Fragments of Dexter: The Credit Sequence as Character Study

Curator's Note

Just as the credit sequence of Mad Men deliberately recalls imagery from Hitchcock films and TV series, invoking both the iconography of the late 1950s and the paranoia of Hitchcock’s thrillers, so the opening credit sequence of Dexter recalls the opening titles of both Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995) and American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron, 2000). From Se7en, the opening of Dexter inherits the themes of fragmentation and extreme precision. Just as the serial killer of Se7en remains unseen until the end of the film, Dexter Morgan is revealed only at the very end of the opening sequence, after a series of fragmented and disorienting close-ups. While the opening sequence of Se7en portrays the precision and menace of a serial killer’s deadly actions, the opening credits of Dexter suggest that the very same careful and clearly deadly precision is present in every aspect of the protagonist’s life.

 

Dexter’s debt to American Psycho is even greater, and indeed the series is so playfully aware of the parallels with Mary Harron’s film and Bret Easton Ellis’ novel that Dexter uses the name “Patrick Bateman” as an alias in the show. The film adaptation of American Psycho, fully aware of the audience’s expectations, opens by focusing on drops of blood-red liquid before revealing that the liquid is in fact a sweet sauce being poured onto a dessert, and thus delaying the horror of an encounter with actual blood until after the opening sequence. Similarly, the blood-red colour of Dexter’s title card may or may not be actual blood; the credits intercut actual blood (in the shaving sequence) and flesh (the breakfast bacon) with things which look like dripping blood and mangled flesh, but turn out to be ketchup and an orange.

 

The opening of Dexter is a study in the sinister side of everyday actions: shaving is disruptive and dangerous, preparing breakfast is bloodthursty, a healthy appetite is somehow highly suspect. Yet, crucially, Dexter’s morning routine is not intrinsically different from most people’s – he may be a serial killer, but he still puts his shoes on one at a time. The credit sequence foreshadows Dexter’s murderous rituals and yet provides a point of identification for the viewers through a focus on seemingly-everyday behaviour.

 

Like Copycat (dir. Jon Amiel, 1995), a film about a serial killer who is “inspired” by extra-textual events, Dexter assumes its audience’s familiarity with the serial killer genre. Unlike any of the previous entries in the serial killer cannon, Dexter then inverts the generic conventions to make the protagonist not only sympathetic, but the central figure of audience identification. Through this identification, the audience is made complicit in Dexter’s crimes; significantly, the process of audience identification begins in opening frames of the credit sequence.

 

 

Comments

Jules Odendahl-James's picture

Dexter as the new "everyman"

So happy to read your mention of Copycat (a very messy but intriguing little film that has a lot to offer in terms of a gendered reading of serial killer films).

I was particularly wondering what you thought about Dexter’s appeal as an Sociopath Everyman. The link to Patrick Bateman and American Psycho is spot on but I see Bateman, especially as constructed in Mary Harmon’s film version, as more of an empty shell,  literally manufactured from consumerist impulses connected sex and violence. Dexter, on the other hand, and the everyday routines which he "performs" (quite literally as he tells us via voiceover because he feels nothing genuine in their undertakings; the only genuine feeling comes with stalking and killing) seem a commentary on contemporary life (particularly, but not exclusively, for men) and a blissful disconnect from "the normal". Dexter’s encounters with "real" people only magnifies how much his disassociations are actually preferable to the norm. The people that surround him are largely miserable, caught up in emotional drama because such melodrama is their reality. Unmoored from such burden he can both mimetically conform to expectations (he can pass as a regular Joe) keep his genuine experiences (pleasure from killilng) separate, pure, and joyfully (at least for a time) explicit.

Jules Odendahl-James, MFA/PhD

Michael Roberts's picture

The title sequence plays as well on the familiarity

I think that the title sequence plays as well on the familiarity that comes from repeated viewings and that the irony and humour implicit in the series is foregrounded in the title sequence. We know that it’s just an egg, an orange and coffe beans, as well as it just being the morning rituals of shaving and dressing. However, we are also made aware of the visual ambiguities of what we are seeing; It  looks like a murder scene, the coffee beans being ripped apart and what looks like a man being smothered by a sheet as well as the shoe laces as garrotting rope.

The implied joke is "Gee, even Dex’s morning  has a hidden dark side to it."

Beth Johnson's picture

Questioning Perception

Some really interesting comments on an excellent post – many thanks Angelina! In response to Michael’s comment I agree that the opening sequence exposes the ambiguities of vision in a familiar and comedic way.  In addition however, the opening scene also plays with the notion of perception itself – disorientating the first time viewer via a visual saturation of garish colours and extreme close-ups that render our own notion of vision (and judgement) as unreliable or, at least questionable.  The copious images of seeping liquids (egg yolk, bacon fat and blood) can be read as a messy leakage – a mingling of inner and outer.  In the realm of vision, such a leakage could arguably point to the duality of 1) the eye and 2) the mind’s eye – rendering visible the disconnection between perception and knowledge in Dexter.   

