Wednesday, September 30, 2009


a contrapuntal essay (in this case it just means rambling, and I'm saving my focus for things other than reorganizing a blog entry).

Sometimes I think Dexter is a sick parody of a the conventional "cop who plays by his own rules to get the bad guys" show. There are a lot of fictional police officers who are willing to violate rights, break the law, or use violence to get the bad guys (usually with the support of the audience). The first two seasons of Dexter even feature James Doaks, an aggressive, angry, occasionally violent police officer willing to skirt the law for justice. But Dexter Morgan makes sure you're never confused: while he has a "code," he's not interested in justice. He's a psychopath that doesn't feel things and is compelled to kill.

And sometimes I think Dexter is a sick parody of "just war" thinking, of the thinking that seeks military solutions to problems. At the end of season one, Dexter speculates how horrified everybody around him would be if they knew he is a serial killer. But then he fantasizes: maybe they wouldn't be horrified. Dexter uses violence to punish bad people; maybe if people knew what he did, they'd thank him. In his fantasy, he walks past cheering onlookers, thanking him for keeping them safe, as red, white, and blue confetti falls around him.

I don't really see Dexter as a parody. The show does, however, connect the righteous violence that audiences find appealing with a horrifying, psychopathic violence that should repulse an audience.

In season three, Dexter becomes a sick parody of tranquil domesticity. Dexter protects his girlfriend Rita's daughter from a threatening man: he goes to the man's home and kills him. On his way, Rita had called to tell him they were out of milk. As Dexter drags the man's corpse into the man's kitchen, Dexter remembers Rita's call: he checks the man's fridge, and takes that milk to Rita. In the next episode, he can't quite get a marriage proposal right; he finally succeeds when he borrows the words of a deranged killer.

At least since The Sopranos, television is capable of making an audience "root" for a morally disgusting protagonist. Dexter, I think, plays with what it knows the audience must feel: we're compelled to side with a narrator protagonist no matter how awful he may be. When Rita becomes pregnant, Dexter is anxious: he's afraid to commit to fatherhood, since he's afraid the child will be like him, and afraid he'll be a terrible father. Dexter's sister calls him a fool: he'll be a great father, she says. Rita obviously wants Dexter to commit to fatherhood. And we the audience, familiar with such television situations, may generally think Dexter should commit. He's ambivalent, hesitating, not sure. And you know what? He's right. He's the voice of reason. He's a psychopath incapable of most human emotion that is compelled to kill people. He is probably going to hurt Rita's whole family, and he should run away from committing to them. Eventually, of course, he does end up committing to the family. In general, I think Dexter plays with the conventions of the television protagonist and the audience's sympathies. We're asked to feel emotions for Rita and her children, to see some warmth in Dexter's relationship with them. But surely we must know that Rita and the children would be utterly horrified, devastated, permanently damaged, if they knew the truth about Dexter's murderous activities. The whole relationship is something of a facade that, but Dexter is the only one that knows it's a sham, a phony, a farce. We watch (and perhaps care for) a family, we become aware of their emotional lives, and yet we know who Dexter really is, and know the family doesn't know that, and know that they would be crushed beyond words if they did know the truth.

It goes further. "All in the Family," the season three episode when Dexter proposes to Rita, features the theme of role playing. From beginning to the end, Dexter's narration explores the ways he and others act out an expected role. This episode resonates with season one, when Dexter recounts Harry's lessons for "passing" as normal. He's supposed to fake it. He doesn't know real emotions, he can't actually connect with other human beings, so he's supposed to fake it. He's got to play a role. And in the final scene, when Dexter proposes and talks about how sometimes you end up playing "the role of a lifetime," I can't help but wondering if he's expressing a larger ambivalence about domestic life (an ambivalence not limited to psychopaths). Some people may feel like Dexter: that domestic life requires roles, that family expectations demand certain performed behavior, and sometimes that behavior is not authentic. It feels phony, fake. The domestic role is performed.

The show works at all sorts of levels.

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