November 2006

Darkly Dreaming of Dexter:
Why Showtime’s new 'serial killer' may just be a Super Hero

Media Commentary
By John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5 Every once and a while, a great TV series is born. It slips onto the airwaves and—often defying convention—transcends its historical context. After watching five episodes of Showtime’s serial killer Dexter, I can testify with confidence that the 2006-2007 season has produced at least one new classic of the medium.

Based on a novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" by Jeff Lindsay, this Showtime series follows the life and pursuits of Dexter Morgan, (Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall), a blood-spatter forensic analyst living in contemporary Miami. Though this set-up may sound like the latest twist on an uninspired CSI format, Dexter is nothing of the sort.

Here’s the twist: the charming and handsome Dexter also happens to be a sociopath…and a serial killer. He readily admits this character trait during the series premiere. In a well-written voice over, he notes that "…he has no feelings for anyone in his life." Dexter can almost feel emotions for his adopted sister, Debra, but otherwise…there's just an overwhelming void in his heart.

"You can't get emotionally invested," he warns Debra, a Miami cop, in the series premiere, in regards to her investigation of a serial killer who drains the blood from his victims. Dexter should know; it’s the motto he lives by…

In various episodes, such as Love, American Style, viewers witness how Dexter is an outsider shunning society and observing it dispassionately from a distant, emotionless perspective. At one point Dexter fantasizes about an apocalypse or a plague…and that he’s the only survivor. He would wish for such a catastrophe, he confides in the audience, because then he wouldn’t have to hide his true self anymore.

Serial killers and sociopaths are pretty played out on television. There’s Criminal Minds (about police hunting serial killers) for instance, but Dexter boasts another twist. In particular, Dexter’s anti-social tendencies were pinpointed at an early age by his exceptionally intuitive father Harry, another cop (played by James Remar). Understanding that lacking guidance his son could become a criminal and a monster, Harry set out to teach Dexter how to fit in, how to “hide,” how to wear a mask in society. Okay, not so good, right?

Well, Harry did something else too; something truly impressive. Without judgment, self-recrimination or condemnation, he rigorously imposed upon Dexter a strict code of ethics and morals. Thanks to this training, the so-called “Rules of Harry,” an adult Dexter doesn’t kill random people; in fact—he protects society.

Although he can’t feel love himself, Dexter does understand justice, and so his antisocial tendencies have been harnessed and marshaled in the direction of ruthless criminals, those who have escaped legal repercussions. Dexter always makes certain these men and women are 100% guilty…and then he hunts them and kills them to satisfy that urge within. He’s also like a surgeon: cutting out society’s cancers. It’s win-win.

In various episodes, Dexter has gone after child molesters, a repeat DUI killer (Crocodile), and a man who drowns poverty-stricken Cuban immigrants hoping to succeed in America (Love, American Style). These criminals all deserve what they get. At the same time that Dexter deals with these individual menaces, the series follows an overall story arc, depicting how Debra and Dexter pursue a particularly nefarious serial killer, 'The Ice Cream Truck Killer.' That monster recognizes Dexter as one of his own, and this both troubles and tantalizes Dexter.

All the episodes of Dexter I’ve seen thus far are filled with clever observations (again, usually in voice over) from Dexter about the normal populace he interacts with and hides from. Thus, in the time honored tradition of science fiction programs such as Star Trek, he is essentially the 'resident alien' or 'observant outsider.'

The main reason I believe Dexter is such outstanding television is that it constantly asks the question: "is Dexter Morgan—a sociopath—moral? Is a man who can feel nothing…capable of morality?" That enduring and provocative interrogative forces us to re-examine notions of morality, of what is good, and what is bad. Today, while we wage illegal wars, torture prisoners in violation of the Geneva convention and keep our neighbors’ children starving, questions of morality are more trenchant than ever.

In fact, from a certain point of view, Dexter Morgan might be viewed not as a sociopath, but actually—and controversially—as a super hero. In one episode, Dexter talks explicitly of wearing a 'mask,' much like Batman or The Flash. Dexter also boasts a secret identity as an avenger, much like the Caped Crusader; one that he rigorously hides. By day he’s mild-mannered Dexter Morgan, by blackest midnight, he’s a Dark Knight of sorts, cleaning up the city of human refuge. Dexter also incorporates the “outsider” perspective of Superman (existing outside humanity and thus being able to comment on it). Finally, Dexter has dedicated himself to the eradication of evil and the pursuit of justice, the very mission of the super hero archetype.

We’ve all heard the proverb that “justice is blind.” To be blind, we must put aside our emotions right? Justice isn’t about passion…that’s just revenge. Dexter is ideally suited to mete out justice because he doesn’t feel love or hate, amity or enmity. No, he is unclouded by such human concerns…and therefore perfectly placed to police us. He is unbiased.

And yet Dexter’s a murderer and a monster. So is he good or evil? He is an evildoer who does good? It’s hard to say, but these are the questions you’ll ask yourself while watching Dexter; and part of the reason this series is absolutely, unequivocally brilliant.

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Copyright © 2006 by John Kenneth Muir. All Rights Reserved.