Friday, July 2, 2010

My love/hate relationship with Dexter Morgan

So I’m getting really confused about my feelings towards Dexter – the TV series, that is. The show is pretty much made for me – blood, guns, dead bodies, cool chicks and conflicted masculinity with a hearty dose of violent stabbings and death-by-strangulation. What could be more appropriate? (For a gender/violence Masters project, that is). Behind the show’s colourful array of forensic labs, bloated corpses, Miami palm trees and ridiculously good-looking actors lies a set of deep contradictions which establishes Dexter as a show committed to exploring the grey areas of justice and responsibility…whilst also encouraging us to be, if not empathetic, at least sympathetic to the actions of a serial murderer. It’s this second message which makes me uncomfortable, because it’s unavoidable due to the plot’s very construction and the nature of prime time TV.

To begin with, the protagonist is a psycho-killer. He hides his addiction to killing by only slashing the baddest of the bad – serial rapists, child murderers, abusive pornographers, etc. After Dexter has sliced and diced his victims he dumps their bodies in the bay and preserves a drop of their blood on a glass slide for his collection that he keeps in the air-con vent in his apartment (weird). Cool thing is, all this weirdness is explained away when you find out Dexter, at a very young age, saw his mother hacked to bits with a chainsaw inside a shipping container and was then trapped in there amidst bloody family limbs for several days. He grew up, consequently, an emotionless sociopath with a desire to kill. Interestingly, Dexter does not stick to killing those who “deserve” death in some attempt to exact justice (which would make him like Batman) rather, he does so avoid getting caught and to “fit in”, because he can’t actually stop killing (more like Dracula).

But we still like Dexter despite his inability to care about morals. We don’t want him to get caught, because he’s learned to fit in so well that we, the audience, get duped by his sweet smile, his great wit, his fantastic forensic skills, the way he protects his sister, and most of all (for me) his beeeautiful relationship with his girlfriend Rita and her children. It’s this relationship where we see Dexter’s own fear and confusion as he starts experiencing true emotions for the first time in his life. Dexter himself becomes conflicted – he wants to be honest with Rita about his true self, but of course he can’t be, because then she’d be terrified of him and leave him. This results in an elaborate set of lies which ends up with Rita believing Dexter is a heroine addict and Dexter having to go to rehab to keep the façade going. I started getting uncomfortable here because I wanted Dexter to successfully deceive Rita so they could stay together…whilst also being disgusted that their whole relationship is based on a lie.

By the end of Season 2 though I was feeling even more uncomfortable. Two divers find garbage bags containing the fruit of Dexter’s dismembering adventures at the bottom of the bay and the public begin mythologising about the “Bay Harbour Butcher” and who this may be. The audience spends the whole season watching all the near-misses Dexter has with getting caught, till he finally frames his fellow colleague and policeman Sergeant Doakes – one of the shows main characters. Incidentally, Doakes dies at the hands of Lilah, an addict Dexter meets in rehab. But the evidence has been set up so well that Doakes is posthumously convicted, much to the dismay of the Miami PD. I felt sick that Doakes died so suddenly and that he became known as this killer: I felt sick about Dexter’s smugness and how happy he was not only for his freedom but also for Doakes’ death (the two never got along). And yet I was so so SO happy he wasn’t caught, because it meant he could get back together with Rita (my favourite female character in crime television, even more than Olivia in SVU) and it meant he could kill that psycho-hose-beast Lilah (my least favourite female character in crime television, no thanks to her annoying nasal voice).

This is the crux of it all. I don’t like killing and it makes me feel gross. But I still love Dexter. I don’t think the series endorses killing, because someone always has to take the punishment for the crime. It’s just who receives punishment and who should receive punishment which is played around with. The show even acknowledges the horror of its protagonist’s actions - Dexter’s foster dad Harry actually commits suicide once he realises who his son has become. But while the show engages with the subtleties of justice, guilt, responsibility and flaws of the legal system and encourages audiences to do the same, I wonder how much any prime time American TV show can engage with this truly. For the sake of ratings and the audience’s contentment, Dexter always has to win and hence always has to lie. I can’t fathom he’ll ever get caught and go to prison for life for what he’s done; nor can I imagine him coming clean and the citizens of Miami accepting him as their very own vigilante protector (like I said, he’s not Batman). However I’ve only just finished Season 2 so who knows how mental things get. I’m still going to keep watching – I’m addicted, and Dexter and Rita together make me feel a warmth inside I haven’t felt since Buffy and Angel first made out in ’96 (wow). While conflicted and conflicting, Dexter is nevertheless engaging audiences well if it makes me react so strongly. And despite its promotion of a killer, it’s forced me to think about and articulate my views on morality more than any other Miami-based murder series – take that, Horatio. Dexter’s sandy hair is way more natural than yours anyway.

NB – let’s not forget that Julie Benz (the actress who plays Rita) became famous through her stellar performance as the vampire Darla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. She's still hooking up with dudes who dig blood and all about putting her life on the line to protect her kids. Amazing!


  1. finally! you wrote it!
    wow - i really feel your confliction (is confliction a word?)
    tempted to watch it now...
    do you think if you started watching it, knowing how you were going to be 'sucked in' that you would feel so conflicted? or is it really just that good?

  2. Well, I'm glad you feel my confliction (let's make it a word). I have S3 right now but too scared to watch it by myself. Sticking to True Blood instead.
    I think I exaggerate its goodness. Dexter is not like The Road, ie its not like everyone LOVES it as soon as they see/watch it. But it's interesting for me, and the plot-driven suspense is pretty damn good. Plus the cinematography is stunning AND I am like obsessed with RIta she is actually the best representation of a woman in crime TV EVER - well almost maybe next to Miss Marple from Agatha Christie.
    I think really I love it because it conflicts me. For such a plot-driven show (which is not predictable in terms of storyline but predictable in terms of the final outcomes of the story line, ie Dexter always wins and gets the girl no matter what plot twists occur along the way) it does a great job of messing with my mind. Can't think of any other TV show that I enjoyed this much that made me think so much!

  3. Oh the power of "confliction"! Maybe this is what makes this show so intoxicating Julz? That powerful sensation of loving a character one minute and then hating them and everything they stand for the next. It's definitely powerful television, how much more interesting and addictive is something that makes you squirm, rile and shiver while simultaneously prompting you to gasp out load in admiration for its aesthetic beauty? Total emotional trickery and what I love so completely and utterly about cinema and good television!

    Great blog, keep up the good work.