Sunday Times, 21 July 2013
The American television series Dexter has just begun its eighth and final series. I don’t know what will happen exactly, but I do know that, like the previous seven, season eight will be a bloodbath. Dex — as we fans know and love him — will dispatch another dozen or so people using his preferred method of a knife through the heart of a clingfilm-wrapped victim. Meanwhile, some superbaddy — the writers of the show always call him or her “the Big Bad” — will, with ever-increasing ingenuity, knock off a few more before Dexter finally injects him with animal tranquilliser and wraps him in clingfilm.
Commentating on the whole thing will be Dexter himself. The show uses a darkly witty voiceover in which, Hamlet-like, he tries to understand himself and others, and to locate Dexter Morgan in the non-psychopathic world through which he prowls. “Despite having considered myself a monster for as long as I can remember,” runs one typically brilliantly funny/chilling thought, “it still comes as a shock when I am confronted with the depth of evil that exists in this world.”
Unpicking the mind of this high-functioning psychopath will take some care, but, before delving into Dex’s disturbingly interesting soul, we should look at the big picture. Everybody knows — or should know — that American long-form TV is one of the great art forms of our time. The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Shield and, I will insist, Dexter represent a revolution in narrative art comparable to the creative apotheosis of the novel in the 19th century. Less often noticed is the central theme that connects all of these shows: the cult of the antihero.
Vic Mackey, the main character in The Shield, is a corrupt, murderous police officer whose villainy is effectively limitless. “It was a gas,” says James Manos, who worked on that series and later helped to create Dexter. “It was so much fun trying to figure out how to fuck up people in ways that nobody had ever seen before — getting Vic Mackey to throw someone off a roof. And the rule of thumb on The Shield was, Vic Mackey could throw anybody off the roof.”
The show uses a darkly witty voiceover in which, Hamlet-like, he tries to understand himself and others, and to locate Dexter Morgan in the non-psychopathic world through which he prowls
Walter White, in Breaking Bad, is a suburban chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth manufacturer who grows ever more evil as he learns the ways of the drugs business. Everybody knows what the rootless, faithless and scheming Don Draper gets up to in Mad Men. The whole point of The Wire is that nobody is innocent, everybody is implicated. And, finally, there is that supreme feat of contemporary TV acting, the late, great James Gandolfini’s sympathetic portrayal of the mafia boss Tony Soprano.
From the start, Dexter was intended to take this theme to the limit. Manos had worked on The Sopranos as well as The Shield before, in 2006, he was called in by Bobby Greenblatt, then president of entertainment for Showtime, the American subscription TV channel. Greenblatt wanted him to write the pilot episode for a series based on a strange novel by Jeff Lindsay called Darkly Dreaming Dexter. The hero was a psychopathic serial killer who happened to work as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. Manos saw the potential. “I think,” he said later, “that the public was ready for a show about a serial killer because of a show like The Sopranos and because of The Shield, because you started seeing a real antihero.”
Brett Martin, author of Difficult Men, a Faber ebook published last week about the big American TV serials, emails me to endorse the point. “If it was once shocking that Tony Soprano killed a man on screen, Dexter completely blew the lid off what might be permissible in a ‘hero’. He’s sort of the outer edge of ‘difficult men’, yet we root for him — which I argue is the defining tension of this era of TV.”
In spite of this central similarity, however, Dexter is different from the other shows in two ways. First, there is no single mastermind behind the show — Manos left after creating the pilot and sketching out the first series — which makes its consistency and quality all the more impressive. Second, it abandons the conventions of realism in favour of an almost comic-book style. In one series, sometimes in one episode, the viewer will see more cliffhangers than Bear Grylls and more close shaves than Gillette. Much of the fun is trying to work out how Dex is going to evade detection when almost every member of the Miami PD seems to be on his trail. In this final series, I note, he even has Charlotte Rampling chasing him.
This points to another oddity of the series: Dexter is not just an antihero, he is a superhero. He is an avenger, killing bad guys who threaten to evade justice, and he is fabulously gifted. “If you like rough justice,” wrote Tad Friend in The New Yorker, “he’s the best cop on the force — a one-man posse and hanging judge.”
He fights, for example, with superhuman skill and with comical dispassion. After punching one man in the stomach, he helpfully explains that his victim is unable to breathe because his diaphragm is partially paralysed. On top of that, he is played by Michael C Hall, an actor who effortlessly fills the screen and holds the eye. What’s not to love?
