Sorry for anyone who thought, given my 'punny' title, that this would have anything to do with Breaking Bad... it doesn't. I couldn't write an entire entry on breakfast in Breaking Bad unless I were to go into a deep character study of Walter Jr.
Instead this is about the morning routine, specifically the morning routine done by serial killers in film. The particular idea of showing the sociopathic nature of the serial killer of your choice by showing him/her going through some kind of daily routine is such a staple of serial killer fiction that it is nearly a trope itself. And why not use it? The morning routine in particular is very easy and effective: It presents a convenient opening to the story, which is the main character waking up and beginning his day. What follows is usually some short montage featuring the title character going about the typical morning preparations in a methodical, almost obsessive fashion.For this article I will focus on what are arguably the best known serial killer morning routines: Dexter Morgan's and Patrick Bateman's. Despite being essentially the same idea, the two scenes come off to the viewer in entirely different ways based on subtle changes in tone and mood that do a great job of setting up the story that waits ahead.
First off is America's favorite serial killer, Dexter Morgan. Dexter's morning routine is probably one of the longer opening title sequences on television, and yet I have seen it over sixty times and never skipped it, even during the height of my personal 'Dexter fever' where I marathoned the first three seasons in the span of a month or so. I think I watched, for example, Death Note's opening sequence once or twice before choosing to skip it before every episode, and yet it is only a few seconds longer than Dexter's. So why is it that I hit the skip button the second I heard crazy J-Pop begin to play out of my speakers, but when I see that mosquito on Dexter's arm I feel a jolt of pure dopamine drench my brain? I suppose it's simply because it is, as Deb would say,so fucking well done.
Dexter's opening lets you know just what you are getting into. The sequence starts off with his first kill of the day, a little mosquito that feeds off of a vein in his arm. Upon the death of the creature we see Dexter's face curl up into a small smile of childish glee at his kill. From there we are treated to a variety of plain images with dark undertones, from the blood leaking onto a piece of toilet paper after he shaves to the all too sinister looking piece of fruit he shoves into a juicer. All of the imagery is accompanied by a dark yet playful tune composed by Rolfe Kent which fits the mood all too perfectly. In only a minute and forty odd seconds the audience has a clear idea of Dexter's character in their mind: A man trying to hide his dark passenger beneath the guise of a normal life. Not only that, the opening also proves how elegantly the writers of the show walk the line between darkness and humor.
The ideas are the same and the overall goals are shared between the two. The main characters wakes up and go through the motions of their morning routines in that obsessive compulsive way we like to think serial killers do things. The biggest difference is simply that the two openings exist on complete opposite ends of the same spectrum.
Dexter's subtle hints and clues towards his dark nature has been completely replaced by Patrick's upfront and foreboding voice over which describes each and every facet of his morning routine. His hollow and monotone voice showcases the character's lack of human emotions and at the end of the scene he even admits that he is not Patrick Bateman and that his life as Patrick is an illusion, a far cry from the more subtle hints towards Dexter's second life during that show's opening credits. The quirky Rolfe Kent score is replaced by a sophisticated piano track as emotionless as Bateman himself. Also unlike Dexter's, Patrick's routine is used to allude to the world he inhabits: Sleazy 1980's New York. Patrick is right at the center of 1980's big business, and this routine clearly shows how much weight he places on personal looks and physique. His sociopathy and vanity are on a bright display here,aspects of his character which are played with through the rest of the movie. In just two and a half minutes we, the audience, understand not only who and what Patrick Bateman is, but also have a hint as to the deeper messages the film has about big business in the eighties. These facts alone make it an essential scene to the movie, that combined with the expert camera work and music score, make it one of the best film openings in recent memory.
Given its effectiveness it is no mystery why the morning routine is used to open a story, specifically one about serial killers. As seen above, when handled well the opening not only works to introduce us to the characters, but also can work to introduce the tone and themes of the works in which they appear. The morning routine is not the only way of doing this as well, just the most obvious. Hannibal Lecture's hiss hiss hiss or his detailed paintings work in much the same fashion for him as the morning routine do for Dexter and Patrick. Film likes to portray serial killers as beasts of habit so that the audience can separate themselves from the killer's cold obsessive ways while simultaneously drawing us in with images of the mundane made interesting by the character doing it. Hardly any daily habit is grounded so deeply into our collective psyches as the morning routine is, thus making it one of the most effective ways of introducing us to these dark beasts of habit.
If you dig this article feel free to check out my blog for more articles like it. Editorials like this one are posted every Friday among a few other weekly segments. Or don't visit it, use your free will and keep surfing Screened!