Goodbye, Bay Harbor Butcher: A Look Back at Dexter (2006 - 2013)
I remember reading a quote from Alfred Hitchcock a while back, although I can't find the exact source from where it originated. It was during an interview, and Hitchcock was asked about how to evoke an audience's sympathy for an anti-hero such as a criminal. He said that to have a sympathetic anti-hero, he can't just be what's normally thought of as a "bad guy"; he has to be the best at whatever vice he practices (e.g., bank robbery, art theft, high-profile assassinations, etc.) and, as long as he is portrayed by a handsome and charming actor, audiences will cheer the anti-hero along as long as he strives to maintain his reputation as the best. Hitchcock recognized that it's human nature to support hard work and success and his approach to anti-heroes proved that under the right circumstances, this support can be twisted around to cheer on theft, violence, excessive bloodshed, and death. Thus, while petty thieves, impoverished drug dealers and second-rate henchmen are the stuff of bit parts and small tragic dramas, expertly-trained assassins, international diamond thieves and rogue police officers who break all the rules to get the job done are romanticized and revered as superstars within the annals of pulp crime and suspense thrillers.
By that rationale, the TV series Dexter, which recently ended its eight season run on Showtime last weekend, gleefully pushed Hitchcock's approach to anti-heroes into the darkest and craziest corners of the horror genre. Charmingly played by Michael C. Hall, the titular character of Dexter Morgan built an audience of sympathetic viewers and impressed TV critics as he hacked and slashed his way through the criminal underbelly of Miami. Even though this plot summary sounds like the stuff of low-budget grindhouse horror, the creators of the series built enough twists into Dexter, his story and his supporting cast to make him approachable and even likable--likable enough that many fans were angered over how he didn't have a happily-ever-after ending, regardless of the fact that Dexter never stopped being a monster during the entirety of the series. Somewhere out there, Hitchcock is smiling from ear to ear.
Read on for my review of Dexter, and why I think that it's the boldest horror TV show to date. (Warning: There are many spoilers in this post.)
Dexter is a shamelessly manipulative show. Sure, it has plenty of plot contrivances to explain how Dexter gets both in and out of certain situations, but it is at its most manipulative in its central premise. The series begins with Dexter in his mid-thirties, which indicates that he's been successfully pulling the wool over Miami Metro Police Department's collective eyes for a very long time before the first episode begins. Furthermore, the show emphasizes Dexter's rigorous adherence to "The Code", a code of behavior that was taught to him by his adopted police officer Harry Morgan (James Remar), a code that stresses that only guilty people deserve to die. (Even though Harry is dead during the series, he appears frequently in the mind of Dexter to remind him of how important The Code is.)
By setting him up as a vigilante who "cleans up" the messes that the flawed legal system leaves behind (i.e., violent criminals who are obviously guilty but don't go to jail due to glitches in the system), Dexter does things that make him sympathetic in the eyes of viewers and even other characters within the show. Like any other serial killer, Dexter knows how to stalk human prey, set up portable "kill rooms", and successfully dispose of bodies; yet because he deliberately kills people who are a) guilty, b) let go by law enforcement due to technicalities, and c) cannot hurt anyone else after they die, audiences can appreciate Dexter's expertise in vigilante justice--even if Dexter's actions are motivated by a bloodlust for murder and not a desire for justice. (Think back to the character of Harry Tasker in True Lies: He's killed many people, "but they were all bad.")
Stories need to have an appealing lead character to build audience support; if the story is told in the form of a serialized TV narrative, then the audience support has to be maintained during the course of the series in order to keep the ratings high. To put Dexter into the context of Hitchcock's anti-hero type, Dexter Morgan's appeal at the beginning of the series largely stems from the fact that he's the best at what he does (e.g., he amassed a sizable body count while working for the Miami Metro Police Department but has neither been suspected nor caught in the act) and he produces outcomes with which most audiences would sympathize if not completely support. As with most TV dramas that center around a flawed lead character, audiences have come to expect the character to seek some sort of redemption as part of his or her development as the series progresses. In the case of Dexter, the show portrays Dexter as a man who was severely damaged psychologically at a very young age and is trying to grow into something more like a normal human being; since he is already the best serial killer he can be, the audience reaction (as Hitchcock anticipated) is to cheer him on in his efforts to become something more than that. But since Dexter is essentially a horror show about a man who is a monster that hides in plain sight, things aren't so simple.
Even though articles and critics have lumped it together with other dark, violent cable TV dramas such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, Dexter is a dramatic horror show and not a horrific drama series. I say this because of its close formulaic similarities to other horror TV series. Whether you're talking about Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files or Supernatural, the usual premise of a horror TV show involves characters balancing their lives between mundane, everyday reality and a parallel, coexisting reality that is populated by murderous, terrifying monsters. Dexter also bears similarities to horror shows such as Forever Knight, Angel and Moonlight where the protagonist is a monster who is looking for redemption by not killing innocent people and striving to become human.
The key differences between Dexter and other horror TV series are 1) all of the monsters are human (not a single extraterrestrial or paranormal entity in the bunch) and 2) not only is the lead character a monster, but he never stops being a monster and it's doubtful that he genuinely understands the difference between "being normal" and having a conscience. That's the running morbid joke behind Dexter Morgan: He frequently ponders the idea of what it means to be a regular human being--having a spouse and children, maintaining a job and close friendships, etc.--but in his eyes, being normal never completely equates to being sane.
