I’m watching you, motherlover!
— Doakes (Erik King)
“Open your eyes and look at what you did,” snarls Dexter (Michael C. Hall). “Look, or I’ll cut your eyelids right off your face.” Dexter’s talking to a serial child-killer. It’s just a few moments into the first episode of Dexter, and your hero has the villain tied up in a basement, forcing him to look at a collection of small, decaying bodies, dug up from the shallow graves where the murderer left them. Dexter’s feeling pretty smug right about now. He means to kill this killer. “Soon,” he tells him, “you’ll be packed into a few neatly wrapped Hefties, and my own small corner of the world will be a neater, happier place. A better place.”
Dexter knows how to kill, being a serial killer himself. Such avocation, predictably, makes him a peculiar hero. Self-aware and garrulous, he spends a good part of each episode detailing his process, rationale, and code. More specifically, the code handed down by his foster father, a Miami police officer named Harry (James Remar), who regularly appears in flashbacks, instructing a teenaged Dexter (Devon Graye) on the proper and best way to channel his urge to commit bloody murder. “There are people out there,” Harry intones in ghastly close-up, “who do terrible things and the police can’t catch them all.” And so he sets his monstrous child loose on those monsters, teaching him how to avoid capture and so, do good work without incurring consequences. As Dexter recalls, “He taught me how to think like [a cop], taught me how to cover my tracks. I’m a very neat monster.”
It’s an egregiously clever set-up, Dexter as simultaneous subject and object of investigation. He is, in fact, a cop, or more precisely, a blood splatter expert with the Miami PD. (Having been working in such capacity for 12 years, he’s called to testify at a trial where the prosecutor asserts that after 2,103 cases, “It’s safe to say blood is your life”). This means he is surrounded by cops, his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), for one, introduced in skimpy faux-ho costume as she’s working Vice, but aspiring to make Homicide. She repeatedly picks his brain for ideas, because she’s ambitious and because she actually is interested in the business and good at it. “Start working on your mental autopsy,” she instructs her brother when yet another prostitute (one of “my girls,” Deb calls them) shows up dead, “‘Cause I could use your theory.” They share a certain vocabulary, having come up in a household where murder comprised dinner table conversation. “Can I bounce some ideas off you later?” Deb asks when they cross paths at the station. “You know I always get smarter when I’m talking to you.”
Other investigators tend to look dumber when they talk to Dexter, and this design allows him to look relatively clever, even, in his own mind, “sympathetic.” His commander, Lt. Maria Laguerta (Lauren Vélez), troubles him because, “In keeping with her total sense of entitlement, she has this attraction to me. And I thought I was creepy.” (The camera complements his assessment, keeping a close fix on her face as she appears to measure and desire him: whether or not he’s reading correctly becomes a question.) Dexter’s usual team is impressively Miami-style multi: a detective named Angel (David Zayas), quick and appreciative of Dexter’s skills (noting a spectacular red-ribbons array Dexter has made to show blood spray at a crime scene, he nods, “You must a scared your mother at cat’s cradle”). He’s friendly with the wisecracking tech Masuka (C.S. Lee), but perturbed by Sergeant Doakes (Erik King), the only cop who “gets the creeps from me.”
Dexter is equally perplexed by his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz), raped and brutalized by her crack addict ex and now conveniently averse to sex. She is, Dexter says more than once, “in her own way, as damaged as me.” Nice for him, though plainly painful for her. As he watches her wince when they’re out among the normals, as opposed to staying in with her two kids, secluded and seemingly safe, Dexter feels what might almost be empathy, framed as self-observation: “I can kill a man, dismember his body, and be home in time for Letterman,” He marvels, “But knowing what to say when my girlfriend’s feeling insecure, I’m totally lost.” The relationship is perverse in its seeming sweetness, raising questions about the links between sexual arousal and dismemberment rituals, tickling children and eviscerating child killers. The domestic Dexter is exponentially more sinister than the homicidal Dexter.
All Dexter’s questionable relationships become more twisted over the first season, which aired two years ago on Showtime before its repurposing for CBS’ writers-strike-deprived spring. As much as Dexter’s in-houseness grants him preemptive possibilities, it also underscores repeatedly his sickness, even if that sickness is like other sicknesses. The season, in fact, is built on an interlocking arc, in which Dexter pursues and is pursued by a serial killer who drains his victims of all their blood. When Dexter realizes he has been personally solicited by the “Ice Truck Killer” (so named because he uses one such vehicle to hide, cool, and transport bodies to sites where cops will find them), he takes the bait with a kind of smarmy sense of self-worth. After so many years of laboring invisibly, he feels known, at last, by someone who can appreciate his art. “I think this is a friendly message,” Dexter narrates, “Like ‘Hey, wanna play?’ And yes, I wanna play. I really, really do.” It’s cute and horrific at the same time, Hannibal Lecter made less operatic or estimable, more convoluted and creepier.
Introduced in the pilot episode, the Ice Tuck Killer is a terrific gimmick. His own invisibility throughout the season makes him an apt foil — at once more insidious, more gruesome, and more conventionally imaginable as a monster than Dexter. Because Dexter is ultravisible, explaining himself incessantly, reiterating patterns familiar from TV and movies: as Harry has it, his urge must have been imprinted even before Harry and his wife got hold of him (the explanation is a cliché the series embraces: “I don’t know what made me the way I am,” he says, “but whatever it was left a hollow place inside”). Moreover, the mother’s painful death by cancer when Dexter was a child still troubles him as an adult, as does his own long process of learning how to “channel.” Whenever he accomplishes a particularly gruesome murder, covering his tracks and also removing one more scourge from “society,” Dexter tells himself (and you) that he has hewed to the Code of Harry. That this mantra can’t allay the effects of the macabre act itself is precisely the point.
The Showtime version made this point extremely visible, in Dexter’s persistent, ugly bloodiness. On CBS, the point is somewhat subdued. First, and most obviously, the blood is reduced. While it’s not hard to imagine what follows a set-up for one of Dexter’s slaughters, owing to his elaborate apparatus and explications: “Preparation is vital,” he intones. “No detail can be overlooked. And the ritual is intoxicating. Duct tape, rubber sheets, necessary tools of the trade.” Still, when he turns on the circular saw, the scene cuts away, before the yuck is technically explicit.
Second, the clean version cuts back on the salty language. The darkly funny exchanges among Dexter’s team members constitute a distinct pleasure, fumbled in the translation: Doakes demands Dexter’s “frigging analysis,” Angel says of a scene, “This is so fouled up, man,” and Deb, whose multifarious use of “fuck” teeters occasionally on brilliance, is reduced to chirping, “Thanks for the fricking donut.” Predictably, the network cut is much more concerned with removing all premium cable language than with obfuscating the utter corruption Dexter embodies and acts out each episode. The clean version leaves in the disturbing connections between sex and violent mayhem, the hero’s shattered moralistic compass, the cynical pop cultural approval of the predator Doakes calls a “frigging weirdo.” But it makes sure no one says “shit” on the air.