On Dexter

Naughty by Nature, Dexter by Design

By Joshua L. Gowin

It’s unprecedented that a television series can cast a serial killer as the protagonist and still attract 2.6 million viewers as it heads into its fifth season. Most of us shudder at the thought of murderers, psychopaths, and evil-doers. We don’t want to get to know them–we want to see them come to a well-deserved bitter end. Not so with Dexter. We’re drawn in by his glibness, but also by his humanity, even as he professes to not really experience human emotions. The fact that Dexter can stay up all night dismembering a murder victim and then turn up to work chipper the next morning fills our minds with curiosity. We want to know how he became a cold-blooded antihero with a warm personality and a wry sense of humor, and this is the crux of what makes his character compelling. Was Dexter born bad, or is he just the product of his environment? By nature, Dexter is a merciless killer, cut from the same cloth as Jack the Ripper. By nurture, however, Dexter becomes someone we can relate to; by following the Code of Harry he’s courteous, amicable, and comprehensible.

Dexter’s two most distinguishing characteristics are his extreme urges for violence and his strict moral policy. Although his violent streak epitomizes his atypical nature, psychopathy, his ethics reflect his even rarer nurture, the Code of Harry. The result is a truly singular personality: a psychopath with a social conscience. Dexter is rife with clues to both Dexter’s nature and his  …

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