Recently, I’ve indulged in a favorite past time of mine: binging on a new TV series. Dexter had always been on my radar, but the premise — a serial killer who exacts vigilante justice — never quite appealed to me.
It had started to occur to me that I was missing out on something big and, at the urging of several fans of the series in the past year, I gave in. I have been known to catch on late to some of the best programs on television. I ignored 30 Rock after it first aired, didn’t find The Office until three years after it first premiered, wondered if Mad Men was overrated for too long and stood on principle in my resistance to Arrested Development (the characters were too self-absorbed in the pilot, I reasoned). Of course, today, I am among these series’ biggest fans, but quite frequently with films and television shows, I refuse to waste my time if I can’t relate to the subject matter or time period (sorry, Deadwood). I mistakenly held off from seeing The Fighter until last week and taking a mafia film class enabled me to cross The Godfather off my list. If only I could enroll in a Self-Discovery Through Pixar course, as I still have no excuse for having not yet seen Finding Nemo (though, it never fails to win a round of “never have I ever”).
Oh boy, did I love Dexter though when I finally gave it a chance. The series revolves around Dexter Morgan, a forensic expert for a Miami police department moonlighting as a serial killer. He tempers his violent urges by saving them for criminals he predicts will slip through the cracks in the justice system. Each episode of the first season focuses on the department’s efforts in solving a case, and the show shares elements with many procedural crime shows. However, the series’ true heart is found through listening to Dexter’s inner monologue, as he struggles to pretend to be normal in a society that doesn’t quite share his primal urges.
The show puts Dexter’s homicidal tendencies under the microscope, treating them as a side of his personality with which he has yet to come to terms. Dexter comes in a long line of characters on film and television that are still sympathetic despite harboring amoral character traits, including Prozac-fueled mob boss Tony Soprano and Mad Men’s adulterous, alcoholic Don Draper. What is so seductive about these dark lead characters?
What all three shows have in common is the tragic back-story that suggests these characters’ paths were the result of events they could not control. Flashbacks to Tony’s childhood show that his mother suffered from antisocial personality disorder and, after being raised by his gangster father, he never really had a fighting chance. What is inspiring in Tony’s saga is his desire for his own children to lead legitimate lives. He makes it very clear that his life is not one he would choose for his son or his so-called colleague’s sons, either. Don Draper’s childhood is similarly chilling as well and through flashbacks we see how parental mistreatment and abandonment may be responsible for his askew moral compass.
We are sympathetic to Tony’s upbringing, initially, but in the end, he is a sociopath who kills for self-interest. Dexter might be sociopathic as well, but he isn’t taking out hits on people who are late sending him checks. We sympathize with Dexter because his urges are innate but constrained, and we root for him to kill criminals as a mechanism for controlling his unnatural proclivities toward violence. We don’t hope that he gets caught, but rather that he finds happiness.
What is fascinating is that ultimately, Dexter is almost exactly like everyone else. He just has one flaw and it’s that he thinks he’s unable to emote. It’s almost ironic how painfully aware he is of it. “If I had a heart, it would be breaking right now,” he says to himself during an interaction with his girlfriend. He lives his life pretending to be normal. The tragic premise is his frustration at his inability to have a heart, but does his genuine concern over this missing piece suggest he really has one after all? The message of Dexter can be missed if read too literally. Instead, it can be found in his life of isolation, with no peer with which he can every truly or safely be himself. Dexter is a metaphor for the dangers of self-loathing. Lady Gaga said in her new single “Born This Way,” “Whether life's disabilities left you outcast, bullied or teased, rejoice and love yourself today.” It’s too bad Dexter will never be the one coming out of an egg on Grammy night. Either way, I’ll still be watching.