Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Father Knows Best: Thoughts on Dexter's Third Season

There are certain genres and story types one associates with serial killers. Procedurals, thrillers, intense games of pursuit and evasion between detective and killer or killer and prey, psychological horror or the regular, visceral kind. In its first season, Dexter hewed pretty close to the expectations created by its premise, pitting the eponymous (anti-)hero against a rival serial killer whose ultimate goal was to turn Dexter away from the path of provisional righteousness on which he was set by his cop father, who taught him to kill only those who deserved it. In its second season, the show abandoned the mystery which drove the first season, but retained the procedural and detective elements surrounding it, as Dexter struggled to avoid being uncovered by his fellow cops when the bodies of his victims were discovered on the ocean floor. Dexter's third season, which concluded this week, seems to have cast off even these elements. Though the season had its share of gruesome murders, thrilling pursuits, surprising plot twists, and even a new serial killer, these elements went hand in hand with, and often seemed to take a back set to, more mundane developments. Dexter's relationship with his girlfriend Rita and her children takes a huge step forward when she becomes pregnant and they decide to marry. At the same time, Dexter is trying to come to terms with the memory of his adoptive father Harry, who for years was his touchstone, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong and of the steps Dexter should and shouldn't take in his life, but who in the first and second season was revealed to have been deeply flawed, and to have deceived Dexter about many of the most important facts of his life. The result is the most low-key, shapeless serial killer story imaginable, but at the same time still one of the best and most satisfying shows on TV.

I've written before about the qualities that separate successful multi-season novelistic TV shows from the unsuccessful kind. The key, I speculated, was formula. Not the kind that brings CSI and Law & Order's detectives back to the same starting point every week, but the kind that identifies the fundamental, ur-story the show is trying to tell and, though constantly changing its garb, retells it again and again. Buffy is a story about a girl whose impulses towards heroism and normalcy are constantly at war. Angel, the story of an ordinary man faced with the inadequacy of heroism in an imperfect world. For all the differences between its three seasons and their genres, Dexter is that kind of show, telling the same story with each of those seasons. Each time, Dexter rebels against the limitations placed on him by Harry, who throughout Dexter's childhood and adolescence drummed it into him that a normal life and true acceptance and recognition were things he couldn't, and shouldn't, have. Each time, Dexter insists that he knows better and temporarily rejects Harry's code, only to return to it older, wiser, and of his own volition, committing to it not as a child in awe of his father but as an adult who recognizes that father's strengths as well as his flaws.

Each of these three rebellions is driven by a person who comes into Dexter's life and seems to represent a loophole to Harry's law that Dexter must live a lonely, secretive life, hiding his true nature from the people closest to him. In the first season, this is Dexter's brother Brian, himself a serial killer who wants Dexter to sever all ties to the world of normal humans. In order to accomplish this, he kidnaps Dexter's adopted sister Deb and offers her to Dexter to kill, insisting that their bond is as much a lie as the ones told by Harry when he concealed Brian's existence from Dexter, and that Dexter is a pure monster who doesn't need reasons, such as the guilt of his victims, to kill. This is too much to ask of Dexter, who feels genuine affection for Deb and Harry. He rescues Deb and kills Brian to protect her. In the second season, Dexter forges a bond with his NA sponsor Lila, who, though ignorant of its true depths, encourages him to embrace the darkness within him as an integral part of who he is. As their relationship deepens it becomes clear that Lila is unpredictable, amoral, and dangerous. She begins to pose a threat to Rita and her children, and ultimately reveals herself to be as monstrous as Dexter or Brian when she kills Dexter's colleague Doakes (though at the same time getting Dexter out of a tight spot, as Doakes had learned the truth about Dexter's extra-curricular activities) and kidnaps the children.

