Posted by on April 22, 2008 in Blog tagged with

ITV are currently showing Season 1 of the US TV show Dexter. Even if quasi-police dramas set in Miami that feature serial-killer protagonists don’t sound like your usual cup of tea, I’d strongly recommend this one.

Dexter Morgan is a forensics officer in a Miami police department, the adopted son of a policeman who found him at a crime scene as a toddler. He has a good relationship with his sister (also in the police force) and most of his colleagues, and with his girlfriend and her two small children. He’s also a serial killer and a sociopath, trained by his adopted father to channel his urges to kill into ‘deserving’ victims: other murderers, of whatever variety. While Dexter kills because he likes it, rather than out of a sense of himself as ultimate arbiter of justice, we do see him struggle to keep to what he calls ‘Harry’s Code’, as well as to follow all the lessons his stepfather taught him for faking normal emotions to avoid suspicion.

After the Hannibal Lecter franchise – and before, I’d argue, although that’s a post in its own right! – eloquent serial killers with a charismatic screen presence have become something of a cliche, the sociopathic and human equivalent of the Anne Rice-esque psychologically tormented vampire. Dexter does, on the surface of it, tick almost every box on this one: we get Dexter’s witty, eloquent voiceover in every episode, the subject matter is laced with black humour (something best shown by the opening sequence – and if anyone knows how to embed video clips here, I’ll edit this so that it’s in the post rather than linked to on YouTube!), and the actor cast to play Dexter is the Hollywood-good-looking Michael C. Hall. We’re clearly not meant to view Dexter as a a vigilante hero, but he’s not presented as an unsympathetic character either, and as he struggles with memories of his past as a traumatised child and the idea that he might be starting to feel rather than fake emotions, it’s difficult not to find yourself rooting for him – in some parts of his life, at least.

And yet, I don’t think Dexter is falling into that rather unpleasant trap of fetishising the serial killer. Partly, I’d suggest, because the most interesting thing about Dexter himself isn’t the fact that he kills people but the fact that he identifies himself as a sociopath incapable of feeling most human emotion; as he starts to deal with the realisation that this isn’t a permanent state, the show moves from a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity (anyone incapable of feeling societal pressure to conform would of course want to murder people) to a surprisingly optimistic one (even a sociopathic serial killer can start to become fully human). He doesn’t have Hannibal Lecter’s power over those around him, he isn’t in control of his own life or even his own self-image, and he doesn’t seem to relish the idea of manipulating other people. The show’s clearly aware of its own legacies here (at one point, we briefly see Dexter using ‘Patrick Bateman’ as an alias), and seems to be deliberately, and adeptly, avoiding the potential pitfalls.

But still, Dexter is a sympathetic serial-killer protagonist; whatever the show does with that cliche, it’s certainly, and deliberately, working within it. Am I contradicting myself here? Does anyone else watching Dexter have thoughts to share?

(Those of you who prefer your modern Gothic to be defined in terms of doubles, problematic parent figures and the search for them, and real and metaphorical burial, can rest assured that there’s plenty of this in the show as well. It’s impossible to get into detail without giving away plot points, though, so you’ll just have to watch for yourselves…)

Tiny URL for this post: