WARNING: Written on the cusp of the series' final season, this piece contains spoilers from Seasons 4 and 5.
The inherent restrictions and freedoms of working in a fictional form are often those of creating unique worlds that must be taken on their own terms—things sublimely made in their own strange human image. Like dreams that vanish or lose their power when you try to retell them, stories (the best ones) often defy attempts to explain them concretely, or posit a certain message from them. The freedom at work in creating such defiant forms in the first place also restricts their analogies from any precise application outside their settings. At best they point to parallels in the real world, make us question our assumptions, and, if they are persuasive enough, change what we think or believe about something fundamental, often despite ourselves.
This is not that easy in a time of high ideological polarization. Yet, it remains among the charms, powers and moral perils of storytelling, that in our willing suspension of disbelief, we may also suspend our beliefs for story’s sake.
Seldom has this storytelling power been more evident than in Showtime’s remarkable television series, Dexter. The story follows the secret life of serial killer/blood spatter expert, Dexter Morgan. If that prospect alone would make us flip to another channel, the mitigation in Dexter of the evil a serial killer represents is one of the hooks that has drawn and kept viewers riveted for the past seven seasons. For, Dexter witnessed the murder and dismemberment of his mother at age three, and it did ‘something’ to him. That ‘something’ has made him a killer. His father, Harry Morgan, a Miami Metro cop, saw what was wrong with Dexter and channeled his son’s pathology by means of a moral code. Dexter would kill only other killers. Harry taught Dexter everything he knows including how to avoid detection by law enforcement. Oh, to have such a supportive and accepting parent!
Another mitigating factor in our identification and outright rooting for the morbid killer, is that Dexter knows he is a monster. Through voice-overs that give the show its interior substance, Dexter confesses his own sickness. Even if his thought process is wrong and we know in our gut he is making a mistake, a kind of appealing humility shines through in the aftermath when Dexter understands his error. It is an ingenious device, not only because Dexter’s mind becomes an underlying texture, but also because in a way it becomes our mind, and it feels he is confiding in us. While he may be lying and hiding from everybody else, with us he is candid. We see every awkward moment, understand each instance where the empathy lacking Dexter is at a complete loss to respond in appropriate ways, and we smile or wince sympathetically at these droll and pointed moments. We are in on all his secrets and so respond as his confessors, if not as accessories after the fact.
One element of Dexter's character that gives us confidence in him is that innocence—often a bull’s-eye for pathological killers—is safe in his presence. That he appears as a bulwark (the sole familial and emotional support) to his adopted sister, Deborah, even if that is a false perception on her part, gives him another redeeming quality. Though, in fact, Dexter has no such emotional support to offer, it may be that his unflappable cool and lack of empathy appears as the strength the emotionally labile Deb needs in her life.
Perhaps what we admire most about Dexter is his daring, and, if such attributes apply to serial murderers, his savoir fare. Season 5 comes to mind, when Lumen has botched her attempt to avenge her kidnapping and rape on one of the guilty men against Dexter’s advice. Dexter arrives in time to finish off the man, get Lumen out of harm’s way, recapture the cellophane wrapped man he’d intended for his own killing table, set him up with Lumen’s victim to make it look like an autoerotic encounter gone wrong, and walk onto the scene just as Deb and the Miami Metro homicide team arrives. Avenging and guardian angel all in one.
At these moments, when storytelling’s power pushes Dexter to his limits, we are most closely allied and complicit with him. And as with any bravura performance, we want to stand up and cheer.
So is there a place in our world for a principled killer? If the state can do it, mistake prone as it is, why not a highly trained killing machine with an unwavering moral code? This brings us back to my opening premise: it is impossible to translate the metaphoric world of a Dexter into the real life scenarios of criminal justice for the simple reason that Dexter is a fiction. Fictional Dexter may feel empowered to carry out the work that state institutions are set up to do, but as of yet there aren’t any sociopathic killers in real life that can marry a pathological need to kill with a dead eye for justice.
The show has framed these questions dramatically over the years, but has wisely steered clear of them rhetorically. While the human desire for vengeance is an open subject on the show, Dexter’s eye for an eye moral code internalizes the issue of the death penalty itself without ever uttering the words.
This kind of restraint and intelligence is paired with uncompromising grit. The show’s trademark over the years has been its refusal to take the easy way out, either in setting up its harrowing story lines, or in subjecting its characters to the highest degree of pressure—so that impossible choices, and life changing decisions loom at every turn. In my opinion and to my amazement, the show got better in each of its first four seasons, climaxing with the shattering and pivotal Trinity case.
Newly married and a father to boot, Dexter found himself trying to reconcile his ‘dark passenger’ with family life, and through his son, Harrison, there were hints of a possible transformation. These were dashed with his wife Rita’s murder, and the nightmare of cyclical violence looming. The season ended with Dexter finding Harrison sitting in a pool of Rita’s blood just as he had as a child with his mother.
At the time, I had hoped the show would attempt the most daring feat of all, if it could have done so believably: to deliver Dexter to the threshold of a new existence where he no longer needed to kill. This may have never been in the cards, but the question of determinism is a major one in Dexter, and one the show seems to have answered very early on: Dexter cannot banish or resist his desire to kill. I have wondered whether this conclusion was a question of strict realism for the show, because sociopathic killers cannot change or stop killing until they are caught. But, strictly speaking, as noted, Dexter and his code have no real life parallels either.
So would it be possible for this fictional Dexter--who not only seems to relish the ritual of killing and shedding blood, but also reacts emotionally to the murder of the innocent and becomes enraged at the unrepentant killers on his table--could this thinking, reflective and self-aware killer come to be disenchanted with killing altogether? If Dexter is a metaphor for us, the answer should be yes. But, I have a feeling this game of killing the killers will have no happy ending.
As the eighth and final season is set to premiere, one thing seems inevitable. If Dexter cannot stop killing, then somebody will stop him. In the end, the ingenious writers of the show will have had it both ways. For in lulling us into identifying and rooting for Dexter all along, they have gotten us to admit, at least provisionally under the spell of great storytelling, that a mitigated form of evil is necessary in the world, and, in as much as Dexter’s pathological thirst for blood and his code of vengeance is a metaphor for our own, they remind us that this long running spree really needs to end.