The Good, The Bad & The Buggy: Dexter (2006-2013)
Dexter was a television show that ran for eight seasons starting in 2006. Most of the seasons focused on a particular story arc with a clear introduction of a specific threat and tight closure in the season finale. Dexter Morgan is the protagonist and a Manichean sociopath - basically, a contradiction in terms. Throughout the show, Dexter tarries with his primal urges to kill and his repressed desires to forgive and forget. He is a complex character, but his appeal runs thin when his choices become unimaginably reprehensible. He is neither a hero, nor an antihero, but instead exemplifies the "unhero" of the postmodern era of narrative. We should not root for Dexter, but unfortunately a society suffering from cultural amnesia does in fact cheer him on, allowing themselves to be titillated by his unjustified rage and perverse methods of meting out justice. The world becomes a safer place because of his actions, yet his world collapses into utter chaos. What price victory?
The following top ten list is the best, worst and oddest aspects of the show.
The following top ten list is the best, worst and oddest aspects of the show.
1. Opposites Attract - Deb and Lundy
Dexter's sister, Deb, is a character as complex as her brother. However, in the first few seasons she is pretty one-dimensional - ambitious for promotions to appease her dead father and with a penchant for hopping into bed with hyper-masculine colleagues or strangers, crying out for validation based in a warped value system. This promiscuity sets up her tryst with Special Agent Lundy of the F.B.I.. Lundy has the composure to quiet Deb's inner demons while the age difference is a legitimate moment for titillation, and not just a cheap thrill like other aspects of the show. The Lundy-Deb romance comes as a genuine surprise for many, while its terminus is abrupt and shocking. The romance propels Deb through the rest of the seasons with a new purpose. Although, her character becomes less appealing and sympathetic, she also rounds out to become multi-dimensional. At the level of diegesis, Deb is hoping for Lundy to give her purpose, and ironically the relationship achieves this at the narrative level.
2. Heinous Providence - Lila's Antics
Lila is a horrid character for so many reasons. Her introduction is not contrived in the slightest as she is a reckless addict who sits in on recovery group meetings. This is where she meets Dexter who is trying to cover up his real problems with a phony claim to a history of drug abuse. Lila has a physical appearance similar to Dexter's sister, Deb, which might explain Dexter's interest in sparking a romance with Lila, while Lila also claims to understand the enigmatic nature of dark urges that Dexter seeks to explore and comprehend. Although, Lila comes off as genuine at first, her behaviour quickly spirals into all-out lunacy. Lila-as-threat is a rich subplot within the major story arc involving Dexter's colleague (Doakes) catching onto Dexter's crimes and trying to nab him in the act. Lila's madness is providence for Dexter as she proceeds to clean up his mess through acts of arson.
3. The Unholy Spirit - Arthur Mitchell
Dexter's personal mission isn't to snuff out serial killers and other baddies, but is instead focused on learning about his dark urges (his dark passenger), controlling them with the ultimate goal of banishing them to some nether region of his tainted soul. Ironically, he perpetuates his urges through this informal education program. By the time he meets Arthur Mitchell, his sense of justice through Harry's Code has been completely suspended. Arthur (The Trinity Killer) becomes a surrogate father for Dexter. Dexter reneges on his commitments to Harry's Code and instead chooses to learn from Arthur. This proves to be Dexter's undoing. As much as Dexter becomes completely unappealing after ditching the Code, he also gains the ability to embrace his lost humanity. In this sense, Dexter's character gains a dimension and richness that was necessary, but the costs are too great for an audience of good conscience to ever forgive him.
4. Discipline under Duress - Harry's Code
Dexter internalizes the Taskmaster - his deceased adoptive father, Harry. This is achieved through Dexter adopting Harry's Code on how and who to kill. That Code is arranged to focus Dexter's urges and thus becomes a "dark passenger" in Dexter's consciousness. When Rita's ex-husband, Paul, becomes a nuisance for Dexter, it is time for his removal. However, Paul's crimes don't meet the standard of Harry's Code. Dexter compromises and has Paul sent to jail. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth that a violent rapist is not considered sufficiently evil to have his head on the chopping block, however, Dexter at least demonstrates that strict adherence to the Code is indeed hypocritical to his ultimate goal of experiencing humanity. If he truly loved Rita and experienced that love and passion in a humane way, then murdering Paul for raping her would be the only recourse. The hypocritical implementation of Harry's Code becomes a rich subtext for the entire show and by the end of the show, Dexter has learned to suspend the Code in order to make the humane choice. Dexter's rewriting the Code is one of his most redeeming qualities of his character.
1. Impossible Juxtaposition - Dexter's Schizophrenia
Dexter's behaviour, attitude and modus operandi generally fill out the profile of a sociopath. He was eager to kill animals as a child, he can't form emotional bonds with friends, family or lovers and he has no qualms with taking a human life. His personality is best suited for contract killing, but he is saddled with the dark passenger from Harry's Code. Harry's Code manifests itself as dead personalities from Dexter's life - his brother and his adoptive father. His introspective dialogue with these characters constitutes a schizophrenic personality type for Dexter, however, this is completely at odds with his sociopath profile. The juxtaposition of sociopathy and schizophrenia is problematic. Schizophrenics seek to answer big questions on their own giving rise to imaginary and irrational tools for completing the task. The schizophrenic is extremely invested in their reality emotionally and their "code" is most often premised on defining good and bad, whereby the schizophrenic would defend good against evil with their very life. Dexter, on the other hand, gives zero indication that he would define good and then defend it with his life. His purpose is not defined through complex affective dimensions, but instead through pragmatic adherence to a code that can control the inhumane effects of his heartless sobriety. It is too convoluted to have Dexter express both sociopathy and schizophrenia for a fair treatment and reveals that the writers care little for the craft. In the end, Dexter's character becomes ineffectual because of the conflation of opposing and contradictory aberrant mental conditions.
