Last fall, I watched the pilot for Showtime's new series, Dexter, pronounced it impeccably well-made and impressively acted, and promptly decided not to keep watching the series. Based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay*, Dexter is the tale of Dexter Morgan, adopted son of legendary Miami police detective Harry Morgan. As a young boy, Dexter began exhibiting the classic signs of sociopathic behavior, and Harry, instead of carting the boy off to psychiatrists and institutions, started training him instead--first, to avoid detection and incarceration, and later to channel his murderous urges in socially beneficial ways. In the present day, Dexter is a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami police department, where he works alongside his sister Deb, Harry's biological daughter. By night, he stalks and kills victims carefully selected according to a by-now deceased Harry's criteria--serial killers like Dexter himself, whom the law is either unaware of or helpless to stop.
I gave Dexter a pass last year because I've gotten very tired of the popular culture fascination with 'dark' or transgressive characters, or more precisely, with the generally thoughtless, sensationalistic treatment of these characters. Most of what passes for moral ambiguity in popular culture is really moral depravity going unremarked or unpunished**. Sometimes this can make for interesting viewing, when the character in question in someone we've come to care about, whose moral compass has gone temporarily off true (the early scenes of Serenity, the second season of Angel), or in a show like The Sopranos, whose writing is so nuanced that it really seems to be touching on some basic truths of the human condition. Tony Soprano's combination of charisma and a complete lack of conscience rings so true that for David Chase and his writers to have sullied it with moralizing would have seemed shrill and uncouth. Instead, they produced a portrait of a complex, multifaceted human being, and in so doing commented on our near-endless capacity for hypocrisy, as demonstrated by Tony, his fellow mobsters, and their friends and families, who profess to hold certain ideals dear but sacrifice them daily for wealth and comfort--a tendency which, according to Chase, is near-universal, regardless of one's mob affiliation or lack thereof.
Most of the time, however, depictions of 'dark' characters don't achieve this sophistication. They seem to begin and end with the thrill of transgressiveness. Viewers enjoy rooting for a character who breaks the rules they don't dare to break, so long as that character is depicted in a certain manner. I've frequently come across reactions to Dexter whose authors express surprise that the show has somehow manipulated them into rooting for a serial killer. I'm only surprised at their surprise. We root for Dexter for the same reason that Buffy fans responded so positively to Spike, an unrepentant mass murderer--because he's cool. If you want a character to be appealing, make them funny and attractive. If you want them to be unappealing, make them disgusting and creepy (or make them hurt characters the audience likes). Morality--the characters' or the audience's--doesn't enter into it. I dismissed Dexter because I believed that, like so many other shows, it would attempt to coast on the by-now stale novelty of making a cool, funny, and attractive character do morally reprehensible things and pretending not to notice.
Some exuberant critical reactions, however, and the absence of anything else worth watching this summer, persuaded me to give the show another look. What I found was a show that was, if not quite as brilliant as the reviews had led me to believe, a great deal more thoughtful, when it came to issues of morality, than I had expected. And in its second season, now more than halfway into its 12-episode run, Dexter may very well have become the most morally coherent show on television.
Dexter's first season begins with the emergence of a rival serial killer, dubbed the Ice Truck Killer for his habit of transporting his victims' drained and chopped-up bodies in a refrigerated truck, who seems to be challenging Dexter to a game of cat and mouse. As the season draws on, it becomes clear that the Ice Truck Killer is trying to break Harry's posthumous hold on Dexter, to persuade Dexter to become the pure, unrepentant monster that Harry's training so successfully domesticated. "You can't be a monster and a hero," the Ice Truck Killer angrily tells Dexter in the season finale, but the entire thrust of the series is that Dexter both can and is--not in the cartoonish, thoughtless manner of so many vigilante fantasies, but through agonizing choice.
