Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay
Dexter, Season One
Dear Dexter is a single white male in his thirties who lives alone and works peripherally in law enforcement, and is generally considered to be a quietly well mannered and quirky guy. He is, of course, an insane serial killer preying on the residents of Miami.
However: that “prey” is only those who he can prove to his own high threshold of satisfaction are like him: serial predators who have escaped the law’s prosecution who will continue to kill innocents. The undisturbed lives of those innocents, unfortunately, are an incidental by-product of scratching his itch to main and kill.
The novel upon which Dexter’s first season is based calls this urge the “Dark Passenger”. It’s worth experiencing this introduction in all its purple glory:
Moon. Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full-throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth-grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.
All calling to the Need. Oh, the symphonic shriek of the thousand hiding voices, the cry of the Need inside, the entity, the silent watcher, the cold quiet thing, the one that laughs, the Moondancer. The me that was not-me, the thing that mocked and laughed and came calling with its hunger. With the Need. And the Need was very strong now, very careful cold coiled creeping crackly cocked and ready, very strong, very much ready now—and still it waited and watched, and it made me wait and watch.
Urgh. Take a moment—that was a thick chunk of corrugated prose to force down an unsuspecting reader’s throat. The series, fortunately, lacks the Dark Passenger. The Dexter who partially garrottes a secret paedophile, forcing him to confront the bodies of the boys he’s murdered, before antiseptically dismembering him, is the same Dexter that greets his girlfriend’s children warmly and patiently guides the career of his impatient sister.
With his deserving victims, Dexter is a more honest version of himself, ironically closer to connecting, but he stalks and kills on his own impulse rather than obeying a voice in his head. Unlike the common perception of a sociopath, Dexter does want to connect, and with some logic seeks an understanding from monsters like himself as much as he tries to force upon them an understanding of their own crimes.
“Blood. Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge. Other times it helps me control the chaos.”
Dexter works as a blood splatter technician with the Miami police department. Early on, he tells the viewers (or the inside of his own echoing head) that he chose this position and city to monitor his own criminal activity, and feels Miami, with its law enforcement’s 20% solved murder rate, is the best setting for a journeyman killer.
Blood is the one indulgent memento he keeps from victims, single beads dried onto slides and tucked away in his ac unit. He enjoys flicking through his collection and remembering his work, fingering the dry red ovals.
He reveals in later episodes a great antipathy toward blood, despite making it his life’s work. His plastic sealing of his killing scenes turns out to be not only a practical method for hiding DNA but a way of containing the splash and gush of sticky blood. His job, as well, while it requires he confront and contemplate his personal bugaboo, allows him to explain and contain it as well, like his kills, tidying away his corner of the world.
Dexter begins to realise why he has such an intense connection to such an abstract bit of life, eventually unearthing a long-repressed memory of not only witnessing his mother’s brutal murder at the age of three but also spending over two days in a drying pool of the victims’ blood. He was discovered and rescued by Harry Morgan, then an ordinary policeman, who fostered and then adopted the young boy, but his fixation with blood and murder was already set.
Harry recognises in dear dark Dexter (to follow the book’s alliterative nomenclature) the signs of a budding sociopath, specifically the torture of animals and lack of normal emotional responses. When he pushes young Dexter into admitting his need to hurt and kill, the boy clings to his foster father for comfort.
Harry, by now a detective and growing jaded with the justice system, becomes a more sophisticated Pa Kent. He teaches Dexter how to fake normal with the rest of the world, encouraging a dual identity. One side he makes into the perfect son, helpful, happy and obedient, and shows him how to feed the other side with socially acceptable murderous acts, like hunting. This doesn’t totally satisfy Dexter, and perhaps doesn’t totally satisfy his mentor, either. Dexter’s high intelligence and physical strength, combined with his need to ritualistically murder, are wasted on deer when there is a city full of dangerous men outside the hunting range.
Dexter voiceovers that he can’t connect with people, and to the degree that someone without remorse can be bothered, he is bothered by that. Here is where the book and series diverge most sharply; book-Dexter ends up breaking from the Code of Harry, killing LaGuerta and planning to kill Doakes to remain undetected. Deb has learned the truth about him but he’s sure she’ll come around to approving what he does, like their father.
Series-Dexter comes to care for Rita, becomes frantic that Deb will be tortured and killed, and mourns after killing his truly sociopathic brother. He is helped by talk therapy (even if he does later murder the therapist). He leaves a session that has begun to bring up memories of his Traumatic Event to finally have sex with a girlfriend without creeping her out. He also seeks out a connection with a young serial murderer, intending to be the mentor to the teenager that Harry had been to him. In the end he imagines himself surrounded by normal Miami residents who would cheer him on, even love him, if they knew what he did, and smiles. The saving of innocents is no longer purely a byproduct.
His way of life is only possible because of his bond with Harry, whose approval and comfort he needed as much as understanding and protection. Young Dexter really really really wants to kill people, especially a bullying jerk at school, but he doesn’t because of Harry—not because he doesn’t want to be punished or imprisoned, but because Harry would be disappointed and hurt. The 1 sociopath in 25 individuals one encounters any day wouldn’t have that connection to prevent his or her destructive actions.
Brian deliberately brings Dexter to the realisation of his past, in the hopes he’ll be free to join him in the ritualistic killing they share. They’re both the children of criminals, and may possess the faulty mental wiring in their shared DNA. Harry thought that Dexter might be young enough to remain unaffected by his gruesome experience, leaving Brian to mental institutions, but when proved wrong labelled the boy a sociopath and trained him like an attack dog. But, while he’s a deeply disturbed man with a compulsion to kill, Dexter’s emotional growth suggests he’s something less than that. More pathetically, he may have spent over thirty years with the emotional acuity of a three-year-old.
To come: Bats and Supes In Tropical Bowling Shirts