2. Cliffhangers out of Rope - Serial vs Episode
There are two primary types of fictional television structure - serial and episodic. Unfortunately, serial drama is currently more popular than episodic drama. Serial structure is rife with machinations for luring and seducing audiences, in effect treating spectators as a passive mass. Dexter would have been an ideal show for having an episodic structure. Law & Order, X-Files and Star Trek are all based in episodic structure and although the audience is able to develop an affinity toward particular characters, these characters can also remain timeless. The development of characters in Dexter simply resulted in them becoming unappealing, with their flaws magnified as wrapping up seasons found no resolution for their personal vices. Writers are compelled to create a dramatic finale for each character, but often these stories are a little too cute. With Dexter, entire seasons were dedicated to one major story arc. Secondary characters had their stories interwoven, but their drama just came off as pedestrian. Progress is plodding for the secondary characters and closure is contrived.
3. Trysted Sister - Cheap Titillation
The greatest romantic tension in television drama comes when effectively refraining from submitting to carnal urges. The best examples of this are Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in The X-Files. The genuine titillation in drama comes from sexual tension and not from overt displays of male buttocks, female nipples or heaving and grunting of gnashed flesh under a ruffled satin sheet. Those latter displays are shallow and the romance is poor. Unfortunately, Dexter's writing staff and producers opted for cheap thrills at virtually every turn. Angel and Maria are thrust together in a contrived manner to up the ante on sexuality in the show. In addition, Maria has a sexual past with Doakes. Deb sleeps with Quinn, Deb sleeps with Lundy and Quinn sleeps with the nanny, who also sleeps with the intern. Around and around it goes, and where Vince is too homely to get on the ride, his character is almost purely focused on sexually crude remarks about everything going on around him, including the condition of rotting cadavers. Even Dexter's past is marred by this cheap promiscuity as his adoptive father was sleeping with his birth mother. I understand that this variety of drama is important to primetime television because it can be an unconscious reason for couples to watch a show together, however, it diminishes the value of the drama and the richness of characters. We all understand the importance of penis and vagina, but promulgating it at every turn is base and banal. This is a common problem with fiction television series in the 21st century.
4. Til Death Do Us Part - Killing Rita
Killing off Rita was the greatest mistake for the entire Dexter series. This move by the producers was mainly an achievement for appeasing the sociopath wannabes that were following the show for the wrong reasons. Comments online by fans revealed their ignorance of television production and scriptwriting process, when claims rung out that Rita's character had become annoying, so killing her off was welcome. Her character became annoying to justify killing her off, which seems to be a point that went over the head of some of the audience. Rita could have been written in any way whatsoever and what should have happened with her is that she found out about Dexter's serial killing and took her family away, including baby Harrison. The desire to hint at a cyclical prophecy with Harrison is a cheap thrill while Dexter's pathetic parenting is totally abhorrent and contributes greatly to his character becoming unappealing. Astor living without a father could have led to her kidnapping Harrison and bringing him to Dexter. Rita could have popped up again and become a potential threat to Dexter's secrecy (much in the way that Walter White's wife was a wild card in Breaking Bad). Killing Rita simply ensured that Dexter would become unlikable and unforgivable. Only wannabe sociopaths would see Rita's death as an upside for Dexter's future because she was his foil, pointing out the way to humanity and its purpose. Even an unhero requires a foil in order to achieve resolution, growth and closure.
1. Code-Breaking - The Copy-Cat Killer
Early in the series, Dexter discovers a foolish individual who is attempting to imitate the legend of the Bay Harbour Butcher (Dexter). Dexter kills this murderer but there is something problematic about this. The copycat is clearly a deranged man who likely requires institutionalization. There is likely little to no mens rea in his acts and his reality is an irrational fiction. Dexter believes that he is fulfilling the promise of Harry's Code by taking out a multiple murderer, but he is really revealing that the Code comes up short for instructing a madman how to be just. This violation occurred too early in the series and at a time when the audience would have had hope that the Code could be adapted successfully to serve Dexter and society.
2. Hermetic Space - What Price Reality?
Dexter finds himself in endless situations where he is trailing killers on the highway, through back roads and sketchy neighbourhoods. It is unlikely that murderers and career criminals would be so lackadaisical in noticing that they are being followed and tracked. Perhaps, one or two would make the fatal mistake, but the show had a habit of clearing the way for Dexter in this contrived manner. In addition, there were a plethora of situations where Dexter should have been picked up on security cameras or spotted by private security personnel working the beat. This rarely, if ever, happened. Suspension of disbelief is necessary for fiction, but relying on it is imprudent and insults the more attentive, intelligent and critical-minded spectators (I know, I know... what do Hollywood producers care about intelligent audiences, they loathe them). However, in the end history will reveal the show to be dumb and the producer and writers will never be lauded as a somebody.