was still utterly entertaining, but it was never surprising.

    I disagree about Dexter being “basically a good guy” though. He’s still a sociopathic killer, aping the motions of regular humans and deceiving all the people who love him.

  15. Hello!

    I stumbled across your site some time ago and it was your original review of the pilot episode of Dexter which convinced me to watch this show which I’d never even heard of, despite my TV watch-list already being already overloaded with much quality US programming.

    I’m glad you did; I have enjoyed every minute of it, as has my girlfriend (who absolutely loves the show). We watched the final episode tonight; it was incredible. For that I thank you.

    However, I have a couple of issues with the show, and as you’re the only other person I know (of) who also watches it, I thought I’d unload them onto you. For starters, I thought at one point that it was lapsing into predictability. It seemed to me that they’d set up Rudy too obviously as the Ice Truck Killer; I guessed it was him almost from the moment he was introduced.

    But then I got to thinking: what if this was an elaborate and clever double-bluff by the writers, playing on the intelligence of the viewer? Were they in fact making it so clear that he was the one wot done it, that we were SUPPOSED to think, “nah, it couldn’t possibly be him, it’s TOO obvious. He must be a red herring”? Or am I crediting the writers with too much ingenuity?

    This has been puzzling me for a while now; I’d appreciate your thoughts on it.

    Still, the last episode of season one, as I say, was incredible. That final scene lifted the show into the realms of the truly dazzling. Television doesn’t get much better than this.

  16. Ah, I see your site requires html in the comments. So noted.

    Also my superfluous “already” – bah.

  17. Another thanks to you for introducing this to me, Tom.

    I agree with all the thoughts that he’s too much hero, not enough anti, though.

  18. Heh. There’s a very sharp divide between those of us who didn’t see it coming at all and those who thought it was made painfully obvious too far in advance. It took me completely by surprise – I’d assumed it would either be someone we’d never seen before or one of the major characters, for the logic or shock value respectively. I generally try not to think about who the logical suspect is in murder mysteries, because I’ve watched enough of them to know that it’s more about their screentime and perceived character than how likely they actually are to have done it given what we know. Too often the only way to know who did it is to have access to some nugget of knowledge the protagonist has acquired unbeknownst to us. I’m not sure if Rudy was guessable because he fit the profile, or because of the way the director presented him to us – if it’s the former, the predictability is a step above the arbitrarity (new word!) I’m used to.

  19. It was so plainly obvious that Rudy was the ice truck killer from about the second time he was in the show. When he first started to date Deb.

    They were on a date or something and he said she had perfect beautiful legs. Then he told her a sob story about his mother being run over or something. She seemed TOO freaky a thing for a normal person to say.

    I was under the impression though that it was meant to be totally obvious. It wasn’t meant to be a giant surprised. It was all about Dexter and the characters finding out the truth, not about you finding out the truth. One of those times when you want to scream at the television because the characters are so dumb.

  20. Pleasure to see someone into Dexter, LOST, philosophy and cartoons… Impressively eclectic :]

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