Dexter: the show that balances on a knife’s edge of good and evil
All eight seasons of the critically acclaimed dark comedy and psychological crime thriller that put you in the mind of a killer are now streaming on Showmax.
Balancing on a blood-splattered knife’s edge of good and evil, justice and vengeance: here’s why Dexter is none of us and all of us.
Not the Dexter you know
Before Dexter chest-bursted into infamy, the only Dexter in pop culture was a boy genius inventor with a quiff of red hair and his own laboratory. If you had to rewind a bit further in animation history, Poindexter was a character in the old cartoon Felix the Cat. They may seem completely unrelated, apart from sharing a name, but the interconnectedness runs deep.
Dexter’s Lab, created by Genndy Tartakovsky, who also brought us Primal and other deliciously dark animated adult series, tells the story of a brilliant scientist trying to keep his laboratory and big secret hidden from his parents. In much the same way, Dexter is also masking a make-or-break secret and his executions and clean-ups are done with clinical precision.
“Poindexter” was originally a surname, which has come to refer to a bookish or socially unskilled person, an overflow of a character in Revenge of the Nerds. Dexter is naturally geared towards being an outsider but has managed to synthesise social behaviours in order to fit in. “Smile in photos so that everything seems normal” is one bit of advice his adoptive father gave him. And yet, his whole life is a fragile illusion in order to sustain his inherent bloodlust.
Based on a novel, but feels more graphic
The show is based on Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, but it’s filmed like it could’ve been adapted from a graphic novel. Set against the humidity and palm trees of a beach city like Miami, the island holiday vibe softens Dexter’s cutthroat agenda.
Dexter is more comical than cartoonish, offering an obscure and empathetic perspective on a strangely charming serial killer. The pitch-black comedy and playfulness of Dexter Morgan’s mind and whimsical narration gives the TV series a disturbing innocence.
It’s not as much Tom & Jerry as it is Sherlock and Moriarty as Dexter and a notorious serial killer stand off. Each of them are experts at their craft as if murder was a fine art.
As if immersing us in the world of a serial killer with an ironic day job wasn’t enough, the creators add another layer by giving him a nemesis. That makes him the hero, right?
Tapping into morbid curiosity
In 2006, having sympathy for a devilishly charming “hero” was a pretty revolutionary concept for a TV series. Allowing the viewer to step inside a serial killer’s world and live vicariously through that dimension meant you had to appeal to morbid curiosity and the darkness that made people gather around public executions as a form of entertainment.
This is what’s so brilliant about Dexter: we’re all capable of murder but are (hopefully) on the other side of the spectrum when it comes to the compulsion to actually follow through on these dark thoughts.
“I’m going to kill him” is a pretty inane comment in normal conversation but underscores some of the primal darkness lurking beneath so-called civil society.
Lulling us into a false sense of security
Teasing us from the opening credits that resemble a simple morning routine, the show cheekily immerses us into this not-so-far-removed realm of possibility.
Beautifully filmed to question the value of a life in the simple act of killing a mosquito, referencing Hitchcock’s Psycho with a drop of blood by a plug hole, cutting through pork flesh, juicing grapefruit, “breaking a few eggs” and flossing like an alley strangler, the sequence prods and baits us with self-reflective hypocrisy.
Flashbacks give us nostalgic snapshots of Dexter’s origins and his weird relationship with his adoptive father, Harry, who witnessed his son’s lethal predilection at a young age. Instead of trying to repress it, he simply redirected it.
Dexter’s spate of premeditated kills is excused in the show as if it were a socially acceptable addiction, a nuisance or up for debate, allowing Dexter to take on the role of hero and villain, of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Serial killer as vigilante justice
We can’t help but liken Dexter to the 2019 Ted Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, in which another handsome lead is treated like a reluctant superhero. Zac Efron honoured an inspired casting call to play the infamous American serial killer: an expert at playing high school heartthrobs, Efron’s history of boyish charm was used against us to mimic the complexity of Bundy’s profile at the time. Taking the media spotlight, becoming an infamous celebrity and capturing hearts in the process of trying to plead his innocence, “his only flaw” was his propensity to kill.
Michael C Hall and Dexter probably inspired or proved the Bundy biopic’s twisted perspective, adopting this distortion to win over viewers with a disturbing anti-hero. The low-grade superhero angle helps sell the idea of a guy who’s trying to keep his identity and “hobby” a secret.
Oh, he’s taking out the trash, making society a better place, it’s fire with fire… there are many morally ambiguous hooks that make it easier to accept this Judge Dredd brand of vigilantism. This challenging and prickly grey area of what constitutes the lesser evil compels ethically-complex series like Saw and Dexter.
No one could play this charming devil like Michael C Hall
Getting back to our two-faced forensic investigator hero, who’s literally made blood his life: you need a special kind of actor to balance on that tightrope and keep people in suspense as they wait for the fall.
A gentle blend of Ryan Reynolds and Seann William Scott (you know, Stifler), Hall has the confident smirk and smooth operator wiles of these unmistakable actors.
How could we not like this nutty and fun-loving guy? With his wink-wink charm as if we’re in on the “joke”, we become a silent accomplice and sidekick in Dexter’s world. He’s got a steady girlfriend, he’s great with the kids, loves his sister and when it comes down to it, he just wants to help, right. Right?