Over the course of the first season we come to see the Dexter understands himself a great deal less than he believes. Though he repeatedly tells us (through copious voiceovers that give this secretive, closed-off character a weighty narrative presence) that he doesn't feel, that he has no normal human reactions, and that he can't love, the fact remains that Dexter does love. He loves his sister, he loves his girlfriend Rita (the always-excellent Julie Benz) and her children, and he clearly loved his father or he wouldn't have worked so hard to please him when he was alive, and certainly wouldn't be following the code Harry laid out for him many years after the man's death. Though he isn't capable of understanding that love or recognizing it for what it is, when the Ice Truck Killer offers Dexter understanding, the opportunity to be himself, unencumbered by the morality imposed on him, and though by that point he's he's exposed Harry as manipulative, revealed the lies he told and the secrets he kept, Dexter chooses that love over complete freedom. And that, in a nutshell, is Dexter's moral outlook. We may not be able to choose whether we're monsters or normal people. The circumstances of our life may have twisted us into something that barely even resembles a human being and there may be nothing we can do about that, but we still have to choose where to go from that point. Being a monster, in the Dexter universe, is no justification for acting like one, just as being a human being is no guarantee that one won't behave monstrously. All of the characters, monsters and humans alike, have to come up with, and commit to, their own moral code.
To be sure, there's a certain degree of having-their-cake-and-eating-it-too in the Dexter writers' construction of their main character. He's at just the right midpoint between monstrousness and normalcy to both suit the moral of their story and capture the audience's heart. He can commit atrocities with impunity, but he's still a good boyfriend (a certain amount of fine-tuning was involved in getting Dexter to just this perfect balance. In the pilot, he tells us that his sexual responses are aberrant, and later he become sexually aroused by the Ice Truck Killer's handiwork. Later in the season, however, he and Rita embark on a normal sexual relationship, hindered only by Dexter's fear of intimacy and losing control). Most importantly, he's motivated to be a good person, as opposed to the Ice Truck Killer, who is so far gone, so damaged, that he can't even comprehend Dexter's feelings for his adopted family. I don't know much about the actual facts of serial killers and sociopaths, as opposed to the fantasy versions that litter films and TV, but I somehow suspect that this particular blend of apathy and empathy is unlikely.
That Dexter is believable (or, more accurately, that we're willing to overlook how unbelievable he is) is due to the show's strong, witty writing, and to Michael C. Hall's fantastic turn as Dexter, a mixture of irreverence and vulnerability that manages to be winning without ever letting us forget how dangerous the character can be. More importantly, the struggle between morality and expediency is also a vital question for the show's normal characters, mainly Dexter's co-workers: from the aptly named Angel Batista, the homicide department's moral center, through James Doakes, the only detective who senses that something is off about Dexter, and who at one point murders a Haitian war criminal, to department head Maria Laguerta. Laguerta is in many ways the show's most inconsistently drawn character. In the pilot and for several episodes after it, she's portrayed as incompetent and publicity-hungry, and is also pursuing Dexter in an unpleasantly relentless manner that borders on sexual harassment. Towards the middle of the first season, she become a competent policewoman who also happens to be a political animal struggling to survive in an atmosphere hostile to both her gender and her ethnicity. By the second season, however, Laguerta has stabilized as a good cop who is willing to go to extreme lengths to get what she wants--such as, in the first part of the second season, seducing her new superior's fiancé in order to distract the other woman from her work***. What makes the character work is her own obvious ambivalence towards her actions, the embarrassment she feels when those who know her discover them, and it certainly helps that Lauren Vélez has chosen to play the character as the antithesis of the Alexis Carrington stereotype--she's soft-spoken, almost gentle, in most of her interactions, while conveying a profound, but never overbearing, strength.
(I haven't said anything about the two most important people in Dexter's life, Deb and Rita. Though both have important character arcs, these are mostly concerned with empowerment and growth, rather than morality. At the beginning of the series, Deb is an overgrown adolescent--an impression that is powerfully brought home by Jennifer Carpenter's masterful physical work, all gawky limbs and exaggerated facial expressions--eager for validation, still trying to win over her father from the sibling he seemed to prefer, and incapable of dealing with criticism. Before she formulates her own moral code--which I suspect will happen by the end of the second season--she has to grow up. Rita was abused by her husband, a heroin addict who, according to the pilot at least, raped her, though the later episodes in the first season don't repeat this claim. Dexter chooses her because she's damaged and won't require the normal, intimate relationship he can't provide, but over the course of the series she has been healing, and demanding more of him both romantically and otherwise.)
