Darkly Dreaming Dexter: Why We Root For A Serial Killer

Written by Chase Larson on . Posted in TV

“I can kill a man, dismember his body and be home in time for Letterman. But knowing what to say when my girlfriend’s feeling insecure … I’m totally lost.”

So laments the protagonist in Showtime’s critically acclaimed Dexter — originally based on Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter — one of the most imaginative, entertaining and haunting shows on television.

From its intoxicatingly visceral opening title sequence and accompanying score to the haunting end credits, Dexter has held widespread appeal. Originally premiering in 2006, the show has garnered a record-breaking audience of millions, resulting in multiple awards and nominations  — as well as some naturally apropos criticism from naysayers. I’m a latecomer to the macabre cult bandwagon, which just wrapped up its fifth season. (I recently finished the second).

For those of you heretofore unfamiliar with the show, here’s a brief description, faster than you can say, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”

The title character, Dexter Morgan (played by the eerily talented Michael C. Hall), feels nothing. He is self-declared to be void of emotion and has a mysterious yet undeniably powerful desire to kill, which he satiates by carefully picking out other deplorable murderers who the majority of society (or at least capital punishment advocates) would deem worthy of sleeping with the fishes. This habit — dubbed “the code of Harry” — was instilled in him by his adoptive father, now deceased but posthumously respected Miami cop Harry Morgan (whose presence is maintained via frequent flashbacks).

All of this is hidden from the public, however, and Dexter lives a tight-lipped and solitary life as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department where he fakes human emotion and participates in mundane human practices to fit in — both demonstrating his surprisingly keen social prowess while simultaneously placing him in the occasional awkward position. (At one point, when our protagonist must show empathy for his ailing girlfriend, he stares back at her wide-eyed, hoping the absence of blinking will bring a compassionate tear.)

For me, the show provides a fulfilling dichotomy. In one sense, you have the surface story arc involving investigative police work, intriguing killers and the requisite romantic and familial relations. Dexter’s only remaining family is his foul-mouthed yet big-hearted foster sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) and emotionally damaged girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) whose own past issues with drugs and an abusive ex-husband compose some of her primary appeal for our seemingly emotionless anti-hero.

But deeper than that, you have the psychosis of Dexter, whose unique perspective — instead of immediately repulsing us as we might expect — allows us to take a different look into what makes people tick and just how bizarre many social norms really are. On a date at a seaside lobster restaurant, for example, Dexter says, “I have some unusual habits, yet all these socially acceptable people can’t wait to pick up hammers and smash their food to bits. Normal people are so hostile.”

The question remains: Why do we root for a serial killer? Why are we disturbingly sympathetic to someone so cold and calculated? Yes, excellent writing is obviously a factor in piquing our curiosity, but that doesn’t fully explain the numerous books and discussions that have been spawned as a result. (And, I’m sure, some well-placed nature vs. nurture debates.)

Underneath it all, I think we all understand and relate to Dexter at some level. There’s something basic and instinctual to his approach that affects us, whether consciously or subconsciously.

The show brings to the forefront of our mind (maybe in a way we haven’t contemplated before) what it means to be human. There’s an inborn trait for the vast majority of us to want to connect to others. To care and be cared about. To feel. Our fearless Dex sometimes falters in that regard, missing the basic human characteristics that come instinctively to more “traditional” members of society.

These strengths (and foibles) are somewhat symbolically represented in the supporting characters. Deb is detached Dexter’s feeling foil, completely run by an emotional, heart-on-your-sleeve approach; stern Sergeant Doakes strictly adheres to justice and loyalty; Dexter’s foster father believes in basic moral values and pragmatic living. The list goes on.

Inversely, however, as multi-faceted beings I think we realize we all have a trace of Dexter’s so-called “Dark Passenger” — a tacit yet universal understanding of being alienated, having difficulty relating to others, or perhaps not feeling about someone or something as deeply as everyone else seems to. An inner struggle regarding good versus evil and personal ethics. These all represent basic questions of our existence and human nature.

We all wear masks and, at times, retreat into layers of secrecy. While it may not be outright lying, people are prone to adapt in social situations and take on various facades. The part of our personality that most easily relates to the situation we’re in is accentuated — it’s one of those facts of human nature and the reason why we strive to find meaningful relationships with people who bring out our most authentic self.

“There are no secrets in life, just hidden truths that lie beneath the surface,” Dexter recites, in one of his very poetic inner-monologues.

As Freud might say (and take it for what it’s worth), we have a “hidden self” lying in our subconscious that is often too taxing for our conscious minds to handle. In response, we do some cognitive gymnastics and form “defense mechanisms,” or, in other words, we twist reality enough to form a justification for our behavior. Dexter, for example, has to believe that his actions are ultimately beneficial as he religiously adheres to “Harry’s code.”

Beyond all this psychology, the show is simply a fascinating look into the life and mind of a sociopath and serial killer — a concept often misrepresented in the media. While most of the psychopaths we hear about have probably been incarcerated, there exist “successful psychopaths” (hint: not a creepy Anthony Hopkins-esque dude in a muzzle lurking in dark alleys). They’re not just irrational and insane killers roaming the streets without a social conscience.

Often, like Dexter, these chameleon members of society have a strong sense of self-discipline and meticulously regulate their actions. Here again is our beloved killer’s duality — the stark contrast between his role as a disconcertingly efficient murderer and ultra-dependable brother, friend and father figure. He more or less represents the spectrum of human potential. By day, he enjoys spending time with Rita and playing with the kids (whom he has a soft spot for, probably due to their innocence and lack of conditioning by strange social norms). By night, he dispatches killers with clinical precision.

And considering his backstory (early loss of parents by violent means, adoptive guardians and a growing understanding of his purpose and propensity to defend others), is he really that much different than our beloved Batman or similar superhero vigilantes? In one episode, Dexter even tries on the alter ego of “Dark Defender,” while the world argues if his actions are heroic or not.

Whether you enjoy Dexter for its psychological feast or simply like to watch people getting stabbed in key arteries (you little weirdo), the show is captivating.

I will warn you, however. Don’t start watching Dexter unless you want to be sucked into his exquisitely orchestrated web of deceit and complex array of morality issues.

Like one of his ill-fated victims, there’s little chance of escape.


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