In the third season, Dexter makes the acquaintance of an up-and-coming assistant DA, Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits, in a performance that is just that right amount of over the top). Their meeting is anything but auspicious--on one of his routine pursuits of the unrighteous, Dexter crosses paths with Miguel's younger brother Oscar, who attacks him and ends up dead for his trouble. Shocked at having killed someone who doesn't meet Harry's rigorous code, Dexter seeks Miguel out and quickly finds himself taking Oscar's place in Miguel's life and affections. But what starts out as one kind of disquieting relationship metamorphoses into another when Miguel begins to guess at Dexter's secret and, rather than recoiling, is fascinated, asking Dexter to teach him how to kill so that he, too, can deal out his own brand of justice. Dexter begins to believe that he can have a partner and a best friend, but he soon learns that Miguel has been manipulating him for his own ends. When Miguel kills an innocent woman and targets another, Dexter is forced to dispose of him as he did Brian and Lila.

Each repetition of this story has the same basic progression. Dexter's idealized image of Harry is shaken. Dexter encounters someone who seems to offer him unconditional acceptance and rejects Harry's code. That person threatens Dexter's family and Dexter dispatches them and recommits to his father. We might expect a series that kept repeating the same plot over and over again to intensify the stories it uses to do so, but Dexter takes the opposite approach. Each iteration of Dexter's dance of negotiation with his father's legacy is more mellow, more subtle and more drawn out. It takes him barely more than a single episode to discover, embrace, and reject Brian, while the rest of the first season is given over to the more traditional serial killer story of his and Brian's game of cat and mouse. His infatuation and disillusionment with Lila span roughly half the second season, and the other half concerns his efforts to evade the FBI. In the third season, the procedural elements are not even on Dexter's radar--though a serial killer is operating in Miami, Dexter is too busy with his personal life to bother with him, and leaves it to Deb and the other cops in his department to track the killer down. He starts the season angry at Harry (having learned at the end of the second season that Harry killed himself after being confronted with the bloody reality of the monster he'd created), makes Miguel's acquaintance in the season premiere, slowly opens up to the other man, and takes most of the season to fully comprehend the depths of Miguel's depravity.

With each season, the intensity of the relationship being offered Dexter is toned down: a brother, a lover, a best friend. Each of these potential partners is more normative than the one before: a serial killer, a bohemian artist with a drug problem and a penchant for petty crime, an upright ADA. Each has a more limited understanding of Dexter: Brian knows everything about Dexter, from the brutal killing of his mother that made him what he is, to the details of Harry's training, to his habits and rituals in the present day; Lila senses Dexter's darkness, but doesn't learn that he is the serial killer Miami is in uproar about until the season's final episode; Miguel initially believes that Dexter killed the man accused of Oscar's murder (Dexter's real target on the night Oscar got in his way) by accident, then that Dexter is a vigilante seeking to enact justice on criminals who fall through the justice system's cracks. Only very late in their relationship does he realize that Dexter is a more experienced, more primal killer than he ever imagined (and it is debatable whether Miguel ever makes the connection between Dexter and the previous season's Bay Harbor Butcher killings, for which Doakes ends up taking the fall). Each of these relationships seems more manageable, less dangerous to Dexter and to the people he might endanger if his darker impulses were allowed to run unchecked. Each of them seems like a more humble ambition on Dexter's part--it's clearly a bad thing for him to want to roam the streets with his murderous brother, but is it really so terrible for him to want someone to play golf or have a beer with? What this toning down of the temptations placed before Dexter accomplishes, however, is to intensify the series's main point, the conclusion it leads us to again and again: that anyone who can look at Dexter's true form without revulsion and horror is, however seemingly benign, a monster, and that Dexter must maintain rigid, unwavering control of himself if he is to be allowed to live among people.