With a first season so carefully constructed around a single investigation, I was doubtful about the Dexter writers' ability to extend the series into a second season. What they've done is take the step that so many other serial shows don't or are not allowed to take, and shifted the series's self-definition. The second season once again revolves around the hunt for a serial killer, but this time it's Dexter, nicknamed the Bay Harbor Butcher by the Miami papers, who is being hunted, when the remains of his victims are discovered on the sea floor. The FBI, led by super-profiler Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine, giving a delightfully smart and charismatic performance), are brought in, and soon Dexter is being pursued by his friends and coworkers, including Deb. In spite of this development, in its second season Dexter is not so much a procedural or a thriller as a character drama. Through a confluence of events, Dexter is forced to deflect Rita's suspicions by telling her that he's a drug addict. When she demands that he attend NA meetings, he discovers that the terms in which addicts describe their problem also suit his compulsion, and begins to believe that he can be cured of it. The season is primarily concerned with the rather tangled question of whether Dexter can stop killing and whether he can stop hiding his true nature as Harry taught him to do, and the result has been nothing short of fascinating, finally making the leap from very good to great, and fast becoming one of the few must-see shows of the current season****.
In NA, Dexter meets Lila (Jaime Murray and her breasts, who at this point should be getting equal billing), the platonic ideal of the Free Spirit archetype--the one who shows up in romantic comedies to teach the male lead to cut loose and follow his heart. She dresses outrageously, lives in attractively bohemian squalor, makes art of some variety, and breaks minor laws in charming, amusing ways--stealing a lawn gnome to use in one of her installations, defacing a soulless motel room painting, making up an elaborate story to get her and Dexter a seat at a fancy restaurant. Dexter is drawn to Lila because he thinks she can handle the darkness within him without recoiling, and initially she does seem to be telling Dexter some important truths. After viewing the Bay Harbor Butcher's handiwork, Lila tells Dexter that the person who committed these crimes is a person just like herself, a mixture of good and evil. By rejecting Harry's stark distinction between monsters and human beings, Lila takes away Dexter's justification for his actions. By insisting that he think of himself not as a monster but as a flawed human being, Lila encourages Dexter to behave like one.
Before long, however, it becomes clear that Lila's moral outlook is only half-formed. While it's obviously true that all of us have good and evil within us, that fact doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to distinguish between them, and to choose to act according to one set of impulses and to ignore another. Lila doesn't seem to believe this. When Dexter discovers yet more secrets Harry kept from him, Lila tells him that everyone comes to a point where they reject their parents' values. What she doesn't say, probably because she never reached that stage herself, is that following a period of teenage self-involvement and hedonism, most people settle on their own value system--sometimes the very values they rejected. By encouraging Dexter to reject received morality and the people who impose it on him (represented mainly by Harry, but also by Rita, who in the middle episodes of the season is made to look like a 60s housewife, in stark opposition to Rita's bohemian sophistication--kudos to the hair and wardrobe department for managing to make Julie Benz look cheap and trashy), and to accept himself as he is, Lila creates a monster. Following her example, Dexter takes a more active role in subverting both the Bay Harbor Butcher investigation and Doakes's pursuit of him, taking dangerous risks and hurting innocent people, such as a murder victim's stepfather whom Doakes brutally interrogates for hours on end after Dexter gives him a false blood spatter analysis as a way of discrediting the detective.
