“People fake a lot of human interactions,” observes Dexter (Michael C. Hall). “But I fake them all, and I fake them very well. And that’s my burden, I guess.” At the start of Showtime’s Dexter, in the pilot episode also called “Dexter,” the titular hero spent some time explaining himself. His voiceover was mostly smooth and arid, observing as if from a distance. He was killing someone.
He kills a lot of people. Dexter’s a serial killer. “I don’t know what made me the way I am,” he says as the scene cuts to Dexter on his boat, the Slice of Life. “But whatever it was left a hollow place inside.” Indeed. This apparent lack—of affect or ethics—doesn’t much trouble Dexter. Based on the protagonist of Jeff Lindsay’s crime novels, he’s as nasty and unfeeling as any serial killer you’ve seen in a movie, and as “normal” in his appearance. A symptom and a scourge, he’s clichéd as well as chilling.
He lives according to the “Code of Harry,” that is, the set of rules for killing set out by his father (James Remar), a cop who recognized in his young adopted son a peculiar cruelty, coldness, and aptitude for killing. This recognition appeared repeatedly in flashbacks during the first three episodes (the first two directed by Michael Cuesta, who also directed episodes for Six Feet Under, as well as the films L.I.E. and Twelve and Holding). When Harry asked little Dexter (Dominic Janes) why he killed the family dog, the boy had a rationale (“That dog was a noisy little creep, dad”), but that wasn’t the reason. The child was already beginning to explore his interest in blood and corpses, and dad recognized it: “There were a lot of bones in there, Dexter, and not just Buddy’s.” Still, he decided to “channel” his son’s energies rather than lock him away. Realizing that he had been damaged somehow before arriving at his adoptive family’s doorstep, Harry worked with him, gave him a sense of “calling” and belief in vigilante justice, as well as instruction in forensics, so that he would never be caught. And so, Dexter noted, “I’m a very neat monster.”
Dexter the adult puts his instruction (and other training) to use in his day job, as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami PD. It is, he noted in the pilot episode, the ideal job for him: “There’s something strange and disarming about looking at a homicide scene in the daylight of Miami.” This as he approached a scene under heat of the sun, bright blue sky booming over him. “It makes the most grotesque killings look staged, like you’re in a new and daring section of Disneyland. Dahmerland.” Dexter’s sense of detachment allows a sense of humor, and this makes him seem cute, charming, even vulnerable.
His stepsister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) also works for the Miami PD: at the start of “Dexter,” she was on the vice squad, dressed up for her undercover gig as a prostitute, meeting Dex at a crime scene to go over clues and possible solutions. She pressed him for answers, using her brother’s oddly acute insights into the criminal mind (“You get these hunches, you know, with these types of murder”) in order to pursue her own career: she wanted out of vice and into homicide, and felt stifled by her competitive superior, Lt. Maria Laguerta (Lauren Velez). If she could solve a big case, Deb figured, she’d be able to move on despite Maria’s reluctance to promote her.
Dex appreciates Deb’s sisterly affection, even if he can’t quite return in kind: “She’s the only person in the world who loves me,” he said when he heard her pleading to come to the crime scene, “pretty please with cheese on top”: “I think that’s nice. I don’t have feelings about anything, but if I could have feelings at all, I’d have them for Deb.” This wasn’t precisely reassuring, but it demonstrated how Dex functions as a protagonist. While he is plainly reprehensible in every way, he is also self-aware enough and beloved by characters you might like—like Deb and his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz)—in order that you can read his depravity as vaguely comic or quirky. He knows he’s a monster, and so he’s entertaining.
By night, Dexter says, he kills only those who deserve it. So far, he has apparently been scrupulous and so, correct, in his assessments. More than once during the first three episodes—the second and third titled “Crocodile” and “Popping Cherry”—a few deft keystrokes repeatedly produced all the information he needed to “know” his next victim had killed children or other “innocent victims.” He likes to scope his prey in a downtown courtroom, where he watched culprits elude punishment on technicalities or because they performed well on the stand. He watches the victims, coolly (“On some level I even understand their pain, I just can’t feel their pain”), while plotting his vengeance that’s really fulfilling his own dread disease. Following an acquittal, Dexter sets to work. And following each kill, he stows away his souvenir, a blood smear on a slide, carefully noted and filed, hidden away inside his air conditioner. He sees his sickness, but justifies it. “Blood,” he noted in the pilot, “Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge, other times it helps me control the chaos.”
That Dexter also embodies chaos is the series’ primary joke and its political and cultural critique. He is the system that so badly fails every day to prevent crime or capture odious creatures because it is so busy attending to codes and/or corruption of same. In this context, Dexter’s incessant self-study serves thematic as well as plot purposes. As he digs into himself, his memories and his motives, he signifies strategies of investigation that regularly leave open his own options. He does the work regular cops can’t, as he has no need of warrants or legal justifications. He only performs, again and again, the labor of the vigilante. Only he does it while looking after Rita’s young kids when she’s unable to, appreciating her inability to have sex (her crack addict ex used to rape her, and for Dexter, “The actual act of sex it always just seems so… undignified”), and helping his sister to achieve her career goals.
His associates on the job—Vince (C.S. Lee), Angel (David Zayas), and Sergeant Doakes (Erik King)—provide perspective on Dexter, as well as some literal “color” for the show. But this familiar tack of including non-white characters to swirl around a white protagonist takes on a peculiar dimension here, as Dexter is quite appallingly “white,” in his sense of entitlement, in his “serial killer” typicality, in his “bloodless” cruelty. The fact that Dexter is so ghastly white, however, gives this casting some new dimension. Each established his own investment in the job, emotional, economic, and scientific (Angel’s included resentment at the untoward hours of the job, as indicated by his entertainingly low-key rant at a crime scene: “I’m talking about this hijo de puta, this asshole killer, this maricon savage who makes us work on a Friday night”). None, save for Doakes, appeared to suspect Dexter’s avocation. “Give me your fucking analysis,” he demanded, calling Dexter a “fucking weirdo” and breaking his reverie about the bloodless body he’d just seen. As Dexter observed, it was odd that in a room full of homicide experts and super-trained detectives, Doakes (“I’m watching you, motherfucker!”) is, as Dexter noted, “the only one who gets the creeps from me.”
Over the first three episodes, Dexter generated all kinds of “creeps,” whether or not those around him noticed. He also found what appears to be the season’s long-form storyline, in his enchantment by a killer who seems to know him, to appreciate and cater to his particular sensibilities. This killer leaves his bodies utterly drained of blood, and so piqued Dexter’s interest instantly. “Why hadn’t I thought of that, no blood?” he muttered while surveying a corpse deposited in an empty swimming pool, ghastly white and cut into sections. Dexter was impressed: “I’d never seen such clean, dry, neat-looking dead flesh.”
The killer now pursues Dexter as he pursues the killer, with weekly diversions offered by other prey (a teen just out of jail who seemed destined to become a serial killer, a sadistic rapist). Dexter was shaken when he misjudged one case, missing the sign that the killer was, potentially, like him, that is, a killer of someone who deserved it. As Harry said in flashback, such urge to make order of chaos is “not about vengeance, it’s not about retaliation or balancing the books. It’s about something deep inside.”
While Dexter provides a seductive enough surface, it doesn’t lose sight of the ugliness “deep inside.” No matter how Harry or Dexter might dress up the justification for what he does, he is, in his killing room, brutal and gruesome. “Harry taught me,” he said in “Popping Cherry,” that “Death isn’t the end, it was the beginning of a chain.” That would be consequences and effects.