Shortly before Dexter's second season started airing in Israel, I chanced upon an interview with Michael C. Hall on an Israeli news site. The interviewer mentioned that some reactions to the series (it wasn't clear whether he meant critical or fannish reactions) lamented the absence of a real-world Dexter, who would rid us of criminals and undesirables. There's no denying that Dexter's writers play on the audience's less noble, more bloodthirsty impulses in their efforts to make their main character sympathetic. In a mid-third season episode, for example, Dexter kills a pedophile who has been stalking Rita's daughter. The man doesn't meet Harry's code, and there were non-lethal ways for Dexter to get rid of him, but the audience's sympathy is with Dexter because of the profound (and not entirely rational) revulsion towards pedophiles in popular culture. I am, however, absolutely certain that, if they even exist, the people referred to in this interview have completely misread the series, and that its writers absolutely do not intend for us to see Dexter as a good or desirable creature (as opposed to, say, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes's writers, whose attitude towards Gene Hunt and his methods of policing becomes more objectionably unambiguous with every episode they produce).

If there are people out there who laud Dexter for eschewing wishy-washy liberalism and returning to hardcore attitudes towards right and wrong, then they have drawn the right conclusions from the wrong reading. Dexter is hardcore. It does reject airy-fairy notions about moral relativism, and does place an emphasis on harsh moral judgments. But it does so by insisting, and repeatedly returning to the undeniable truth, that Dexter is a monster who does monstrous things. For him to accept himself would be catastrophic, just as the people who have accepted him over the course of the series have turned out to be catastrophes in the making. The best thing for Dexter, the show repeatedly concludes, is to live a lie, to deny himself. Only through this denial, and through adherence to his father's edicts, can Dexter have the things that are worth having: a wife, a home, children. Though none of the people who love him will ever truly know him, their love is worth so much more than the love of the kind of person who would accept him for what he is. As the third season finale repeatedly points out, everyone has secrets, truths about themselves that they keep hidden even from those closest to them. What Dexter seems to be saying is that those secrets, the self-imposed restrictions and shame they represent, are a good thing--that there is someting wrong with people, even normal people, who accept themselves unconditionally, don't seek to restrain themselves, and feel no shame at their failures and mistakes. For a show that takes so much pleasure in the shocking and the transgressive, this is an extremely conservative message.

In its third season, Dexter completes its transformation from a procedural mystery to a character drama. The season's overarching plot is not about the pursuit of Oscar's murderer, or the serial killer who emerges in the wake of that murderer's disappearance, or the investigation of the murders committed by Miguel, though each of these plotlines takes its turn in the foreground. The season is given its shape not by any of these stories but by the growth and disintegration of Dexter and Miguel's friendship. The secondary characters' storylines also focus more on character than plot development: Deb is approached by an internal affairs detective (one of the series's most delightful female characters, who is sadly shunted off halfway into the season) who wants her to spy on her new partner; she falls in love with her CI and has to decide whether a man who, by any rational criterion, is entirely wrong for her might be exactly what she needs; Maria LaGuerta deals with the loss of her friend Doakes in the most terrible way imaginable and in her loneliness feels the effects of having sidelined her personal life for the sake of her career; Angel Batista has a dark night of the soul but finds new love.

What's remarkable about the third season is that, for all its emphasis on soap opera developments and the absence of a strong plotline to tie it together, it still feels like the same Dexter of last season and the season before. The writing and acting are still exceptionally fine, and the characters are still consistently appealing and lifelike, but more importantly, the show hasn't lost sight of the story it was always trying to tell: the story of a monster who lives among humans. Dexter's first three seasons are, in a way, the story of Dexter's journey from unquestioning childhood, through rebellious youth, and to a wiser adulthood. Next year he'll be facing or getting ready to face the challenges of fatherhood, and I'm not sure a repitition of the same story we've seen three times already will suit that change in his life. But so long as Dexter's writers remember the kind of story they want to tell, I have faith that they will find new ways and new genres to tell it with.

8 comments:

Todd C. Murry said...

I’m Todd (Nevada, US) a recently acquired reader. Good job all around! I’m reading my way back through your blog and agree with you the vast majority of the time, but I disagree with your post here on two fronts: 1) you don’t separate the code and Harry (as Dexter eventually does) and 2) you seem to think the third season represents a success, somehow.

