Thanks to Netflix’s streaming feature, I’ve been binging on back seasons of Dexter in spare moments. I can’t figure out why this flawed-but-clever show is so fascinating to me. Okay, yes, there’s the fact that I, too, like the title character, am a sociopathic serial killer who kills according to a quasi-moral ‘code’ at night yet lives a good-natured normal life working alongside law enforcement by day, but besides that? (Kidding)
Seriously though, the character study is definitely a large part of the fascination. Much of Dexter is about Dexter’s struggles to fit in as a normal person, emulating normal feelings and emotions, since (according to the conceit of the show, though at times they back away from this) he doesn’t have any. At its wackiest, Dexter becomes a sort of sitcom of coincidences and misunderstandings in which an empty shell of a guy with no social skills or soul or emotions or real cares ends up falling bass-ackwards into romantic relationships, deep conversations, friendships, favors, complicated love triangles – always in the right place, right time – almost like a serial-killer equivalent of Forrest Gump. In fact, a “sitcom about a serial killer” was a quasi-tongue-in-cheek idea I’d had for a long time, so it’s interesting to me to see how the makers of the show are able to pull it off. One one level it’s a show about a guy with a handicap – his emotions are broken – and how he reacts (and, often, comments dryly, in his noir-style voiceover narration: e.g. “Apparently my new life involves a love triangle. I’m THAT guy.”) to the normal people around him. The results are often hilarious, but more importantly, it’s a fascinating device for throwing normal human relationships and feelings into sharp relief.
But it’s also a show about compulsion, and fate, and free will. And on that note, a slight problem I have with the show is that the overall arc tends to be highly predictable. In season 1, I was able to guess very early on – indeed, as soon as he showed up in a major storyline, pretty much – which character would secretly turn out to be Dexter’s archrival serial killer. I was even able to guess how he would turn out to be related to Dexter. When Dexter gained a new love interest/temptress in season 2, I was able to guess her eventual fate about 8 episodes in advance. I find myself seeing most such surprises and twists coming well in advance. I don’t know how writers of a serial-killer-TV show could possibly fix all this, but it does lessen the enjoyment.
I think this is because the writers of such a show are walking a very fine line: they have a protagonist who is a fricking serial killer who chops people up, yet they have to somehow keep the audience in sympathy with him (hence the “code of Harry”: he only kills other murderers. If you think about it, a TV serial-killer protagonist has to have such a “code”, there’s no other way it would work). Similarly, to keep the drama, they have to make the universe of Dexter seem fairly believable and realistic, they have to give Dexter relationships and love interests (for audience interest – I’m guessing most real-life serial killers are boring loners and a TV show about them would be agonizingly boring), and yet in such a reality, a serial killer with all those entanglements would surely be caught and discovered. Yet ultimately Dexter can’t ever get caught (because that would be the end of the show).
This tension between the need for realism and relationships on the one hand, and Dexter never getting found out on the other, creates a need for Dexter to always be on the verge of getting caught, yet always find a way out at the end. But once you know this pattern in advance, once they set up this or that sticky situation for Dexter, there are only so many permutations and ways-out that (a) keep the show quasi-realistic (e.g. Dexter can’t use magic, angels can’t come down from heaven to help him, etc), and (b) keep Dexter a sympathetic protagonist that the audience kinda-sorta roots for (e.g. one way out would be for Dexter to just go on a murder rampage against anyone who discovers/threatens him and then run away to South America, but then he’d lose the audience’s sympathy). Thus, for example, it’s clear that anyone who discovers Dexter’s secret – as a key character did in season 2 – must eventually die without telling a lot of other people. The logic becomes inescapable from that point:
Okay, I see, this means (a) he must somehow be forced to be on the run or incommunicado, and (b) he must then die. Either he has an accident (unlikely, and unsatisfying), or someone must kill him. Yes, someone’s going to kill him. Yet it can’t be Dexter who kills him (since he’s not a murderer). Who, then? What characters are available to fill the slot of Person Who Kills That Guy? Oh yeah…that character.
In this way I was able to guess the finale of season 2, who would kill who and how, in several particulars, about halfway through the season.
With every story arc the possibilities become more and more narrow once you apply all the constraints that a show like this is implicitly operating under. And so, like a puzzle or maze with only one solution, you can usually work out the plot on your own, and see how the TV writers will have to (have to) resolve Dexter’s quandaries long in advance of them actually playing out. Maybe the fascination lies then with the intricacies of the puzzles the writers set up for themselves, not with the resolutions per se (which follow almost immediately from the setups, like clockwork, due to TV logic).
As for the larger themes of the show, this is where it gets really problematic for me. I can only base my observations on seasons 1-2 (since season 3 has not hit Netflix yet) but, at least so far, the metaphysics of Dexter lie squarely in the Freudian therapeutic culture of repressed memories and badness of pent-up emotions. We are to believe that Dexter’s sociopathic nature traces entirely to, and was fated ever since, a trauma he endured – seeing his mother murdered – when he was 3 years old. According to the logic of the show, since that time, something has been “off” about him. His foster father noticed it, saw Dexter’s true nature, and decided to channel it into something at least quasi-productive (hence the “code of Harry”, Harry being Dexter’s foster father). When we pick up with Dexter’s life, he is rediscovering all these repressed memories, and working through them, which is portrayed as a good (if painful) thing. He’s basically undergoinig his own therapy in voice-over.
So what bothers me about the show, what truly bothers me, is not the serial killing per se, but the implication that such a trauma – and by extension, this or that life event – can lock a person’s true nature in place forever forward. This is clearly what Dexter’s foster father believed, for rather than trying to help and guide and teach Dexter to have emotions and be moral (something that was supposedly not possible), he instead resigned to merely channeling Dexter’s murderous “nature” into certain sorts of targets. Having such a foster father, it does seem only natural that Dexter, too, would be resigned to his (supposed) fate as a serial killer – never thinking he can change.
At its worst, Dexter denies the existence of free will. Or at least, it threatens to.
But I have to put a big asterisk there, because I’ve only watched through season 2 of course. And the thing is, there are times when the show demonstrates a promising glimmer, a tantalizing glimpse of where it might be going with all this. I just can’t say for sure because I know there are at least two more seasons to come that I haven’t watched yet. But if this show really wants to rise to something brilliant, even transcendent, a cool direction would be this:
Just have Dexter change his ways. He settles down, gets married (something I know is coming in season 3), and changes his ways. No more killing whatsoever. He just rejects his supposedly serial-killer “nature”, decides to stop killing, and then stops. That would be awesome.
In fact, if they really wanted to be courageous, they’d have Dexter turn to and beg to God for forgiveness. And then proceed to live a basically normal family and work life for the rest of his days. Make it a show not about fate and compulsion, but about redemption and forgiveness.
I don’t have much hope that this is where the writers will take the show, or that they’d even want to – but I would love it if they did. I would really love it. That would really be something special to pull off. So perhaps this hope, this tiny hope, is what keeps me watching.