Series On Serial Killers On TV, Part 4: The Self-Aware Monster
Dexter and the Killer Who Knows His Evil
By 2006, monsters were all over television. And I don’t just mean the ones we were seeing on SVU, Criminal Minds and all of the countless imitators that were popping up on broadcast television. At this point, the Golden Age of TV had truly begun and almost all the landmark series of that era were center on ‘Difficult Men’ which is a euphemism for a monster.
Tony Soprano was defined fairly early on The Sopranos as a sociopath, and for all the deeper meaning David Chase had in mind, the Mafia is just a group of serial killers who are either compensated for their murders or have justified them for some reason. Deadwood was a Western where the central character Al Swearengen had no problem slitting a man’s throat if it profited him to do so. Nevertheless, we were inclined to favor him over pure psychopaths (Francis Wolcott, a geologist for the Hearst mining company, was a predecessor of so many of the serial killers we would see on procedurals later) and the march of capitalism played by George Hearst, who believed his murderous actions were justified by his wealth. Even the people who worked under the letter of the law in this era were monsters: Vic Mackey on The Shield was allowed to kill under the banner of keeping the streets safe, and no matter how much Jack Bauer justified his actions, he did kill somewhere between 300 and 350 people over the course of eight ‘days’. The fact that almost all of these people were bad guys does not alleviate that fact, something even Jack was willing to admit near the end. And lest we forget, we were just a few years away from meeting Walter White and the monster he’d been hiding all those years — who compared some of the characters we would be meet on Breaking Bad, was nevertheless a rank amateur.
I can not be certain of this, but I think there is a real possibility that this plethora of a monsters everywhere, as much as the book series, was what led Clyde Philips to create Dexter for Showtime. As anyone who has read the books is aware, after the first novel in the series, Philips deviates wildly from the source material of the eight books and throughout the series he goes out of his way to make Dexter more relatable than he is the novels. The key element about both the books and the series is basically the same though: Dexter Morgan is a blood analyst who works for Miami Metro who by night operates as a serial killer taking out other serial killers. In a series that was constantly filled with sly innuendo, perhaps Philips was making a subtle joke about the landscape of TV when Dexter was prowling. The world of television the viewer inhabits has monsters everywhere, often in plain sight, always with a justification with what they’re doing that they deny, usually to their last breath. Here is an antagonist who knows he is one and makes no illusions otherwise. His killings are justified as a way of life or business the way Tony Soprano’s are or under the banner of the law the way Jack Bauer’s are he is doing to fulfill a basic need, end of story. He has the same amount of training that Vic Mackey has — he spent his childhood being protected and trained by his foster father, Harry — and uses it for much more basic purposes. Unlike Mackey, no one — not even for much of the series his own family — even suspects who he is, and those who do don’t live much longer. And by having an inner monologue where the viewer is constantly aware of Dexter’s nature, the viewer is being forced to decide whether or not they will go along with him. Essentially Dexter is the equivalent of a supernatural being such as a vampire or a werewolf, whose true horrid nature only comes out at night and reveals who he truly is.
Despite the writing and the success of the books, Dexter would not have worked for a moment if he hadn’t been played by Michael C. Hall. The viewer was instantly inclined to accept him because of the other landmark role he had established before he joined Dexter — David Fisher on Six Feet Under. David is a man who, like Dexter, has spent his entire life around death, having lived and work in his father’s funeral home all his adult life. He spent much of his adult life hiding his own shameful secret from those he loved — his homosexuality. (Though unlike Dexter, his family was aware of it despite his best efforts.) And like Dexter, he spent much of the series, wanting to belong in the real world, trying to find love and acceptance. Because of that most of Hall’s work on Six Feet Under is a performance of restraint and repression, something that Dexter Morgan desperately needs in order for his secrets — far worse than David’s — to be revealed. Often an actor’s previous role can work against him when he gets cast in his next major one. I don’t think Dexter would have worked nearly as well if Hall hadn’t starred in Six Feet Under before this.
There was one major difference between Dexter Morgan and David Fisher. David wanted to become part of the real world while keeping his secret. Dexter wanted to use it as a better form of camouflage. During the first season he spent a long period dating Rita (Julie Benz), the victim of domestic abuse who he believed would not want a sexual relationship which was fine with him. But over the course of the first season, Dexter found himself reluctantly becoming more and more part of Rita’s life and that of her children Astor and Cody, becoming a figure. Much of the best parts of Dexter would be about him doing what most serial killers can not do, try to become part of the real world and a human being.
And I think that in part, may be why Philips left the storyline of the books after the first novel. The first seasons follows the plot of the book in that Dexter spends it tracking down The Ice Truck Killer who keeps leaving remnants of Dexter’s childhood, eventually connecting him to the murder of his real mother, who being left with in blood for three days is considering the underlying trauma that made Dexter who he is. The killer is eventually revealed to be Brian, Dexter’s younger brother. In the novel, Brian survives the book and becomes an ally to Dexter throughout the series. In the series, Dexter chases down Brian after he kidnaps his foster sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) and ends up killing him. Brian spends much of the final episode arguing that Dexter can’t be a hero and a killer. By doing so, Dexter is fundamentally trying to prove him wrong, and in a way, prove that his past does not define him. The nature of the books show that Dexter always feels like an outsider in his own life. In the series, Dexter still feels this way, but tries far harder to work against it.
The first four seasons are genuinely considered the show’s finest work (the series would be nominated for Best Drama from 2007–2010; Hall would be nominated from 2007–2011 for Best Actor. Neither the series nor the series would ever win, but to be fair, they were competing against Mad Men and Breaking Bad at the time.). Much of the reason the series would be at its best was less because of the killers at the core, but rather because it spent an equal amount of energy showing Dexter doing his best to become a normal human being.
