I’m late to the Dexter phenomenon. We don’t have Showtime, and I just recently started watching this amazing show. Now halfway through season 4, I’m convinced he's one of the best characters I've ever come across—on television or in literature.
At first glance, Dexter seems pretty cut and dried. A psychopath (or is it sociopath? The two often go together) who gets his kicks murdering people, but with a caveat: only the bad guys, so he’s at least contributing to society. This ‘code’ was established by his adoptive father to keep Dexter alive and to help the old man from accepting the fact that his son was a coldblooded killer.
Sociopaths and psychopaths are intermixed and sometimes hard to define. They don’t care about anyone but themselves, have no conscious, no morals. They feel nothing, although many can mimic feelings in order to blend in. Psychopaths are often defined as the monsters in society, and this is how Dexter sees himself. A monster fulfilling his need the best way he can.
Throughout the series, Dexter repeatedly says he can’t feel. He has a girlfriend to appear normal, and she’s perfect because she’s got dark issues of her own. She’s also got two kids he’s very good with. The closest person in his life is his sister, Deb. Still, he doesn’t believe he truly cares for these people. In his mind, he’s going through the necessary motions. And yet he consistently goes the extra mile for all of them.
As the show progresses, Dexter goes from seeing himself as a monster happily blending in to questioning everything he’s been taught by his father. He grows more attached to his girlfriend and her children, going so far as to call them ‘my kids’ when one of them is threatened. He saves his sister’s life at great personal sacrifice and has no regret because he’s ‘fond of her.’
The interesting thing is these aren’t contrived actions. None are done simply to look like he’s the good guy. They’re visceral reactions he can’t explain. After all, he’s the monster who can’t feel.
Yet nearly the entire show revolves around what he’s feeling: about himself, his place in life, the people closest to him. He tries to fit in not because he has to but because he wants to. Even when his darkness calls, he sticks to his code because of his trust in his father’s advice. Dexter claims to have no conscience, and yet every major decision is weighed carefully, with visions of his now deceased father chiming in with guidance.
So what is Dexter? A killer with a conscience, certainly. But is he a true psychopath? There are worse monsters out there. Dexter only kills murders, and only after he has concrete proof.
Eventually Dexter discovers why he kills, and the knowledge sends him on a path of self-discovery. Considering what he experienced, it’s a miracle he functions in society at all. Experts debate whether psychopaths (and sociopaths) are made or if their problems are genetic. One thing they all seem to have is a stressor, a trigger that sends them down the wrong path. This certainly happened to Dexter, and I have to wonder if he would have ever had the urge to kill had he not experienced such trauma.
I don’t believe he’s a true psychopath. His experience likely made him a killer, but Dexter cares too much about those around them to be considered a psychopath. I think he’s convinced himself he’s a monster because he’s afraid to admit he cares. Keeping people at arm’s length not only protects his dark secret but his emotions as well.
One of the most moving scenes (and an awesome performance by Michael C. Hall) is early in season four. Dexter is getting ready to kill a woman who murdered her family. She pleads with him, telling him he's no different from her, that he hides himself from his family. As Dexter thinks of Rita and the kids, a stunning realization hits him: he doesn't want to lose them. He's blown away by the thought and tears come to his eyes. It's an incredible moment of growth for the character, and it's this type of humanization that sets him apart.
However you define him, Dexter is a character of complexities and contrasts. He’s committed horrible crimes and is utterly callous with his victims. He’s out for self-preservation. And yet, he’s a good man. He takes care of his family and friends, his girlfriend and her kids. He lives by a moral code no other criminal would follow. He is in constant flux, trying to understand himself and his place in this world. Viewers root for Dexter. We want him to get away with murder and sometimes we can’t wait until he kills his victim, because they deserve to pay the ultimate price.
What other character has garnered such a range of emotions? None that I can think of. Dexter is a true original.