by J. M. Tyree
From Film Quarterly Autumn 2008, Vol. 62, No. 1
Dexter, Showtime’s serial killer soap opera, follows a sociopath who works for the forensics lab of the Miami Police Department. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a blood-spatter analyst who solves crimes by charting red spray patterns and trajectories, taking a ghoulish delight in tracing the abstract art of violence. But when Miami-area murderers are acquitted or avoid arrest, Dexter hunts them down and kills them himself, out of what he calls a sense of “civic pride.” On his own time, Dexter murders them and dumps their dismembered bodies from his boat, Slice of Life, into the ocean.
Dexter’s “code” allows him only to kill other killers, so the viewer indulges him and actually grows fond of him. He may be a serial killer, but he’s good with kids, and he buys doughnuts for his co-workers. As in the Ripley novels of Patricia Highsmith—or the notorious scene in which Norman Bates disposes of Marion Crane’s car in Hitchcock’s Psycho— there is transference at work in Dexter, an unlikely and guilty pleasure in identifying with the practical problems of a killer. The truth is that if Dexter gets caught, all the fun ends.
Another pleasure of Dexter (based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay) is the show’s devilish parody of the crime show, the jargon of crime labs and the endless nightly televised entertainment of gore-soaked crime scenes. In CBS’s CSI: Miami franchise, for example, the moral indignation of the investigators only serves to disguise the truth that America craves blood work after dinner. CBS, the CSI channel, is also Showtime’s parent company, and showed late night reruns of Dexter. Both shows use the backdrop of Miami (apparently a hell of never-ending massacres), to the extent that Dexter almost seems like a wicked spoof of CSI: Miami. Dexter’s cinematographer, Romeo Tirone, describes the show’s look as “film noir graphic novel.” Tirone’s HD Miami (some of which is Long Beach) looks lush, hyperreal. Inside, blood spills, drips, and sprays over condo walls, evoking comic books. The producers of Dexter know what America wants, but they also show how sick it is. Hitchcock surely would have appreciated Dexter—the show’s tone resembles the grim jokes in his corpse comedy The Trouble with Harry. Dexter’s revels in blood spatter, both in his day job and his nighttime sport, also recall the tongue-in-cheek Grand Guignol effects of films like Pulp Fiction and Fargo, where obviously fake “horrific violence” is played for laughs.
The narrative arc of season 1 of Dexter charted the investigation of the Ice Truck Killer (Christian Camargo), a serial murderer who turned out to be Dexter’s long-lost brother, Brian. Brian (now named Rudy Cooper) insinuated himself back into Dexter’s life, stirring up long-suppressed memories of witnessing his mother’s murder. Rudy seduced and planned to kill Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), a homicide detective and Dexter’s adoptive sister, hoping to enlist Dexter and subvert his code. This code was taught to Dexter by Debra’s father, Harry (James Remar), the cop who found Dexter sitting next to his butchered mother in a two-inch pool of blood, adopted the child, and raised him to be a killer of killers.
Season 2 opens with a frustrated Dexter recounting the precise amount of time—thirty-eight days, sixteen hours, and twelve minutes—since his last kill, his brother. “I really need to kill somebody,” Dexter muses. “I’ve always enjoyed my work.” But he can’t, because he is being watched by a co-worker, Sergeant James Doakes (Erik King), a “human bloodhound” and former Special Forces soldier who suspects him. And when Dexter gets the chance to kill, he twice botches his chances, leading to a crisis of self-doubt. Worse, Dexter’s secret underwater stash of dismembered bodies, his “human harvest,” has been discovered accidentally by treasure divers. The new mass killer is dubbed “The Bay Harbor Butcher,” and the FBI is brought in, with Dexter’s own crime lab (and his own sister) set working to capture him.
In season 1, Dexter developed a romantic relationship against his better judgment, and found in himself a surprising capacity for protective acts of kindness. He can’t feel anything, but he employs a fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy for imitating normal life. His love interest is Rita Bennett (Julie Benz), a single mom with two children in the clutches of an abusive jailbird ex, Paul (Mark Pellegrino). Even when Paul grows threatening Dexter struggles with his desire to kill him, ultimately rejecting the idea as unethical because of his code (Paul is vile but not a murderer). Instead, Dexter shoots him full of heroin so that he will be sent back to prison for breaking his parole.