In Season 2, Dexter’s past came back to haunt him in the worst way as all of the bodies he had spent his life dumping in the ocean resurfaced. Miami Metro and the FBI (led most prominently by Keith Carradine) spent the entire series trying to figure out who the ‘Bay Harbor Butcher’ was. In essence, Dexter’s worst enemy was himself.
Throughout the second season Dexter kept trying to stay one step ahead of the cops as well as dealing with Lila, a woman who he reveal more of his darkness to only to gradually reveal what a narcissus she truly was and determined to destroy his life in order to become part of it. Dexter managed to escape the two mainly because of the intersection of these worlds (I will refrain from details for those who might still want to see the series) and ended it determined to make Rita and her family part of his life.
I consider Season 3 one of the high points of the series even though the killer — the Skinner — is one of the weakest. Perhaps better than any other season, it deals with character growth not merely for Dexter but for everybody around him. Dexter learns at the end of season premiere that Rita is pregnant and is terrified because he wonders what threat the son of a serial killer could be. Deb, typically, helps him overcome it and he ends up deciding to marry Rita and become a real husband and father, roles he did not think he could fill. Simultaneously he finds himself becomes friends with Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits in a role he deserved received an Emmy nomination for), a DA who just happens to be the brother of a man Dexter has murdered. Over time Dexter lets Miguel in to his world a way he hasn’t let anyone in, until he becomes a real friend. When Miguel finally kills someone, he thinks he’s create a monster — only to learn Miguel has always been one, just not a killer. Dexter spends the rest of the season trying to find a way out of this, only to realize the only solution. Miguel eventually ends up on Dexter’s table, and in a way, his death is perhaps the one he regrets the most because of what his being ‘his best friend’ says about him.
All of the characters show remarkable growth this season. Deb finds herself chasing two passions — her promotion to Detective and her growing relationship with an informant — and finds herself trying to make hard choices about which she wants more. LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) who spends much of the series as the heavy, finds herself dealing with the fact that Prado (an ex-lover) is more corrupt than she suspected and maybe even far worse. The first two seasons showed her being ruthless towards her climb to power, Seasons 3 through 5 do much to show her being a human being. Angel (David Zayas) who has been dealing with a divorce that has put him a dark place, finds himself hitting bottom when he solicits a prostitute…and paradoxically, finds a way forward.
The fourth season is considered the high point of Dexter creatively and its hard to argue it. Dexter finds himself tracking down a killer known as ‘Trinity’, who kills in a pattern of slitting a woman’s throat in a bathtub, getting a man to jump from a building, and then a bludgeoning. Dexter is settling in to married life as well as being a father. (Talking to his son he says the immortal lines: “Want to know a secret? Daddy kills people.) Dexter is having trouble balancing his life as husband, father, and killer. Trinity serves as a distraction…until he learns that in actuality Arthur Mitchell is “a husband…a father…he’s like me.”
John Lithgow is magnificent in a role that won him an Emmy, particularly even when he’s committing his murders he seems just as damaged as his victims. For the first half of the season, he seems to have the perfect front, and honestly seems far too damaged to be harmful: in the early episodes of the season we see him designing a coffin for himself, and on another occasion he seems more inclined to suicide than a killer. In a moment that lives in TV infamy, Mitchell is vulnerable before Dexter (who is using a false identity to try and get close to him) but Dexter saves him rather than kill him because he wants to understand how Mitchell has survived as long as he had.
He gets his answer, and its not pretty. Mitchell has existed for thirty years by browbeating his wife and children so badly that they are psychologically damaged beyond repair, even go so far as to attack his teenage son over Thanksgiving dinner. (There are actually far worse secrets than that Mitchell is keeping, but I won’t divulge them either.) The full nature of Mitchell’s evil becomes more frightening over time, but we don’t realize the true nature of the monster he is until the penultimate episode.
Mitchell has been following Dexter and ends up in Miami Metro, where the department is now investigating the Trinity Killer. He sees the full picture of every aspect of his investigation, and a horrible smile crosses his face. We realizes he is seeing his life’s work being appreciated and given the respect he has never shown any sign of wanting. In a career that to date has netted him six Emmys, this may well be Lithgow’s finest hour as an actor. It ends with a great moment when he walks right up to Dexter (wearing his Miami Metro ID badge) and says: ‘Hello, Dexter Morgan.” At one point, I considered this one of the greatest television episodes ever made and it’s still one of TV finest moments.
In the season finale, ‘The Getaway’, Dexter reaches its pinnacle. Dexter spends the series trying to get Rita and his family to safety while finally tracking down and killing Arthur Mitchell. The cheerful music plays and as Dexter returns home, we are led believed that, just as with the previous three seasons, there will be another happy ending. Dexter plays a message on a machine from Rita saying she’s coming back home to pick some things up…and then Dexter ends up in the bathroom.
Rita is in a bathtub full of blood, her throat cut. Harrison, Dexter’s infant son, is laying a pool of blood, exactly like Dexter was found as a child. There are flashes between Dexter as an infant and Harrison as one as Dexter realizes that the happy ending he has dared to dream he might have is something he can never touch. It’s another moment that has gone down in TV history — Entertainment Weekly once considered it one of the most haunting deaths to that point on television — and it symbolizes the high mark of Dexter as a series.
For the first four seasons, Dexter and Hall had done everything in its power to make us relate to a serial killer. Over the last four, everything it built up would collapse for reasons both outside and in. In my conclusion to this series, I will explain the real reason I think it failed, and why I don’t think either ending we got was satisfactory.