Hitchcock's model of the anti-hero aside, I think that Dexter Morgan's antecedent is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the sizable horror subgenre of interpretations and reimagining that have followed it. Since the first season, I saw many similarities behind Dexter and Frankenstein's monster in that both were made to appear and behave human, but the flawed intentions and questionable methodology behind their creation inevitably leads to tragedy and death. In a sense, Dexter is the equal and opposite of Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek and its spinoffs regularly used non-human characters to explore different aspects of what it means to be human; in the case of Data, he's an android who sees humanity as a standard to emulate and thus attempts to do things that humans would do (e.g., tell jokes, play music, go on dates, take care of a pet, have a child, etc.) but from a different, mechanical perspective. No matter how often he fails at being human due to his inherent limitations as a non-organic being, he continues to strive for human-ness and the Next Generation narrative regards his endeavor as a commendable one. Dexter also seeks to better understand what it means to be a normal human being, but he does so with the intent of finding better ways to accommodate his murderous tendencies; he's the serial killer who, as the saying goes, "wants to have it all". On the other hand, Dexter would have a kindred spirit in Cameron, the cyborg assassin from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. No matter how much both of these characters would like to appear and feel human, they can't get past the immutable fact that they were built (one literally, the other figuratively) to infiltrate groups of people and kill, kill, kill.
To follow the show's overarching logic, Dexter began violating The Code when he started to take a personal interest in the villains he hunts and aimed to incorporate aspects of his public life into his serial killer life in order to be a more complete human being. This began in the first season when he learned that the Ice Truck Killer (Christian Camargo) was his own biological brother, and then continued to spiral out of control in the subsequent seasons. In season 3, he created a killer in Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits) when trying to find a close friend who could truly understand him; in season 4, his attempt to understand how to balance serial murder with family life by closely observing and directly interacting with the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) wound up tearing Dexter's own family apart. With each attempt to improve himself through the interaction with other killers, more innocent people wound up dead--Doakes (Erik King), Ellen Wolf (Anne Ramsay), Rita (Julie Benz), LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), and so on--and that is an unmistakable violation of The Code, even if these violations were not committed by Dexter's own hand.
The appearance in season 8 of Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), the original creator of The Code, emphasizes the point that the series has been hinting at the entire time: that if Dexter had accepted his identity as a serial killer and behaved according to the stipulations of The Code, he could have spent the rest of his days as, as Vogel put it, "the perfect serial killer". Then again, by seeing how Dexter tried to change his modus operandi to become more normal during the series, it could be argued that the success of The Code was what led Dexter into thinking that he could eventually be something more than a serial killer of criminals. It's a very "meta" situation: a code of behavior that's designed to help an insane man remain free in a sane world also leads the man into believing that he can actually be sane while still doing insane things.
Each of these details surrounding Dexter ultimately led up to his grand epiphany in the final episode: to be truly human is to experience the need for redemption after committing horrible acts. Redemption only comes through a sense of remorse, remorse deep enough to spur meaningful and lasting acts of contrition. Dexter has felt guilt and regret from time to time, but none of those instances lasted. Take the recurring presence of Harry, for example: Even after learning that his adopted father committed suicide after witnessing the monster he created, Dexter still kept Harry as the spiritual face of The Code without a hint of remorse about his role in Harry's death. Perhaps his most misguided and twisted attempt at balancing normalcy and insanity happened after his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) learned of his serial killing, and he did everything he could to get her to accept what he is. The end result left Deb an emotional and morally-compromised wreck, all so that Dexter could maintain a relationship with his sister without having to go to jail or be held accountable for his crimes in any way. His actions ultimately led up to his mercy killing of Deb in the hospital in the show's finale, although you could argue that he's been slowly killing Deb during the last two seasons anyway.
It may seem anti-climactic, but Dexter's realization in the last episode that he has never stopped being a monster to anyone, even the people who he believed he loved, is a significant and powerful conclusion to a show like Dexter. Unfortunately, for Dexter to finally understand the idea of remorse--no matter how briefly, and after eight gruesome seasons--was not fully grasped by everyone. As far as Salon's Daniel D'Addario is concerned, "[Dexter's] recent conclusion seemed plucked from the clear blue sky -- Dexter ran off to become a lumberjack, unpunished and abandoning his family." (To go back to the Frankenstein analogy, I think that the series ending with Dexter sailing out to sea into a hurricane with his dead sister Deb bears strong similarities to the ending of Shelley's novel, where the grieving monster drifts into the Arctic waters after seeing his creator's broken, dead body.)
Dexter isn't the perfect series. It had plenty of subplots that meander and go nowhere, as well as characters making decisions that strain credibility. I'm particularly disappointed that we didn't get to spend more time with Zach Hamilton (Sam Underwood), Dexter's "apprentice", and with Vogel. Even though it is indicated later that Vogel devised The Code for Dexter as a way of compensating for her own serial killer son Daniel (Darri Ingolfsson), it's also indicated that she spent at least 25 years experimenting with the idea of turning serial killers into "productive" members of society. I would have loved to have learned more about how her experiments and their underlying ideology evolved over time, as well as how many other Dexters she tried to create.
What Dexter did is difficult to accomplish, largely because most audiences and critics won't anticipate or understand what the show's creators and writers have done or why they did it in the first place. For example, as stated in the series finale recap by James Hibberd in Entertainment Weekly, "The past few seasons it's felt like the writers still think Dexter is a sympathetic hero whose needs are more important than any other character's despite the innocent people who have died along the way to support his addiction." No, the writers never thought that Dexter was a sympathetic character; they just applied Hitchcock's anti-hero philosophy to a very sinister scenario for eight seasons with high ratings, an avid fan base, and critical accolades. If that sounds crazy to you, it’s because it really is crazy--the cast and crew behind Dexter wouldn't had have it any other way.