Well, obviously, the killing thing. The show has its detractors. A few real-world killers have named Dexter as their inspiration, and in America the Parents Television Council protested when the series briefly transferred to the network channel CBS. The Guardian described the show as “vile, a small-screen version of the torture-porn films currently in cinemas”. The New York Times called it “the next step in the relentless escalation of eroticised violence on television” — before admitting it is a “temptation that is almost impossible to resist”.
After punching one man in the stomach, he helpfully explains that his victim is unable to breathe because his diaphragm is partially paralysed
I have sympathy for such views, but my problem is that Dexter is just too damned interesting for me to care. Most interesting is the brilliance with which the series plays the antihero game. In season one, Dexter is more or less established as a full-blown, incurable psychopath. This means a total lack of empathy, combined with a gift — common among high-functioning psychopaths — for acting empathic responses. But after that first season, Dexter reveals empathy in his love for his family, for his wayward cop sister and for the occasional woman who enters his life, notably one who, for a time, becomes his killing partner. As a result, the viewer’s love for Dex grows ever more intense.
“I can’t really think of another example where the audience is encouraged to identify with a serial killer as a hero figure,” says David Schmid, associate professor of English at Buffalo University. “Dexter makes it completely safe and even admirable to identify with this character, and that’s quite a shift — it’s unprecedented.”
Scott Bonn, a sociologist at Drew University, is writing a book entitled Why We Love Serial Killers. He does find some precedents. He identifies Dexter with “enigmatic vigilantes played by Clint Eastwood in movies such as High Plains Drifter”, as well as with the Lone Ranger and Batman, all outsiders who deliver rough justice when established society fails. It is, indeed, noticeable that superhero films have increasingly darkened their characters, especially Batman.
Schmid also points out the fundamental attraction of the avenging serial killer and/or psychopath as an ideal outsider figure who is, in spite of everything, freer than us. “They have always been fantasy figures, though we find this difficult to admit. Most of us live ordinary lives characterised by restrictions and obligations. A serial killer is not subject to any of these restrictions.”
In a crucial, comic sense, this was implicit in the idea of Dexter from the moment it crossed the mind of Jeff Lindsay, whose book inspired the show. He was addressing a Kiwanis Club business lunch when a terrible thought crossed his mind. “I was watching them give each other phoney smiles and pats on the back, and talking with food in their mouth, and the thought just popped into my head that serial murder isn’t really always a bad thing.”
There are moments when we all want to be free, even to kill. Furthermore, the psychopath is free in another sense: because he has learnt to pretend to be like everybody else, he is wholly concealed. You would not recognise him in the street; he is hiding in plain sight. Dexter’s apartment, his clothes and his manners are superneutral. Even his boat, from which he drops his bin bags of body parts, is like everybody’s in Miami — except for its name, Slice of Life.
That little hint of immaculate irony points to yet another level of meaning within the show: the dangerous proximity of the horrific and the ordinary. This is embodied in Dex’s moments of supreme coolness, the moments before a kill. In one episode, he has a husband-and-wife team wrapped in clingfilm on his table and, eager to emulate the empathic mores of marriage, he inquires about the secret of their union. They say it’s about sharing a dream. “That’s helpful,” says Dex. “Thank you.” He then kills them both.
That little hint of immaculate irony points to yet another level of meaning within the show: the dangerous proximity of the horrific and the ordinary
This proximity of horror and the banal is also embodied in Miami. It is, of course, the sunshine city, an art-deco paradise of beaches and beauties. But, in Dexter, you turn a corner and you are in hell, a desolate landscape of killers, serial or otherwise. The saturated colours, the dance music, the brilliant sunlight, the lapping waves, are a thin membrane stretched over a great darkness. Dexter, of course, is fully aware of this diabolical irony. “There’s something strange and disarming about looking at a homicide scene in the daylight of Miami,” he muses. “It makes the most grotesque killings look staged, like you’re in a new and daring section of Disney World — Dahmerland.”
Then there’s the moment when he has to tell his children that their mother is dead — murdered by yet another Miami serial killer — having omitted to remove the Mickey Mouse ears he happened to be wearing. It is one of the show’s boldest statements of the horror, the pity and the comedy of it all.
Dexter may have antecedents, but will it have successors? One TV insider I asked replied: “Nobody would dare.” But he did add that, in the craziness of Carrie Mathison in Homeland, he glimpsed an echo of Dex’s dippy sister, Deb. I suspect many more such echoes will be heard.
Dexter is dandy television, as elegant, witty and charming as it is lethal. Who could resist the opportunity, as Dex himself puts it, to “let the Dark Passenger do the driving”?