This weekend we watched the first episode of Dexter, season 1, and I was struck anew by how good the writing was in the early part of that series. Intriguing characters, unusual premise, colorful setting, and the volume is turned way up on two crucial aspects of storytelling: conflict and desire.
Starting with the latter, these are people who want things, and want them in a big way. Dexter is compelled to kill. His sister Deborah is desperate to solve a case, not only because she wants out of vice and into homicide, but also to protect “her” hookers. An amorous lieutenant has her eye on Dexter. One of the homicide detectives is disgruntled about working on Friday night because that’s date night in Miami and he “has needs.” Not all desires are straightforward. Rita, Dexter’s radiant but damaged girlfriend, is afraid she’s losing him, and because she wants this nice, kind, “normal” guy in her life, she is prepared to start a sexual relationship she really isn’t ready for.
That last bit is also a source of conflict. Dexter is wary of this new development, which would change their relationship and take it into unfamiliar and possibly risky ground. But where conflict is concerned, he has a lot bigger fish to fry.
The primary conflict, of course, is the tension between Dexter’s need to kill and the fact that he’s surrounded by people who are trained to catch killers. One of the detectives senses that there’s something “off” about Dexter and is very open about his distrust. The friendly woman in the records room risks her job to give Dexter cold case files. We’re not sure why, but we’re pretty sure she’s starting to wonder what’s going on. There’s the implied conflict of Dexter’s back story, and the hidden reason why he is what he is. Then there’s the new serial killer, who is “inviting Dexter to play” with friendly overtures such as tossing a decapitated head at his car and leaving a dismembered Barbie doll in his apartment’s fridge. As one does. Seriously, who just picks up the phone anymore?
This is a lot of desire and conflict for one episode, and it all propels the story forward. It’ a good reminder that compelling stories focus on characters who want something, but will have a very challenging time getting it.