Inside the soul, such as it is, of a serial killer

Fernandez is a Times staff writer.

Three seasons in, do any of us really know Dexter Morgan?

Showtime viewers have watched America’s favorite serial killer earn acceptance from his long-lost homicidal brother and promptly end that relationship by slicing his neck with a knife. Then, Dexter allowed a woman, Lila, to get close to him, close enough for her to see who he really is, only to plunge a knife into her heart. This season, Dexter bonded with a man who appreciated Dexter’s dark side so much that he wanted to be like him, and Dexter strangled him.

“I had higher hopes for you, for us,” Dexter (Michael C. Hall) told Miguel (Jimmy Smits) just before he killed him in Sunday’s episode of “Dexter.” “But I finally just have to accept that I’ll always be alone.”

That the remark came from a killer of other sociopaths who is getting married on this Sunday’s season finale, is having a baby with his fiancee, Rita (Julie Benz), and is becoming the stepfather of her two children, made it all the more notable. Clearly, Dexter, in his own way, is a man of principle -- thanks to a code bestowed on him by his adoptive father, he kills only those who have hurt others and escaped official justice.


He’s also a truth seeker on a constant journey of self-discovery, which he shares with the audience through voice-overs, such as the one that came after he killed his brother (Christian Camargo) at the end of the first season: “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like for everything inside me that’s denied and unknown to be revealed. But I’ll never know. I live my life in hiding. My survival depends on it.”

On the verge of becoming a husband and father, after three intimate dances in which he revealed his innermost secrets to other people, the question Dexter introduced in the pilot lingers: Is Dexter capable of loving? Dexter confessed then that he has no feelings, but that if he were to love someone, it would be his sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). Just before he killed Miguel this season, Dexter declared impassively, “I don’t get to have friends.”

Do we believe him?

“I don’t know that Dexter is the most reliable narrator,” Hall said by telephone. “I don’t know that he was at the beginning of the show, and I don’t know that he is now. I think he tries things on and plays at being a human being. I do think there’s an appetite for connection and revelation in Dexter that he doesn’t consciously acknowledge. But that motivates a lot of his behavior.”

The debate about Dexter’s capacity for emotion has existed since Showtime’s highest-rated series premiered in 2006. But it’s not just limited to viewers who find themselves relating to him, perhaps a little too much, and even rooting for him. Thirty-six episodes after the show premiered, the writers of the series can’t settle on an answer either.

“In the writing room, we are constantly talking about, well, does Dexter feel that? Or is it learned behavior? Or is it camouflage?” said show runner Clyde Phillips. “For instance, is his relationship with Rita a growing affection? Is it learning affection? Or does he need the relationship as a camouflage to present to the real world? In all honesty, we don’t entirely know.

“I always think of Dexter as a bit of a French coffee press. You press down on it and those bubbles come up and those bubbles are unexpected emotions. And it could be anything from affection for his sister, a feeling for his baby that’s coming, friendship, whatever he was feeling for Lila last year. It could be hate, rage. I don’t know yet that he loves. But I believe he feels something, and he feels more and more as he dynamically lives his life and has gut-wrenching and soul-wrenching experiences.”


Hall, nominated for three Golden Globes and one Emmy for the role, is reluctant to be definitive about the inner life of the Miami blood spatter expert he portrays, partly because he wants to leave it up to the audience to interpret and partly because there’s usually more than one factor motivating Dexter’s actions. Phillips said that he and Hall “go round and round” over Dexter’s capacity to feel anything, even after this season’s poignant episode in which Dexter helped a terminally ill family friend die.

On the one hand, Hall believes that Dexter’s relationship with his brother set him on a journey of self-discovery in spite of himself. But on the other, Hall points out, Dexter could be playing us all.

“I think the fundamental realization of his origins . . . opened up something for him, opened a door that can’t quite be shut in spite of what he pragmatically knows to be,” Hall said. “It’s like a wound that continues to bleed and one that he doesn’t consciously acknowledge. But you can turn that all around and say that Dexter has a sense that he might kill these people well before we discover that inevitability.”

Smits, who has drawn critical raves for his intimidating depiction of a Miami prosecutor who comes out of the homicidal closet through his friendship with Dexter, thinks that Dexter yearns for connection -- to a point.

“I don’t think that’s ever going to be satisfied,” Smits said. “You had the brother, then you had the female energy last year and this year, with Miguel, it’s almost like a combination of the two. There was an element of that relationship that was friendship, but then it went beyond that. I think Dexter, with his marriage and through becoming a father, is going to keep attempting this, but it’s never going to be completely fulfilled.”

If Lila (Jaime Murray) and Miguel’s slayings are any indication, that seems likely. Just before killing her in the second season, Dexter told Lila: “You wanted to be close to me, Lila. This is the most I have to offer.”

In last Sunday’s episode, as Miguel lay on a table waiting for Dexter to murder him, he told Dexter that he had tried to reach out to him because he saw “the possibility” and he knew Dexter “better than anyone else.”

Dexter saw it differently: “No, there have been quite a few who have seen the real me as they laid on that table. You’re all just unchecked versions of myself, what I would have become without my father’s code.”

In that moment, Dexter seemed to be moving away from simple resignation over his fate into a new kind of self-acceptance. But that doesn’t mean he won’t slide in the other direction again.

“There may be rejection on the way, there may be self-loathing along the way, but eventually I think there’s acceptance and perhaps even some sort of peace,” Phillips said. “These relationships helped him see himself.”

But moving ahead to Sunday’s season finale and the future of the series, is Dexter right? Is ridding the world of criminals all he has to offer to himself and to us, his loyal audience? Is that as close as we can get?

If he told us for certain, he would have to kill us.