I agree, reassessment of “the code” is the unifying device of the show. I’m just more focused on the progressive, ontological nature of the series and, for me, after season two’s conclusion, the code is no longer Harry’s – Dexter has accepted responsibility for it.

The first season was Dexter, the good son (imagine him as an 8-10 year old for the purposes of the way the show recapitulates the growth of boy into man), seeing the older brother rejecting the code that he believes in (and which underpins his moral universe). He flits around with the idea of giving in, becoming the bad son, but stays the course.

The second season sees him in adolescent rebellion, importantly capped off by the revelation that the parental “god” has (had) feet of clay. This invalidates the code as inviolate stone tablets, and forces Dexter to take responsibility of the code himself. This obviously brings in all the old religious/existential stuff (do we need god to tell us right and wrong exist? How scary is it to confront the idea that the difference in good/evil might not matter?). Dexter’s decision is a humanist one – the code is in me. The code is powned!

The third season turns this outward and is about, primarily, the code and relationships. This, in our continued allegory, about keeping your idea of yourself intact through the pressures of forming adult friendships and long term (sexual) relationships, i.e. not letting your friends and lovers define you and, ultimately, having to take responsibility for the choices of who you associate with.

In my opinion, this third season context is much weaker. The tether between the metaphor and what’s actually going on in the show become more strained, and the Maya-Deren-Meshes-of-the-Afternoon-like tendency of the show to have Dexter “kill” the versions of himself that he rejects becomes hard to parse, as it’s more difficult to see Miguel as the “road not taken” (for Dexter, that’s a step back, and isn’t really an option). So Miguel becomes what happens when Dexter “shares to much of himself,” so the killing isn’t as symbolic (maybe a symbol of killing an unhealthy relationship, but that’s stretching it)… it’s more of a tie up the loose end cop out. I tried to look at it as a “training” metaphor, but that fails even worse (both because of Miguel’s character and because the implications make no sense).

Also, the ultimate implication becomes dicier: in season one it was that you can’t give in to your primitive nature; in season two it was you can’t do whatever you want and damn the consequences; in season 3 it sort of slides off the side of the you-can’t-let-other-people-tell-you-who-you-are road, and lands in the you-must-keep-your-true-self-hidden ditch.

Mostly, though, it’s not the inconsistencies in theme that got to me but the fact that the series got boring and lame. I saw the move to less involvement in the procedural not as a conscious move towards character drama, but as a failure to bring in any interesting procedural elements. This is not the Sopranos, where the themes just got richer and richer, and you didn’t need to see someone whacked all the time. This is Dexter, and we need to see the monster(s) act consistently to remain in the proper headspace (maybe season shotgunning would have made me feel better about this one, I don’t know).

And I can’t understand how you found Yuki compelling… she seemed to exist only as a plot ping pong paddle (Quinn was the opposite paddle) for Deb’s annoying tendency to completely believe the last person who told her something.

The season wasn’t bad, and certainly was better than most of the stuff on TV, but it knocks Dexter out of the elite upper cadre of shows I watch. Now it’s just an interesting and fallen show (like Battlestar… and I love, love, love your BSG posts).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Todd,

You're right to say that the third season separates Harry from the code, following Dexter's decision to make the code his own at the end of the second season, but that doesn't mean that his conflicts with Harry over how to live his life are over. As you say, in the first and second season Dexter is, respectively, a young child and a rebellious adolescent, but I don't think the next stage, as the show sees it, is adult relationships but fatherhood.

Deb lays out the season's theme in the premiere when she asks Dexter whether he needs to metaphorically kill his father before he can become one himself. Though his relationship with Miguel has many layers, at its core it is a reenactment of Dexter's relationship with Harry, with Miguel playing the role of the son/initiate. Which is how the code and Harry's influence on Dexter are tied together - having claimed the code for himself, Dexter feels free to teach it to others despite 'ghost' Harry's insistence that this is the wrong thing to do. When Miguel rejects the code and kills innocents, Dexter finds himself in Harry's shoes, having created a monster. Unlike Harry, he has the strength (and the emotional distance) to deal with Miguel, and having done so he commits to raising his own child, with the clear implication that this child will be raised well because Dexter intends to return to Harry's rule of complete secrecy and isolation, hiding the darkness within him rather than sharing it with his child.

