I can still remember first becoming aware of Dexter, the Showtime series. These huge billboard ads near my workplace in Hollywood, proclaiming "America's favorite serial killer is back." Michael C. Hall (of Six Feet Under fame) smiled out at passers-by with a silly grin and blood drops splattering his face. Okay. Got me intrigued enough to check it out. Said ad campaign proved to be somewhat misleading. They often are...
At heart Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who wants not to be. Adopted at age three by cop Harry Morgan, he began to show early signs of psychopathy. Harry did something unusual--he trained Dexter, not only in how not to get caught but also in who should die. The Code of Harry was born, with its commandment that only murderers are valid victims, those Dexter can prove beyond any shadow of doubt guilty. The idea was to protect Dexter, allowing him to vent his violent tendencies (Dexter calls that part of him his "Dark Passenger"). By the time of the series, Harry is long dead but appears in the title character's mind to offer advice, warnings, etc. Surprisingly some fans seem to think this is literally Harry's ghost, which is a little odd since even Dexter knows this is just a part of himself.
Going in, I expected a dark, quirky comedy. Well, that the show is but even more impressively it is a compelling drama about a man who believes himself inhuman, a monster incapable of human emotions, a man who constantly examines his life via inner monologue--yet is all-too-clearly human, shows emotions (which often surprise him), and often has little clue as to what is going on around as well as within him.
Something to mention about that is his pathology. Writing merely as a layman, Dexter doesn't really come across as a pure sociopath to me. For one thing, he displays genuine remorse. I suspect it is pretty minor remorse compared to what I feel, but in his limited emotional landscape that is huge. For another, he seems to genuinely care about others. He is startled to learn just how reluctant he is to kill his foster sister, Deb (a great character in her own right--foul-mouthed, hard-edged, workaholic homicide detective with a startlingly tender heart at times). When one of his victims uses a foul word for Dexter's girlfriend Rita (supposedly nothing more than a prop to help him blend in, seem normal) Dexter instantly puts a knife through the guy's heart--and look surprised at his reaction. Make no mistake, the man is still a ruthless killer with an impressive body count (a couple of dozen at least--and some of those kills are hilarious to watch). But he cares. About some people, anyway. Sociopaths don't. More, Dexter actually displays a few symptoms of very minor autism--his appearance of being a normal guy a rigorously constructed series of masks, not like the virtuoso manipulation so many high-functioning sociopaths demonstrate (Ted Bundy, for example).
Plus there's the fact he's lonely. In fact, one consistent tension in the show continues to be how others fill some kind of emotional void in Dexter's life, yet when some of them get too close, they end up dead. In season one, it was Dexter's long-lost brother and fellow serial killer Brian--who really should have known better than to reveal himself given Dexter's M.O. Season two saw Lilah, a sociopath artist who believed she'd found a soul-mate in Dexter, and found out in the end that trying to kill Rita's children was a sure way to have her heart not so much broken as pierced. Literally. Miguel Prado in season three was a quietly dangerous assistant district attorney who accidentally discovered Dexter's secret, and tried to be his friend, to enter into his world of death-dealing. Yet Miguel didn't really care about the Code, and when thwarted tried to kill Dexter. Well, there was a season four so we know essentially how that ended. Season four pitted Dexter up against the Trinity Killer, a hugely successful serial murderer who (like Dexter) maintained a seemingly normal family life--which proved fascinating for Dexter. But only one of them could survive in the end...
We are now approaching the final episodes of the fifth season. The irony inherent in the show continues to echo through nearly every detail. But this season has brought with it the most fascinating guest character so far. Lumen, played by Julia Stiles, was raped and tortured for god-only-knows how long before Dexter killed her would-be murderer. She saw him do it, and despite a part of him (Harry) all but screaming in Dexter's ear to simply let her die, he just couldn't do it. Rather, he treated her wounds and helped. Eventually, she saw him as someone who understood, the one person with whom she could open up about her longing--because she'd been tormented by a group of men, not just one. She wanted them dead, to see each one of them die, as the only way she could ever again feel peace.
And he did understand. He promised to help, hoping that in helping her the pain of his own loss (Rita, murdered by Trinity) could be healed, at least some. What has followed frankly resembles a kind of dark and weird courtship. At first Lumen (quite understandably) could not bear being touched by anyone. Yet after a while when Dexter wiped a drop of blood off her cheek, she didn't even react. Then, later, she hugged him spontaneously. When he gave her a pair of gloves (to avoid fingerprints) she almost blushed, noting "They're just like yours." Which was adorable. As was Dexter's reaction upon learning Lumen's boyfriend had finally found her and wanted her to go away with him. It was almost like a pair of thirteen-year-olds with a mutual crush and no idea how to handle it!
Not surprisingly, when Lumen herself drove a knife directly into one of her rapists' heart, while Dexter watched, it really played like losing her virginity--to someone she loved. That night, they even consummated their relationship, while Dexter's amazed inner dialogue noted that in this young woman he's found someone who sees the real him--but does not see a monster. Not at all.
Methinks a lot of what makes this series so powerful is that it is all about the troubling truths we carry around us every day. Who does not feel (at least sometimes) like a total stranger? Haven't we all found the idea baffling that anyone could know us totally and feel anything but distaste? Isn't finding love or genuine friendship a surprise? Aren't we all freaks, surrounded by normal people? Don't we all have unhealed wounds, and feel desire for dark horrible things sometimes?
I do. And so Dexter is my friend. My brother. An avatar of parts of me that usually remain hidden, because looking at them hurts, especially in the unforgiving glare of the sun.