 

Douglas L. Howard's picture

Identification and Ritual

I really like the point that you make here about audience identification in the opening credit sequence, Angelina.  As violent and dark as Dexter’s morning is, as Michael notes, there is also something mundane and commonplace about it.  We cannot help but see something familiar in at least some part of it, if not the whole thing—from the killing of the mosquito to the tying of the final shoelace. And if we do, if we accept our own "kills" and our own daily rituals, then we find ourselves aligned with Dexter before the narrative proper begins (and the blood slides and garbage bags come out). Even the music comes off as playful and inviting, in contrast to the darker, more sinister theme that plays during the closing credits. I also have to agree with Michael and Beth regarding the irony and familiarity inherent in the repetition of the opening credits; as a plot element in one or two of the episodes as well as through our own viewing of the episodes from week to week, the credits themselves become yet another ritual for us to engage in, another reminder of our identification, and another way in which Dexter sets us up for the kill.

Chad Harriss's picture

One Additional Note

The presence of the food in the opening sequences also seems to reference an overt component of Jeff Lindsay’s books. In the books we learn that Dexter’s feelings for food are quite different from almost any other feeling he has. In fact, the book character generally lacks emotion for everything except food and killing.

The books make the connection between Dexter’s hunger for food and his hunger for killing much more apparent and this link is reinforced repeatedly. For example, he usually needs to "feed" his Dark Passenger.

In this respect, the Dexter on TV and the Dexter in the books are in many ways differenct characters. The book form seems to suit a flat character representation better than the TV form. I wonder if this is because the book conjures up characters so differently than an actor does? Or if it’s due to what the audience member expects from the pseudo-relationship that (s)he develops with the screen persona? Do we just need a "living" character to develop differently than an "imagined" one?

Alison Peirse's picture

Serial Killers in Suburbia

Angelina, I really liked your analysis, and am glad to see someone taking the time to thoroughly think through the credit sequence.

A point that has started to come out of previous threads is the sequence’s implicit connections between serial killing and suburbia, between the pesudo-murderous interactions that Dexter has with his morning routine, and with the viewer’s own responses to this. It also makes a strong connection between the overall themes and structure of the third season: Dexter moves from the “outside”, the traditional space of the noir protagonist to the “inside”, presenting himself to the world as a family man. He embraces fatherhood, becomes a husband, and hopes for a happy life.

Of course, the credit sequence reiterates that suburbia is not a safe place - and the sequence plays on the ‘horror of suburbia’ dichotomy, where between the exterior presentation of perfection and normality while, below the surface, indecency, depravity and (and murderous desires) boil over.

 P.S. I also thought Beth’s reading of the duality of eye/mind’s eye was great.

David Schmid's picture

We're in on the secret!

Great post, Angelina! The credit sequence has always been one of my favorite parts of ‘Dexter’ and you’ve helped me understand why. To follow on from your point about how the viewer’s identification with the protagonist begins with the credits, I wanted to add that this identification also has an important spatial dimension. It’s a banal point, perhaps, but it feels important to me that the opening sequence takes place indoors, in Dexter’s apartment, and only at the end of the sequence do we see Dexter himself for the first time, leaving the apartment and starting his day. The fact that the audience is the only one ‘allowed’ inside the apartment to see Dexter’s morning routine sutures our identification with him even more securely, especially as it’s just one of many examples of how ‘Dexter’ privileges the space of the audience by making us privy to information that is kept from the other characters. Everyone who learns of Dexter’s ‘true’ identity in the series dies, except for us (and this is another important difference between the television show and the Jeff Lindsay novels). We’re ‘in on the secret’ in multiple ways, and so when Dexter leaves his apartment at the end of the credit sequence with a smile on his face, the smile indicates not only the self-conscious irony and humor that characterizes the show, but also the bond that has already been formed between protagonist and viewer. We know what Dexter is smiling about!

Amanda Ann Klein's picture

Food

I have long been a fan of this opening credit sequence. In particular, I was intrigued, as the other commenter mentioned, with the focus on eating. Opening credits set the tone for the series to come and these credits serve to highlight Dexter’s passion for food. Particularly in the first seasom we often see Dexter biting into a sandwich or eating a steak in an almost violent or sexual manner. In these moments, which are on the surface quite innocent, Dexter seems menacing and threatening. I love how the opening credits call our attention to this in the show.