tv

The thinking woman’s killer

Dexter is a murderer who only targets other murderers—and he’s a great listener. What's not to love?

WENDY DENNIS March 19 2007
tv

The thinking woman’s killer

Dexter is a murderer who only targets other murderers—and he’s a great listener. What's not to love?

WENDY DENNIS March 19 2007

The thinking woman’s killer

tv

Dexter is a murderer who only targets other murderers—and he’s a great listener. What's not to love? BY WENDY DENNIS

It’s not often that television proves to be as riveting as Dexter, Showtime’s critically acclaimed original series about a blood-spatter expert

with the Miami police force who moonlights as a serial killer. Based on Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by the American crime novelist Jeff Lindsay, Dexter is a fascinating study in psychopathology, a nail-biting whodunit, an operatic riff on CSI-style forensics, and a magical mystery tour of the sensual Vermeer-lit landscape of Miami. On The Movie Network, which is currently replaying the first season, the series is ranked No. 1 with adults. (In Western Canada, it airs on Movie Central.)

Both men and women are captivated by Dexter, but women appear to have a special affection for the lead character, Dexter Morgan, played by Golden Globe-nominated actor Michael C. Hall, a.k.a. the gay mortician from Six Feet Under. According to Kevin Wright, senior vice-president of programming for Astral Television Networks (which owns The Movie Network), the show’s Nielsen ratings reveal that women constitute almost half of its audience, a “significant jump” from the percentage who normally watch TMN.

Dexter just may be the first thinking woman’s serial killer. Certainly, he’s not your run-of-the-mill sociopath. For a murderer, he’s a stand-up guy. He brings doughnuts to his co-workers; he’s sweet to his girlfriend, and great with her kids. He’s also a devoted, if emotionally unavailable, supporter of his sister Deb, a feisty homicide cop who works with him at the precinct.

True, Dexter’s crime prevention methods are unconventional, and he has blood-lust management issues. But it’s not his fault he hungers for the thrill of the kill. Blood is in his blood. As a child, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome murder, and was rescued and adopted by a good cop named Harry, who identified Dexter’s homicidal tendencies early, and channelled them for good. Like all heroes, Dexter lives by a code. He only targets the vilest of criminals who would otherwise slip through the cracks of the justice system. While Dexter may carve up his victims and stuff them into Hefty bags— admittedly a concern in a man you’re enter-

taining as a romantic interest—on the plus side, he’s ridding the planet of scum, and making the world a safer place. Think serial killer with a heart of gold.

Linda Chandler is a Toronto advertising creative director, who, like many female fans, has developed a crush on Dexter. “He’s bright, like all serial murderers, but he’s also a great boyfriend,” she says. “He doesn’t try anything on the first date, and he’s amenable to everything you do.” Also, because he lacks real empathy, he has had to master the art of appearing as if he truly cares about others. ‘On a date, you’re going to feel fascinating because he’s going to listen to you and not go on about himself,” she says.

Chandler sees Dexter as an irresistible mix of the classic anti-hero and the cartoon superhero. “He’s doing work that’s esoteric and difficult,” she says. “He has a secret life, and we know he’s struggling very hard to keep a code. And he’s a religious man. It’s not the gospel according to St. Matthew. It’s

the gospel according to his foster father.”

Dexter may have issues, but, for the most part, he keeps his dark side under wraps. Since he lacks the vocabulary to negotiate human interactions, he gets by faking it, and he gives Oscar-worthy performances. Of all the cops at his Miami precinct, only the volcanic Sgt. Doakes is creeped out by him. Women, on the other hand, fall at his feet. A middle-aged file-room clerk who admired his dad is beguiled by his flirty

charm. She thinks he’s a chip off the old block, and slips him files whenever he asks. His lieutenant, Maria, can’t stop making eyes at him, and blatantly treats him as her pet. His girlfriend Rita considers him the perfect boyfriend: he’s cute, protective, thoughtful, and— apparently sensitive to the fact that she was traumatized by her abusive, crack-addicted estranged husband—he never presses her for sex.