I do agree that the season was shapeless, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it boring - my enjoyment of the characters and secondary plotlines was sufficient to compensate for the absence of an overarching plot. Also, I'm too aware of what can happen to a good series when it sticks slavishly to a format it can't replicate (and most mystery formats can't be replicated). Dexter isn't perfect, and the third season isn't as good as the second, but I'd rather have this than what happened to Veronica Mars in its second season.

The back and forth of Deb's feelings about Quinn was annoying, I agree, but I liked Yuki's directness. It's unusual for Deb to hold her own in a confrontation. Usually she either steamrolls her opponent or curls in around herself when they hit her (large and extremely vulnerable) soft underbelly. She and Yuki had a good back-and-forth, I thought, and I would gladly have traded Quinn in for her as Deb's partner.

Todd C. Murry said...

Fair enough. I liked the season, it just wasn't my favorite, and using the words lame and boring were probably too much juice. I see your point about the reenactment, and I'll have to think about that in a more focused way... I mentioned the "training," and I couldn't make it work in my mind, but I didn't really think about parallels to Harry so it's worth another mental pass.

The reason I like your blog anyway because you always think of something I didn't.

Andrew Stevens said...

If there are people out there who laud Dexter for eschewing wishy-washy liberalism and returning to hardcore attitudes towards right and wrong, then they have drawn the right conclusions from the wrong reading. Dexter is hardcore. It does reject airy-fairy notions about moral relativism, and does place an emphasis on harsh moral judgments. But it does so by insisting, and repeatedly returning to the undeniable truth, that Dexter is a monster who does monstrous things.

I'm not sure I'm reading you correctly. Are you arguing that a hardcore conservative would approve of Dexter or deny that he is a monster? I don't know how conservative I am, but I am fairly "hardcore" in rejecting moral relativism (though I wouldn't say I favor "harsh" moral judgments, so much as appropriate moral judgments) and I do indeed laud the series for dealing with the rejection of moral relativism and for recognizing that Dexter is nonetheless a monster. Dexter, should he ever be caught alive, should be locked away in solitary confinement for the rest of his life.

What is even better about the series, though, is its recognition that morality is not merely a matter of empathy, as so many relativists nowadays seem to insist, and, therefore, granted to people in unequal measure at birth. (There are, for example, people like Dexter who are born with no empathy at all. Some of them do indeed become monsters, but some of them become moral and upstanding individuals, deriving their morality purely from an intellectual process.)

Instead, the show recognizes that morality can be derived in ways other than through empathy. Dexter derives his from his father. Other people derive theirs from a devotion to a religious code or a particular moral philosopher. This has its pitfalls, of course, as the derived code could be mistaken in any given particular. Still others derive it from a careful consideration of moral intuitions and logical reasoning. This too has its pitfalls as any given individual is no more likely to be infallible than the religions or moral philosophers, though many people seem to forget that. Many people also forget that empathy too can easily be mistaken and lead one down the wrong path. (E.g. the permissive parent who cripples his children by bailing them out of every mistake. Moreover, it is entirely unclear to me how one reaches the virtue of honesty through empathy alone.)

I'm an atheist myself, but I do think there is often wisdom to be found in religious stories. Dexter always reminds me of the story of Adam and Eve. When you first read the story, it doesn't make any sense. If Adam and Eve don't know the difference between good and evil, how can they know it is wrong to eat from the tree and that it is good to do what God commands? (And surely this would have occurred to even the earliest recipients of such a story.) I think the best solution is that of course Adam and Eve already had access to the difference between good and evil. They could reason it out. But they decided that reasoning it out was just too hard. They wanted a "crutch," an easy way to tell the difference between good and evil, so they ate of the tree and were gifted with immediate emotional reactions such as shame (at their nakedness) and empathy. But, by becoming dependent on these crutches, man became unused to using his reason and perfecting his moral reasoning and has needed constant guidance on morality ever since.

