Ten years ago to the day, US cable network Showtime launched a new show called Dexter. It was based on the books by Jeff Lindsay and starred Michael C Hall as the titular character. It went on to become one of the biggest cult hits on television, thanks its intriguing and morally ambiguous premise – Dexter Morgan, a shy and eccentric blood spatter expert for the Miami PD, was, on the side, a vigilante serial killer, taking out those who had escaped justice in methodical, predatory and ritualistic fashion. It ran for eight series, so we wanted to mark its anniversary with some special posts. I’m going to kick things off with a bit of a look back, and peer into the life of Dexter Morgan – TV’s ultimate anti-hero.
Jeff Lindsay’s first Dexter story – Dexter Dreaming Darkly – was published in 2004, and little more than two years later a small-screen version was broadcast. It introduced us to Dexter Morgan, a man who had been shaped by his father, to the extent that he was carrying out his ‘code’ like a family heirloom. His father, Harry Morgan (James Remar), taught his adopted son, in the wake of the brutal murder of blood mother (who was his informant) and subsequent adoption of her son, the notion of true justice and instilled in him an unshakable code. Seeing from early on that he displayed psychopathic tendencies, Harry – rightly or wrongly – decided to turn his son’s compulsions into something that worked for good.
“I have friends who are cops, and you can’t have this job for more than two weeks and not realise that there’s a great big hole between justice and law,” said Lindsay. “You get into it because you want to uphold justice and you end up doing law instead. You watch the bad guys you bring in walk out the door. Given the shot, if you imagine Harry as a career police officer, and he sees young Dexter and knows that this kid is going to become a killer no matter what— it can’t be changed. That’s what the research says. So why not do some good with that? It makes a lot of sense.”
Michael C Hall – who had appeared in HBO’s landmark series, Six Feet Under (another of the Noughties’ great TV series) – was cast as the lead, and looking back he couldn’t quite believe the premise.
“In the first season it was just so deliciously awkward and tense and brutal,” he told E! Online. “We were doing something that hadn’t quite been done: inviting people to root for a serial killer.”
Whether indeed killing someone in the name of justice makes it a moral right was at the core of the show’s premise and subsequent popularity. Dexter often walked a fine line with the killings – he took people out for a reason, but he was also compelled to do it. There was anger and rage and killing, for him was a sickly compulsion; his dark passenger often rising to the surface. He was like a vampire in that respect – killing was an addiction, an affliction, carried out in secret, even from his family members and his colleagues, and yet he continued to justify it because it was bound together with a moralistic code. A terrifyingly messed up code, but a code none the less. There was a method to his madness. So we continually had to ask ourselves: Dexter was and is a monster, but is he a villain?
But there were other things to consider in Dexter, and Freud would have had a field day with Dexter. Family ties coursed through the show like rivers.
Another key question the series posed was can psychopathic genes be passed on to offspring? What really links us to our parents? Dexter had a sister Debs (who was Harry’s biological daughter), a shoot-from-the-hip, hilariously potty-mouthed police officer who couldn’t have been more different from her quiet, predatory brother, but Dexter also had another blood brother – Brian – who was revealed to be the Ice Truck Killer in series one. The idea of family was further explored in subsequent series when Dexter married, and had a son. When Rita was murdered by the Trinity Killer in the series four finale, Dexter’s son Harrison was sitting a pool of his mother’s blood… just like Dexter had been when he was a child and witnessed the murder of his mother. History repeated itself as far as Dexter and Harrison were concerned, and the mother’s blood was… well, I’ve said it once, but Freud could’ve have based an entire study on this.
With all this back story, it’s often forgotten how thrilling the front stories were, especially in the early series. His sexual duels with pyromaniac Lila in series two were intense and examined a different aspect of killing – that of sexual desire linked to criminality, power and compulsion – while Dexter’s incredible cat-and-mouse game with the Trinity Killer in series four provided an ego-driven, territorial battle that just happened to use murder as its pawns. Really, Dexter should’ve ended then, but it kept going.
Most people would argue it went on for too long and often repeated itself, but at its best – like in those early series – it was engrossing, often thrilling television that grappled with a dual morality like no other show before it, or since.