In season 2, Rita discovers what Dexter has done to Paul, and because of the heroin-related nature of his actions, she demands that he attend group sessions at Narcotics Anonymous, mistakenly thinking he is himself addicted to drugs. There, Dexter meets a darkly beautiful English sculptor, Lila (Jaime Murray), who becomes his sponsor, encouraging him to resist his addiction, even though she doesn’t know at first what Dexter’s true addiction entails. Initially, Dexter is completely seduced by Lila, entering into a sexual relationship of mutually assured destruction, and abandoning his more solid moorings with Rita. Lila seems to offer Dexter a more honest life, free from murder, but it turns out that whenever someone she loves tries to leave her, she has a nasty habit of immolating them in their sleep. The blue-eyed Rita and the dark-eyed Lila battle for Dexter’s soul throughout season 2. When Lila discovers the truth about Dexter, she’s willing to accept him for what and who he really is. Dexter ultimately prefers Rita, but his decision to leave Lila puts the lives of Rita’s children in danger.
In another ironic turn, Dexter’s pursuer, Doakes, is himself misidentified as the Bay Harbor Butcher. Doakes discovers a leather “trophy” case filled with bloodstained slides hidden in Dexter’s condo, and follows him to an isolated Everglades cabin owned by a cocaine dealer who helped murder Dexter’s mother. The dragnet tightens around the Butcher, all the clues pointing to a perpetrator inside the force. But when the police find the slides in Doakes’s car, he and not Dexter becomes the prime suspect.
Plotlines don’t do the series justice. The story is deliberately ludicrous, a baroque, involuted, grimmer-than-Grimm fairytale. Every melodramatic sidebar is dissolved in acidic sarcasm. Dexter’s cast works the impossible scenarios by giving the impression of real people trapped in an ongoing nightmare. Hall, who memorably played a gay undertaker, David Fisher, on Six Feet Under, is demonically droll as Dexter, a master of a rictus both frightening and oddly comforting. Hall puts on a wonderfully witty double performance, of Dexter being Dexter and of Dexter pretending to be human, using an easy-going generosity to play the role of the ideal boyfriend, brother, and friend. As Debra, Carpenter manages to be gangly, goofy, clumsy, tough, and loveable. Benz, playing Rita, is exasperated, oblivious, and ultra-sincere, but radiates a powerful softness so strong and good that one feels it might make Dexter almost human, given time. Dexter’s best friend, Detective Angel Batista, is played by David Zayas as professionally wise but hopeless in love and clueless about his chum’s true nature. Dexter’s boss, Lt. Maria Laguerta (Lauren Vélez), is a scheming and tough but not heartless career woman. She also protects Dexter from suspicion at work despite her feelings for her ex-partner Doakes. C. S. Lee, as Dexter’s wisecracking lab partner, Vincent Masuka, given some of the show’s best lines, is hilariously dry, almost undead, perhaps scarier than Dexter. Added to this core cast for season 2 is Murray’s Lila, who exudes a sharklike thrilled malice to enliven a stereotypical hell-hath-no-fury role. Keith Carradine plays FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy, the lead investigator on the Butcher case. Lundy is a super-sleuth and so called “mindhunter,” but he takes after Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, carrying an official-looking briefcase filled with a blank notebook, delicious tea, and a picnic lunch when he is out hunting monsters.
What matters in Dexter is not so much what happens, but rather a certain tone, chilly and mocking, a sociopath’s vision of ordinary life, often heard as a voiceover using Dexter’s interior commentary on the world and the people around him. “I’m not human,” Dexter suggests to the apparition of his dead brother in a church, just after casting a professional eye at the blood pattern on Christ’s stab wound in a sculpture of the pietà.
That tone never seems mad, however, because in Dexter normal life is portrayed as so fundamentally screwed-up. “I’m fine,” Doakes says after killing two men in the line of duty. “I’m fine,” Debra says as she returns to work after her ordeal at the hands of the Ice Truck Killer. In Dexter, normal life is portrayed as so demented that a serial killer’s personality is not very much different from anyone else’s. In a brief scene in episode 2, Dexter finds a helpful if unintentional accomplice in the police weapons room, a man who shows Dexter how to use an alligator tranquillizing pistol (a black-and-white photograph of Nazi soldiers hangs on his office wall). It’s fair enough to say that Dexter is totally perverse, like a Jacobean blood tragedy: with a similarly phantasmagorical relish as plays such as John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. The show’s basically surreal nature effectively dodges the bullet of a sustained moral critique, which would be humorless and off-point. “I’m not so much doing this to you as I’m doing it for me,” Dexter explains to a gangster before dispatching him. This pantomime of the slogans of self-actualization is a ruthlessly accurate reductio ad absurdum: how does one go about releasing one’s true nature, as all the talk shows suggest, if one’s true nature happens to be that of a killer?
