We’ve veered into a new normal, but it’s one that’s still confusing and stressful. And when everything in real life is unpredictable, we turn to our screens to find comfort in the characters we know—even the villains. From You’s Joe Goldberg and SyFy’s Chucky, to Showtime’s long-awaited reboot Dexter: New Blood, 2021 certainly gave us plenty.
On Netflix’s You, viewers follow handsome serial killer and stalker Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) as he navigates his attempts at love. Fans can’t seem to get enough of watching Joe, as You season 3 dominated Netflix’s Top 10 list for nearly three weeks and quickly became one of the most-watched shows on the streamer with over 465 million views to date. All of this interest comes with the understanding that Joe has done awful things to men and women—yet killing for Joe isn’t an act of desire. It’s a tool; one he uses to avenge someone unredeemable or problematic to him.
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This makes the return of Michael C. Hall as vigilante serial killer Dexter in Dexter: New Blood, even more timely. Eight years after the series finale, Dexter Morgan is now Jim Lindsay—a man living in the small town of Iron Lake, New York, and dating the local sheriff. But the past is still haunting him. He talks to his dead sister Debra daily (who acts as his conscience and antagonist) and his 16 year-old-son, Harrison, has just found him after a decade. All the while, his urges to kill are starting to resurface after years of keeping them suppressed.
The shows both use a voiceover, which provides a window into the men’s deepest inner thoughts. By allowing us inside, it saturates the impact of their violent natures—and somehow, even softens them. There’s also a familial element at play here, as Joe and Dexter are both new fathers. While Joe ultimately gives up his son Henry for adoption, Dexter is getting reacquainted with his and learning how to parent. Exploring these relationships illustrates the parts of their humanity that still exist, and it permits us to see them as complicated men; not just killers.
Both of them, as well as Harrison, have suffered abandonment issues and complicated trauma that shaped how they operate today. This lends itself to pangs of our sympathy. And it also presents the question of inherited behaviors: In Episode 6, Dexter’s girlfriend Angela discovers his true identity and says he needs to acknowledge “his problems are becoming Harrison’s problems.” Of course, she doesn’t know how accurate this is, but Dexter does.
Even after everything, Dexter coyly asks Angela if she’ll keep his secret, and we hope she will, despite knowing it’s crazy. When Harrison admits to Angela’s daughter that he secretly thinks about hurting people, she also doesn’t dismiss him. Instead, she recognizes the hurt and embraces him, similar to what viewers have done for Dexter’s character by demanding a reboot in the first place.
Like Joe, Dexter kills out of what is considered a moral obligation—a kind of homicidal Robin Hood, who subconsciously tries to heal past wounds as they fester. The pair are driven by purpose, not pleasure—and that distinction is enough to blur the lines between morality and acceptance.
Though Dexter only engages in the carefully planned murders of those he knows are terrible people, we see his code of ethics loosening on Dexter: New Blood. After finding the drug dealer responsible for the Fentanyl laced drugs that caused Harrison’s overdose, he takes delight in killing him. Debra notes that he’s “killing out of vengeance, not duty,” which in Dexter’s world, are two very different things. Later, while listening to Molly’s true-crime podcast about the Bay Harbor Butcher, Dexter waxes poetic about “the good ol’ days,” agreeing out loud that he’s feeling a little “butchery.” Even when he’s referring to the most heinous of acts, we remain on his side.
Our fascination with bad guys and serial killers is nothing new. Tony Soprano and Walter White were powerful men who each did despicable things that, in reality, society would condemn. But two decades later, viewers continue to adore them. Their charm and deep-seated sensitivities somehow exonerate them from being held accountable on screen. These kinds of characters present a conflict that often leaves viewers unsure of how to feel about them. They may embody both villain and hero; they’ve faced pain, which also makes them, despite everything else, relatable. So it’s only natural to gravitate toward them. As Audrey tells Harrison, “We’re outsiders, but it doesn’t have to destroy us.”
Last year also marked the return of a very different beloved serial killer in a TV reboot: Chucky. The red-headed doll is far from sensitive. Yet in the season finale, while planning an epic killing spree, Chucky instructs, “No babies, or anyone under the age of 5 or 6, we’re not savages!” The tongue-in-cheek comment subtly explores the layers we assign to brutality, and what distinguishes one monster from the next. We’re a society that embraces villains—but also needs to humanize them.
The show’s popularity is more evidence that we’re craving fictional worlds right now, even if they’re scary ones. As Dr. Alison Forti, Ph.D. and associate teaching professor at Wake Forest University explains, “These types of shows may include people and plots that seem inaccessible to people and provide an outlet for various untapped emotions.” Naturally, knowing these characters are fictional makes them easier to digest than real life.
“When our own lives feel overwhelming, we can view a protagonist whose life is far more dangerous, and get a sense of relief,” Dr. Forti adds. The terrors of the real world and those who inhabit it can be scary and unknown. But there’s safety in a villain that remains solely on screen, providing comfort through escapism. It only makes sense that we continue embracing them.
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