Crime shows have seemingly been around since the dawn of time and in such an abundance that it would take several lifetimes to get through them all. It is no surprise then that so many of them run together into an endless stream of troubled detectives and insufferably arrogant crooks. To stand out in this mire of mediocrity, it takes something truly special and that is exactly what audiences got in the first season of Dexter.
With any show, the key to success hinges on the lead character. If audiences can’t latch onto them and form that often indescribable bond then the project will be a waste of time, doomed to be a one season wonder.
With Dexter, the writers had an uphill struggle ahead of them. They had to take a remorseless serial killer and fashion him into something that viewers could sympathise with without sacrificing the core tenants of such a character. In the end, they decided not to dial back on the true nature of a murderer and instead left Dex as a full blooded psychopath. It was this decision that took the first season of Dexter from being good to being an instant classic.
You see there has never been another killer depicted so faithfully in the media. The overwhelming trend had always been to make them one-dimensional, focused on killing without having much of a reason or a compelling backstory. One need looks no further than crime procedural Criminal Minds to see this kind of sloppy writing in full effect. For every somewhat true to live portrayal they put forth there is a whole season worth of inane stupidity ready to ruin that good work.
In Dexter, the titular anti-hero conforms to what is largely expected from a person such as this in terms of his behavioural traits. From the off, he is shown to be looking in from the outside when it comes to his involvement in society at large. He does not understand little interactions that would seem so commonplace and ordinary to most others. This makes complete sense as psychopaths do not feel empathy, they cannot truly relate to those around them and so normal human behaviour can be baffling to them.
This lack of empathy is also shown how he acts with those close to him. At times, it seems as though he is helping the ones he is supposed to love but if you dig just a tad deeper into his motives you will find that they are all entirely self-serving. For example, early on he aids his sister, Debra, in her quest to make a successful switch from working Vice to working Homicide. This could be innocently interpreted as a good brother caring for his sister but his true intentions in this act are to get one step closer to the Ice Truck Killer as well as keep his mask of normalcy in place.
It is that latter point that informs much of his decision making when it comes to other people. He never really engages with anyone in a meaningful way, aside from when he is forced into a situation typically involving his girlfriend, Rita. Instead, he interacts superficially, offering just enough to come across as something approaching ordinary, certainly ordinary enough to avoid suspicion. Again, interviews with killers and those close to them show this to be very commonplace. Ted Bundy was thought to be a very intelligent, caring man by those he worked alongside both at a Rape Crisis Centre and the Washington State Republicans Party. You will see Dexter do much the same in his workplace as he forms friendships with the likes of Angel and LaGuerta despite never actually harbouring any emotions towards them beyond the occasional bout of morbid intrigue.
However, he is not switched off to absolutely everybody as you will notice a genuine affinity between Dexter, and Astor and Cody, who are Rita’s children. It seems easy for him to talk to them and this is not a completely unfounded principle. Since Dexter essentially shut down emotionally after his mother’s murder when he was so very young it stands to reason that, socially, he would never have properly progressed past that stage and so could still be stuck at a level more befitting of a child. This idea is supported by his sensibilities regarding sex early in the show and by his inability to grasp adult humour. It is just a small part of the show but one that helps in the building of a richer more fleshed out personality.
To further the comparisons to Ted Bundy, Dexter has the same devilish charm that the real life serial killer was so famous for. Sure he may bumble through the odd interaction but when he wants to put someone at ease for whatever reason he is effortless in doing so. It is not just characters in the show that fall prey to this gift either as the audience at home are suckered in by the façade. Michael C. Hall delivers the lines with such sincerity and in such an enigmatic manner that you can’t help but become lost in the words he weaves. It is in doing this that the secret to this character’s success becomes clear, he has tricked just about everybody watching into believing in him, into thinking that perhaps he isn’t a bad guy after all and that there’s a glimmer of goodness in him. This is an incredibly well-crafted illusion that the combined creative talents of Hall, Michael Cuesta, James Manos Jr and many others brought into being.
It is not just the current day Deter that is a realistic monster as the childhood and young adult versions of himself also display recognisable traits. Whilst the writers don’t go so far as to have young Dex adhere to all three of the behaviours outlined in MacDonald’s Triad they do include the most important of them. The one trait they choose to include is cruelty to animals as you see the bones of some of his earliest canine victims uncovered by his foster father, Harry. This alone might not be enough to explain what the man would later become but audiences are also given access to the moment that changed him and set him on the path to becoming a serial killer.
It is revealed that as a very young child he witnessed the brutal murder of his mother and was left in a pool of her blood until help came. Childhood trauma is exceptionally common in these types of people with a 2005 study showing that instances of physical abuse stood at 36%, sexual abuse at 26%, and psychological abuse at 50%. Edmund Kemper was the victim of horrendous abuse at the hands of his mother and that sparked his murderous rage which saw him kill coeds who resembled the focus of his anguish before eventually killing his mother. For Dexter, his exposure to such horror led to a fascination with blood alongside the simple act of murder and this is another extremely well thought through the facet of his psychopathy.
Above all else it was the deliciously dark portrayal of the disturbed character that won viewers over so quickly. The truth is that everyone loves a bad boy so long as there is a hint of righteousness in him. The addition of Harry’s code that limited Dexter to only killing other killers meant that fans could readily believe in him as exactly this type of character. He was doing some good in the world even if his methods were morally reprehensible. What he did so effectively was to cause people to look within themselves after each episode and question that little sliver of darkness that told them he was doing society a service and that is exactly what only a truly brilliant work of creative genius is capable of.
Sure Dexter was ruined in later seasons through poorly executed plotlines and horrifically asinine character developments but for one season he was the perfect monster that he always should have been. Not even the books from which the show is based could get that right. This show gave people a look at a darker slice of life.