In his New Yorker review of the show, Tad Friend found the lieutenant’s attraction to Dexter “inexplicable,” but no woman I know would ques-

tion her dewy-eyed fixation. Sure, he’s dead inside, sexually and emotionally dissociated, and he cares as much about people as parking meters. Sure, he keeps a ghoulish stash of his victims’ blood samples behind his air conditioner, and leads a sinister double life. But he’s brilliant at his job, mordantly funny (he named

his boat the Slice of Life), psychologically astute, deeply aware of his limitations, and gallant toward women (he thoughtfully made Rita’s

troublesome ex disappear). He also has a modest-but-cool oceanside pad and divine pecs. It’s a safe assumption that his horrific childhood doesn’t hurt with the ladies, either. What woman can resist the chance to rescue and reform a wounded man?

“He’s a puppy who winds up at your door, and you get to take care of him,” says Chandler. “And if you’re being stalked by evil, it’s going to disappear. You’re not going to ask any questions. And then he’s going to show up with lattes. How great is that?”

For certain women, serial killers have always held a hypnotic fascination. As Macleans writer Anne Kingston once observed, “accused or convicted murderers are bona fide chick magnets.” Both Richard Ramirez and John Wayne Gacy married women while in prison, despite the fact that Ramirez murdered and dismembered 13 people and Gacy raped and murdered more than 30 young men. Scott Peterson, who was sentenced to die for killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, receives reams of letters from lovestruck female fans.

Serial killer groupies, or SKGs, as they’re called, are drawn to such men for a host of pathological reasons. For some, it’s about the need to act out stand-by-your-man fantasies, or to nurture the lost boy inside. For others, it’s rooted in the desire to cultivate a relationship with a man who, in their minds, constitutes the ideal boyfriend. (Once he’s convicted, they always know his precise whereabouts. They can also sidestep the trials of a real relationship and float endlessly on turbo-charged fantasies.) Anti-death penalty and meeta-prisoner websites, such as friendsbeyondthewall.com, have become popular spots for a certain kind of

BECAUSE HE LACKS EMPATHY, HE’S LEARNED TO MASTER THE ART OF FEIGNING INTEREST IN OTHERS

woman to try to find a date.

Still, Dexter’s no Ted Bundy. He may be cunning, methodical, and capable of killing without remorse—but there’s a self-awareness about him that’s positively endearing. He wants a family. He wants to belong. He wants to be expressive. And it’s because he’s aware of his limitations that he breaks your heart. “Even though you know he does terrible things, you start rooting for the guy,” says Janice Stein, a Dexter-obsessed Toronto apparel sales executive who mainlined the entire season over three days. “You find yourself hoping that he doesn’t get caught.”

According to TMN’s market research, men aspire to Dexter’s “James Bond-like power and clarity,” says Wright, whereas women admire his “etiquette among thieves,” and enjoy the opportunity for “vicarious vigilantism.” “We don’t think we have it in us to kill,” says Chandler, “but liking him gives us licence to go there. Because basically, you want to kill sometimes. How did we feel when Saddam was hanged? Who wants to witness a hanging? But there was something about it that made us feel, okay, you can watch this one.”

For Toronto strategic and communications consultant Jack Senechal, Dexter is the quintessential strong, silent type—like Gary Cooper. “He doesn’t have to beat his breast or be the biggest guy on campus,” he says. “He just quietly goes about his business.” He

also sees him as a throwback to Pinocchio, or Star Trek's Data: “He’s the boy who wants to be human—but until then, there’s some stuff he can do.”

In the end, despite the nagging serial killer problem, Dexter’s not a bad boy. He’s a tortured soul, struggling for authenticity, destined to walk the earth alone. Furthermore, his victims are so abhorrently evil—a pedophile, a snuff filmmaker, a scumbag couple who enslave and dispose of illegal Cuban immigrants who default on their usurious transport fees—when he coolly vivisects their cheeks to extract a drop of blood for a trophy, we’re more than willing to cut him some slack. M