What's most impressive about this character arc is that the writers make it clear that the unquestioning acceptance of oneself, without reference to morality or social conventions, is a bad idea not only when it comes to someone like Dexter, but for everyone. They do this through Lila, who quickly turns manipulative and dangerous, going so far as to break into Rita's house when she fears Dexter might be growing close to her again, or orchestrating an assault on Dexter in order that she can soothe and take care of him. Though Lila herself has become an unpleasantly over the top character (and one of the show's rare forays into misogynistic stereotypes), her character's purpose is to show Dexter just how destructive he can be without a code to guide him, and by the end of the season I suspect we'll see Dexter recommitting to Harry's teachings, or at least to some version of them.
At the same time that it holds out the possibility of his salvation, the series is working hard to stress the magnitude of the crimes Dexter has already committed. There's a tendency to fetishize serial killers, vigilantes in particular, in popular culture, and Dexter's second season can be read as a commentary on this tendency--and as a meta-commentary on itself. When the Bay Harbor Butcher investigation reveals that Dexter's victims were all killers themselves, the Miami population, and a portion of the investigative team, rallies behind him. A local comics creator invents a Batman-esque character called the Dark Defender, based on the Butcher's exploits. A copycat killer emerges. Dexter's response is a mixture of bemusement ("Miami's too hot for all that leather," he thinks when he sees the Dark Defender's portrait, though later he dreams of himself in that costume, suggesting that the lure of uncomplicated, four-color heroism is too powerful to completely resist) and outright rejection--when he confronts his imitator and discovers that he's killed before for reasons more selfish than meting out justice, Dexter classes him with the kind of killer he's allowed to dispose of.
Dexter frequently indulges in the kind of moral forced perspective that often characterizes stories with immoral protagonists--by any objective standard, Dexter is far worse than Rita's abusive husband, Paul, but we hate Paul with a fiery passion, and root for Dexter, because we care about Rita and don't know the people who love Dexter's victims, and because Paul is a bully. Which is why it's important that the investigation of Dexter's crimes confronts us with the visceral reality of, well, viscera, as well as blood, guts, and bones. The sight of Dexter's chopped-and-bagged victims spread out along the sea floor is sickening, and lest we take too much comfort in the sentimental fantasy of Dexter as the white-hatted protector, the writers have Deb baldly state the simple truth that no one does the things Dexter has done without taking pleasure in them.
The second season has only four episodes left in it, and as of the most recent episode, Lundy and Doakes have tightened the noose around Dexter's throat. Clearly the show is not going to send Dexter to prison, and speculation is rampant among fans that either Lila or Doakes will end up taking the fall for the Bay Harbor Butcher's crimes. I'm more interested, however, in where the season takes Dexter emotionally, and though I'm utterly baffled by the question of how the writers can advance the show's plot in the third season, what interests me more is the question I asked when Tony Soprano first walked into Jennifer Melfi's office. Do we want Dexter to be cured? And what would that even mean? Can Dexter live openly with the people he cares about, or would that be straining disbelief too far? Thus far, what Dexter's writers have produced is an ode to moral complexity, to actual shades of grey and not the dressed up black that usually passes for them. They've created a show that depicts the compromises we all make with the principles we were raised with, and hold out the possibility and the necessity of living a moral life in spite of these compromises. It's easy and somewhat tautological to say that we're all monsters. Dexter is that rare show that dares to ask, what comes next?
* I haven't read the novel, but as I understand it the first season follows its plot in broad strokes but deviates from it in several crucial respects. Though Lindsay has written two other novels starring Dexter, the show's second season no longer adheres to his plots.
** I once came across a reaction to my His Dark Materials condensation whose author argued that his choice to murder a child in order to achieve his ends makes the character of Lord Asriel 'morally grey'.
*** Though, in general, Dexter's misogyny index is quite low (nothing on the level of what Heroes has been delivering lately, for example), the show has its occasional lapses, and this storyline is one of them. I'm actually less bothered by Laguerta's Melrose Place-esque shenanigans than by the fact that they are successful--that an experienced professional woman in her thirties would fall apart as completely as Laguerta's rival does, going so far as to divert department resources to determine who her boyfriend is cheating with and having a tantrum in the middle of the department bullpen.
**** The other is Pushing Daisies, which oddly enough can also be described as a series about darkness and horror underlying normalcy and pleasantness.