Dismembering the Dead – An Examination of Dexter (Season 1)

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I have never watch Dexter before. That seems mundane now, but that statement was as transgressive as saying I haven’t watched Game of Thrones (still haven’t), or Watchmen (still haven’t), or The Witcher (finally got one) now. It was a massive critical and commercial success. I wanted to watch it I never did.

Not watching it didn’t mean I neglected the series. In fact the opposite. I began reading through the original novel series the show is based on. I didn’t make it that far. Just long enough to find out the evil voice inside of Dexter is the descendant or reincarnation of an ancient God of destruction (which was an interesting direction). Now, after going through Birds of Prey and seeing Melissa Rosenberg’s name it made me come back and look at this dead series.

This introductory season follows psychopath Dexter Morgan. He has a drive to kill and satiates that by using a code his father, a former Miami cop, created to kill the criminals that get away. During the day however he works as a blood spatter expert in the Miami PD. This season’s case is a puzzler though. Someone removes the blood and cuts his victims to pieces by storing the victims in refrigerated delivery trucks. With the help of his adopted sister, Deb, they try to solve this string of homicides to help his sister move from Vice to Homicide, and save his extracurriculars from being exposed.

This is a strange show to have taken off. It has this odd mix of being very routine and cliché, then jumping to really compelling and interesting, to boring and a slog. It being very explicit, dark, and original for the time must have helped it take off.

It is refreshing to have a show with a good mix of episodic and serial storytelling. The episodic events coming from Dexter’s new target he’s going after or personal drama. The serial coming from the Ice Truck Killer, and crime boss storyline. These storylines help mix up each episode and give the side characters a lot of good development and depth to them.

The element that makes it all so interesting is how those traits of boring, cliche, and compelling are not relegated to specific subplots. Instead it is often a scene to scene moment. There are elements those scenes often share. When the acting gets weaker and feels clear with where it is all going it does get boring. Much of the police politics and events with Dexter’s girlfriend Rita, and Debra’s love life are often where the negative lives. It’s because it is all so clear where it is going, and the actor are not selling me in the moment of what is happening to them.

The good news is that most of that goes away the deeper the season goes, and when more mysteries are revealed, and when some of the lesser subplots are dropped or brought back in an interesting way. An example hinges on homicide detective Angel Batista. At work he is a strong family man until the truth comes out. It is subtle, doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and builds this detective as a good man who tries, but fails.

The individual episodes plots are also often not the main issue. The singular cases from a foot chase gone wrong, to a man smuggling Cubans over and hold them ransom, to the police finding one of Dexter’s victims all feel pretty fresh. They have good dimension and really push the characters in strong ways.

Something that is solid throughout the season is the Ice Truck Killer plot, and the mysteries built into it that concern Dexter’s past. It starts as a strong standard investigation. It builds with twists and fake outs. It also takes a big risk and reveal who the killer is. Now it’s obvious once we know more about who it is but is still a risk. The team nails it. They change scenes that would just be normal into tense affairs as we try to gauge what the plan and schemes going on in the background. This builds to a strong climax and decent reveal that works thematically for what Dexter was going through more than in the plot.

In fact the saving grace of this whole production is just how good Michael C Hall as Dexter Morgan is, and how we’ll realized Dexter is as a character. His want to connect with people is so strong, and watching him try to be a good man while also partaking in killing bad guys could easily be played as obvious and dull, but for someone who fakes emotion there is a lot going on behind his eyes. It’s easy to see him struggling to hide his true self and be the man he was taught to be. A even bigger dimension is added to him when we get the reveals in the final episode. He is has been struggling with who he is and it all comes at him. It makes me think of him as a really interesting foil to characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad, a show this series is often compared to. I might actually dive more into that later, but seeing a good man try to be good while having to do some bad things is an interesting parallel to someone who thinks he’s good, but is doing bad things the whole way. Also, his rye sense of humor is on point.

The season ends pretty strong. It has some good dangling plot threads. One detective is positive something is going on with Dexter and he aims to prove it, and on top of that his big mistake earlier in the season is coming back to bite him (I assume). Even with that it ends with Dexter knowing his place in society reaffirms him. It will be interesting to see where it all goes next season.

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