Dexter, having no empathy, is like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, only with homicidal cravings. If we take seriously the story of Genesis, Dexter should have an easier time morally perfecting himself than the rest of us. Pity about those homicidal urges.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's precisely the view that Dexter kills as a way of asserting his morality - the one referred to in the interview I spoke of - that I think is a misreading of the show. Though you may be right that Dexter possesses a sense of justice arrived at without empathy, both the show and the character go to great lengths to stress that he doesn't kill because he wants to deal out justice but because he likes killing. Allowing Dexter to kill only criminals of a certain stripe is an outlet that Harry came up with as a way of alleviating his own conscience (and keeping Dexter, whom he loved as a son, alive and out of prison). If Harry had been a fundamentalist wingnut, he might have taught Dexter a code that designated doctors who performed abortions as deserving victims. If he'd been a raving racist, he might have pointed his son at people of color who 'stepped out of line.' Dexter, I believe, would cheerfully have killed any of these, simply because he wants to kill.

Where Dexter expresses his morality is not in the murders he commits - that would be impossible, because those murders are evil. The point Dexter keeps coming back to, with both the main character and the other psychopaths he meets, is that you can make whatever excuses and justifications you like, but if you go out at night to stalk and kill people, you're a monster who probably gets off on it. Dexter expresses morality by suppressing that side of himself in all but carefully controlled circumstances, and hiding it from the people he loves.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sure, Dexter originally simply takes Harry's code the same way children absorb their morality, with no comprehension or thought involved. As you say, the code could have specified any victims at all and Dexter would have accepted it.

However, because it was halfway sane (only halfway, mind, Harry had an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, not uncommon among police officers), Dexter has intellectually wrestled with this code and, as Todd said above, seems to have accepted responsibility for it. He accepted the code because he determined it was right. Of course, Dexter is very far from infallible and it's an even better facet of the show, as you point out, that deep down he actually knows it is wrong. It is the best compromise he has been able to arrive at while still allowing himself to live as the monster he wants to be. Without any empathy at all, Dexter is very clear-eyed on the difference between good and evil and he's very much aware that he's the latter, but tries as hard as he can to be as good as possible within his homicidal confines.

We will know when Dexter has reached the end of his journey when he either commits suicide or turns himself in. (Which he fantasized about doing in Season 2, but only because his back was up against the wall.) Indeed, I don't think the show can satisfactorily resolve itself in any other way. Of course, I'm not sure the show ever plans on resolving itself, but it's the only way to do it.

By the by, I don't think there are very many people who actually view Dexter as a hero, just for the record. (Of course, you did say "if there are people out there," so I'm guessing you suspect that yourself.) There are virtually no actual vigilantes in the world to "rid us of criminals and undesirables," which indicates that the demand for vigilantes is really extremely low. I also think the show was way, way overestimating the percentage of the public which would actually embrace the "Bay Harbor Butcher," perhaps because they misunderstood the appeal of their own show. Even those people who, like Harry, have such an overdeveloped sense of vengeance that they would approve of the Bay Harbor Butcher's actions would be aesthetically repulsed by the way Dexter goes about it. In real life, Dexter would have virtually no supporters at all.

Mike Taylor said...

"Dexter, having no empathy, is like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, only with homicidal cravings."

Taken out of context, this is one of the funnier things I've read in a while :-)

Andrew Stevens said...

I did intend it to be mildly humorous, so I'm glad you appreciated it.

If one compares Dexter to all the other characters in the show, even his sister, one will find that he is usually morally superior to all of them in every way except for that habit he has of vivisecting people, his one emotional impulse. Of course, when it comes to that impulse, he's just as capable of rationalizing it away as the next person.

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