The bogeyman of bogeymen

Dave Bartlett
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Does ‘Dexter’ belong on my list of antiheros?

After last week’s column on the antihero, a reader wrote to recommend I add the title character of Showtime’s “Dexter,” played by Michael C. Hall, to my list.

Michael C. Hall is “Dexter,” a serial killer who only preys on other serial killers. — Submitted photo.

I know the show has legions of fans, but it’s one I wasn’t sure I really wanted to watch. I did catch the first couple of episodes on an airplane a bunch of years back, and while I was intrigued, I didn’t run to track down the series.

It’s not that the show wasn’t well done or engaging. I must admit I was riveted to my airplane seat — though I didn’t have much choice. That’s not sarcasm, the show is very engaging and it’s all because Hall is able to portray the two sides of the character so well. He’s an emotionless sociopath, far from huggable, but certainly interesting enough to cheer for. Yet he masquerades as a mild-mannered guy who no one would suspect or notice most of the time.

Yes, “Dexter” is a serial killer, but one who satisfies his uncontrollable need to murder by preying on other killers, ones that have escaped justice. But does this make him an antihero, or something altogether different?

Last week, I defined antihero as “a supporting playing in a heroic plot, which helps the good guys, though his ultimate purpose is selfish. He or she also should be charismatic and glib and possibly have some kind of personal code of honour. Redemption is possible but not necessary.”

I’m willing to wave the supporting player part and allow a protagonist to be an antihero if the other criteria are met. You could argue Dexter helps the good guys by ridding the world of its most sinister folk but his ultimate purpose isn’t so much selfish as sinister and compulsive. The show spends a lot of time in the first three episodes, which I watched this weekend, reminding the viewer that Dexter kills because of an unknowable compulsion. He can’t stop.

Charismatic? Dexter certainly is that, as he walks into work as a forensic expert — a blood splatter expert no less — through a police station with a box of donuts.

Despite being surrounded by detectives, only one of his colleagues has a sense that he’s not right. Dexter just creeps him out.

Yes, Dexter also has a code. His foster father was a cop and trained him how to find guilty people and make sure they are responsible for crimes unpunished and then to cover his bloody tracks.

So the sticking point seems to be, can an emotionless, compulsive killer still be a hero of any kind? If the answer is yes, than Dexter belongs on my list. But if the answer is no, than maybe antagonist is a better description of the character.

It’s an interesting question, and one I haven’t thought enough about to have reached a conclusion. I also haven’t watched enough of the narrative to determine if Dexter has other hero attributes.

The show is based on the novel “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” by Jeff Lindsay, and ran for eight seasons, until last year.

Besides Hall, who really is excellent and completely creepy, the cast has a number of supporting and reoccurring roles.

Julie Benz (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer”) plays Rita, Dexter’s girlfriend — who he says is as damaged as he is. She is largely part of his normal person disguise, but I find it hard to believe there’s not some sort of love here. Dexter seems to like her kids and they like him.

But the character claims, in one of his many internal monologues, his foster sister Debra (Jenifer Carpenter) is the only person he would care for, if he had feelings. Debra is also a cop and trying to move from vice to homicide as the show opens.

There are other cops and detectives, most notably Batista (David Zayas), and Sgt. Doakes (Erik King) — the guy who gets strange vibes from Dexter.

There’s no question that people are fascinated by the macabre and what compels people to act on their darkest emotions, and maybe “Dexter” sheds some light on this as the series goes on. I plan to watch more, but I am in no rush.

As good as the show is, watching it creeps me out more than a little.

Correction: I also want to thank another reader, who pointed out online last week that I had incorrectly said James Spader had won this year’s Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Series for “The Blacklist,” when he was only nominated. Of course, Bryan Cranston won the award for “Breaking Bad,” and he was also mentioned in last week’s column. I just got my wires momentarily crossed.

What do you think, is the character Dexter an antihero? Correspondence goes to Dave Bartlett at talkingtelevsion@gmail.com.

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  • Fred
    April 03, 2014 - 17:11

    If you don't see the more heroic aspect of the Dexter character, you need to watch episode 10 ("Lost Boys") of Season 4. On several occasions Dexter has risked his life to rescue innocent victims of the more monstrous killers he is pursuing. "Lost Boys" has Dexter trying to rescue a young boy about to be buried alive by the Trinity Killer.