In season 2′s most intriguing episode, “The Dark Defender” (written by Tim Schlattmann and directed by Keith Gordon), Dexter watches the progress of the investigation against him take an unexpected turn. When the identities of the Butcher’s victims are revealed to be murderers, the public applauds him, elevating Dexter to the status of a folktale avenger or comic-book anti-hero. And indeed Rita excoriates him for disappearing at night “like Clark fucking Kent,” but the FBI describes the Butcher as more like one’s own “personal Batman.” Batman is an apt comparison, although Dexter prefers to violate Batman’s aversion to killing. Both live outside the law, “part human, part mutant,” as Dexter puts it. Both cling to an ethos riddled with perplexities and contradictions. Visiting a comic-book shop, Dexter finds himself transformed on a handmade superhero poster from Butcher into The Dark Defender, a protector of the city and the executioner of its predators. Vigilantes simultaneously share territory with cops and outlaws, they break the law in the hopes of helping society. For Dexter, this paradox becomes acute when he solves a case with DNA evidence, then decides to murder the perpetrator himself rather than turning his definitive evidence over to the police. It seems Dexter sometimes omits or manipulates evidence while doing his blood-spatter analysis in order to allow killers to escape the police so that he can take a more personal approach. Dexter describes being “half sick with the thrill, the complete wrongness,” when the “dark passenger” inside him takes command.
At the start of season 1, Dexter is a classic scourge, eliminating evil without being capable of good. By the middle of season 2, however, Dexter finds himself awestruck by beginning to lose some of his sociopathic nature, largely through his relationship with Rita, her kids, and his longstanding affection for Debra. “Lately,” he explains, “there are these moments when I feel.” Little by little, Dexter finds himself capable of becoming human, and apart from the storylines of individual episodes and full seasons, a larger question is encoded into the narrative arc of the show. Is it possible that one day Dexter will lose his desire to kill or become completely normal, feeling rather than pretending? Unlikely—the show takes pains to preserve the malicious appeal of Dexter’s socio-pathic “lifestyle choice”—but the possibility entails a different kind of suspense. In season 1, Dexter thinks that his adoptive father taught him the code in order to channel his murderous impulses, but throughout season 2 it appears that Harry deliberately socialized Dexter as a killing machine to take revenge on the world’s uncaught murderers. Dexter’s “true self,” then, involves neither nature nor nurture alone. The show doesn’t theorize about personality disorders, but nobody has answered this question about violent criminals very well. Dexter goes into a higher register as quality drama when it considers these problems, repeatedly flashing back to Dexter’s fragmented memories of his mother’s murder. At these moments, the show is genuinely frightening. “I’m Dexter, and I’m not sure what I am,” he explains in group therapy, sounding like Iago. By the end of season 2, Dexter has decided that he will remain a killer: “Recovery isn’t an option.” But he has at least experienced an emotional breakthrough. Dexter feels something new, regret over his temporary loss of Rita.
Dexter explores the wickedness lurking in everyday life. In one scene, a car salesman shows Dexter how the patented “Stow and Go Seating” in a minivan can be quickly converted into mobile torture chamber. “Want a real glimpse of human nature?” Dexter muses at one point. “Stand in the way of someone’s mocha latte.” In another telling moment, Doakes discovers Dexter fiddling with something on his computer at work, and closes in, hoping to find him doing something incriminating. Alas, it is only porn, which Dexter has planted on his screen to disguise what he’s really up to. Doakes, however, isn’t fooled; he puts Dexter on notice that he’s done some digging and that he knows Dexter hasn’t rented pornography in years. The point is distressing and subversive: a “healthy” person should look at pornography in a blood-spatter analysis laboratory, while the true sociopath only pretends to do such things in order to appear normal. Sociopathic behavior is simply human behavior minus that certain something—soul, heart—that separates us not from the animals but from the robots.
Dexter‘s true theme is arguably what Freud called “the psychopathology of everyday life.” What happens when one fails to “Enjoy!” life as much as television commands? Dexter sees the mildly psychotic nature of car salesmen, the blood-lust at the core of the American crime dramas, and the prurient media feeding frenzy for any true crime story involving the gruesome dispatch of vulnerable people. Far from recoiling from these base impulses, Dexter revels in them until their obscenity becomes a joke. Dexter is the antidote to CSI: Miami; one poison cancels out another, as in a medieval spell. Dexter is rendered nontoxic for those viewers who accept the principle that the frisson of fake violence is not at all the same as a taste for the real thing.
J. M. TYREE is a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program.