As many of you know, two of my favorite TV shows are Showtime’s Dexter and AMC’s Breaking Bad. Today, I’d like to do something a little different and do some compare-and-contrast.
I was inspired to do this by my good friend Rylie Hightower, a huge fan of Dexter. Although she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico (where Breaking Bad takes place), Rylie was relatively unfamiliar with Breaking Bad. We had an interesting conversation about the inherent morals and ethics in both shows, and I was able to explain the similarities and differences.
For those of you unfamiliar with either show, Dexter (based on the series of novels by Jeff Lindsay) is about the eponymous title character, who is a police department blood-pattern analyst by day and a serial killer by night. Dexter is polite, charming, a family-oriented man, and a good brother. He’s also a violent, damaged man who is committed to bringing his twisted brand of justice to the streets of Miami.
He patterns his M.O. after a “code” that his foster father Harry developed for him after noticing Dexter’s sinister tendencies as a child. Dexter’s biological mother was murdered in front of him at the age of three, permanently traumatizing him. Therefore Harry, a decorated detective, tried to channel Dexter’s primal urges into the criminal justice system.
Essentially, the “Code of Harry” is twofold — assuring that 1) Dexter doesn’t get caught and that 2) he only kills those who deserve it.
The show is a mixture of police procedural and serial drama, intertwining black comedy, horror, and drama, while constantly being told from Dexter’s point of view (mostly through voiceovers).
Meanwhile, Breaking Bad is about a down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher named Walter White. Despite his intellectual brilliance, Walter has never really taken any chances in his life and now teaches unmotivated high schoolers in Albuquerque, while struggling to provide for his pregnant wife Skyler and his physically-disabled son Walter Jr.
Walter’s world is rocked when he receives an unexpected diagnosis, in the form of terminal lung cancer. With nothing left to lose, Walter makes a fateful decision — he teams up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, to cook, manufacture, and distribute crystal meth. The show follows Walter as he makes many questionable decisions in his desperate attempt to provide money for his family once he’s gone.
Let’s start with the similarities between Breaking Bad and Dexter:
- They’re both serial dramas that feature phenomenal writing and acting.
- The protagonists of both shows have already become iconic.
- They both feature non-traditional filming locations (Miami and Albuquerque), and both cities are almost characters themselves within the worlds of the respective shows.
- They both have lead characters that make very bad choices.
- They both have very important themes of loyalty, crime, and family.
- They both have incredible actors in the lead roles (Michael C. Hall as Dexter and Bryan Cranston as Walter White) who are able to convince you to feel for them, despite the evil actions of their characters.
Now, let’s look at the differences:
Dexter is frequently described as “morally ambiguous” in its storytelling, deliberately leading the viewer to decide for themselves whether Dexter is a hero or a villain. In my opinion, he’s neither, as he’s more of an anti-hero than anything else.
For the record, I don’t think Dexter is a morally ambiguous show. It just gets that reputation because there are no clean-cut choir boys among the characters and it’s hard to cheer for anybody because all the characters are fairly complex, having both good and bad qualities. The result is that these characters are richly-developed and have real human flaws, but they also don’t necessarily have numerous moral strengths, either.
Dexter believes himself to be powerless over his homicidal urges, and he more often than not indulges his taste for his own twisted justice. From the get-go in the pilot episode, we know that Dexter is a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. He’s a loyal partner to the beautiful Rita, he maintains a close relationship with his adopted sister Debra, and he is both competent at his work and well-liked within Miami Metro PD. But he’s also a cold-blooded killer who has no issues with dispatching people — with the added twist that they’re all child molesters, rapists, and other killers.
On the other hand, Walter White is very much the protagonist in Breaking Bad. He’s an everyman-type character who is backed into a hole. Facing certain death from lung cancer within two years, Walter makes a bad choice — to make and sell drugs using his significant knowledge of chemistry. He excuses it by claiming that it is only for helping his family stay afloat financially once he’s dead, but he eventually becomes entangled in a violent and risky business that profits off people’s addiction. Walter’s becoming ridiculously wealthy, but at what cost?
What this effect has is that Walter goes from being the hero to the villain. Creator/show runner Vince Gilligan explained in an interview that he wanted to go against the grain of network TV. This philosophy is to drive characters towards change rather than keeping them in limbo over several seasons — or as Gilligan put it, “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.”
As far as the morality of Dexter goes, there’s a lot of wiggle room. Is Dexter a vicious serial murderer, or the Batman of Miami? It’s never preachy, but it’s also very open-ended, staying silent on important ethical issues. It doesn’t excuse Dexter’s actions, but it doesn’t promote them either. Either way, in the end, you don’t want Dexter to get caught — and that’s a testament to how authentic Michael C. Hall’s performance is and how well-written the show is.
However, on Breaking Bad, there’s a much clearer picture of what’s going on. As Breaking Bad comes to a close, it’s essentially impossible to keep rooting for Walter White considering his actions. As critic Chuck Klosterman said, “Breaking Bad is built on the uncomfortable premise that there’s an irrefutable difference between what’s right and what’s wrong, and where the characters have real control over how they choose to live.”
Breaking Bad is different from Dexter in that there are legitimate consequences for doing the wrong thing, and the result is never pretty for the people involved. Dexter’s actions are an integral part of the show, but there’s no real sense of retribution or justice — unless, of course, retribution or justice comes at the blade of Dexter’s butcher knife. As a character, Dexter is judge, jury, and executioner, and since he lives his double-life in secret from those around him, there’s no serious accountability. This is the polar opposite of Breaking Bad, where Walter’s actions constantly affect those around him, despite his best efforts to protect his loved ones. In short, the world of Breaking Bad is a place where collateral damage is unavoidable.
Don’t get me wrong, I love both of these shows and they deserve all the praise that they’ve received. But on paper at least, Breaking Bad has a more satisfying pay-off in the end, because I feel like it has a purer sense of justice, karma, or whatever you wanna call it.