Rob and Mike watch Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) at The Projection Booth. “The first big American studio film — and last big American studio film – directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is, uh, ‘inspired’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story and stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a taut game of life and death.”
Posted April 26, 2012
“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like for everything inside me that’s denied and unknown to be revealed, but I’ll never know. I live my life in hiding. My survival depends on it.”–Dexter
On the tv show Dexter, Dexter Morgan believes he is a monster pretending to be human. And while Dexter constructs an elaborate performance of being normal, he also yearns for human connection and acceptance. He’s serial killer who’s trying to be good. And the show slyly uses those contradictions to create empathy.
Dexter stars Michael C. Hall as Dexter, a serial killer working as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police. He uses his job to hunt murderers who have escaped legal justice. Harry Morgan discovered 3-year-old Dexter at a crime scene and adopted him, raising Dexter with his daughter, Deb. As Dexter manifested signs of being a nascent serial killer, Harry began training him to pass as “normal,” to avoid being caught and to channel his killing urge, giving Dexter “The Code of Harry.” “This is the only way I know how to keep you out of an electric chair,” Harry tells Dexter.
Where Harry fails Dexter, possibly even more than teaching him to get away with murder, is in letting Dexter believe he has no human feeling. Over the course of the series, it becomes ever more clear that Dexter has or has developed feelings and that he doesn’t entirely know what to do about them. Watching the show for the thrill of Dexter overcoming obstacles and the satisfaction of seeing the bastards die, makes his transformation easy to overlook, but I think his transformation has driven the show’s first six seasons.
In the first season, Dexter realizes that he is more than Harry’s creature (the Adam of Harry’s labors) and chooses who he wants to be by choosing his adopted sister, Deb, over his biological brother, Brian. In doing so, Dexter chooses the human world over one in which he could be “a killer without reason or regret.” In each subsequent season Dexter experiments with different roles and ways of understanding his “dark passenger,” his drive to kill.
And so, while solving and committing crimes, Dexter finds people to teach him about relationships, feelings and being human.* For example, Dexter maintains his cover by allowing his partner Rita and the suspicious Detective Doakes to believe that he is a heroin addict. But at Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Dexter begins to understand his dark passenger in terms of addiction and tries to control it with 12 steps and help from his sponsor, an arsonist. His new cover as recovering addict bleeds into his underlying self. Dexter tries on being a brother, a lover, a friend, a “dark defender,” a father, a husband, a good family man, a man who might have a soul. Afraid he will lose Rita, he even seeks help from his prey: a therapist who manipulates women into killing themselves; a murderous human trafficking couple; and an older serial killer with a family.
Dexter dares to hope that he can change or be forgiven, that he could be a hero, an instrument of justice, that he could be accepted for himself–even that he could be loved by someone who knows exactly who he is. In season 5, he begins to envision making a life of love and righteous killing with Lumen, a woman he helps to avenge herself.
“Many times in life I feel that I’m missing some essential piece of the human puzzle. This is one of them.”
The show is clever in making a serial killer sympathetic. It plays with viewers’ automatic identification with a protagonist and gives us access to Dexter’s internal monologue. His narrative frames the action. More, Dexter confides in the viewer. He shares observations and his struggle to understand people. Few people feel “normal,” so it’s easy to identify with Dexter’s uncertainty and impatience in social situations, his sense of isolation and alienation, his incomprehension at his coworkers’ creepy sexual conversations. And because his confidences betray horrific things about him, he seems more honest than everyone around him.
Sympathizing with Dexter is made even easier by the fact that he only kills other killers. He has, as he tells the first victim we see him kill on the show, “standards”–the Code.
“Children, I could never do that. Never, not like you. Never, ever kids.”
“I have standards.”
Dexter’s killing exists in the blurred space between justice and law. It seems like justice. And there is a seductive appeal to the idea of someone who knows what’s right, who’s emotionally and socially unentangled and not constrained from doing what needs to be done, a clear-eyed outsider who rights wrongs.** It’s easy to see Dexter this way.
And Dexter is such a neat monster. His kills involve animal tranquilizers, a kill room wrapped in plastic, a cut to the victim’s cheek for a blood sample, and then Hefty-bagged body parts dropped in the ocean. No mess. All he keeps are bloodslides. If Dexter kept more gruesome trophies or had a different ritual, identifying with him would be much harder. But there are more horrific rituals on Dexter— The Trinity Killer slitting a young woman’s femoral artery in the bath and fracturing a man’s skull with a hammer; women discarded in oil drums; the Doomsday Killer’s Biblical tableaux.
And all of this makes makes Dexter seem virtuous compared to his prey and innocent compared to the people around him. It’s hard to believe his claims that he’s a monster. It becomes easy to forgive him when he makes a mistake—even when he kills the wrong person or kills a man guilty only of being a foul-mouthed asshole. In the first instance, Dexter feels guilty and that seems enough. In the second, he imagines Harry praising him, “That’s the first human thing I’ve seen you do since [Rita] died.”
And it works—I do want to see justice. I do hope Dexter escapes—after he’s killed his target, after he destroys evidence, even after he frames an innocent dead man to ensure that the police don’t reach his prey before he does. And I am fascinated that I feel these ways and impressed that Dexter could make me feel them.
Dexter isn’t dishonest, but he is an unreliable narrator and what he’s most unreliable about is himself. At the most basic level, we see the feelings he claims are only a performance of norms, a mask. The existence of his feelings are undeniable even to him after Rita’s death. But through the series, his mask becomes more than just a mask and the Code no longer Harry’s, but Dexter’s. No wonder he’s confused: He’s becoming human, no longer just passing, no longer the perfect predator culling other monsters in our midst.
We never expect monsters to feel human emotions. It’s easier to think that monsters don’t feel or feel entirely differently, that there’s a hard line between the monstrous and the human, them and us. Even Dexter is disappointed that the Ice Truck Killer has a taste for mint lozenges***. “How human,” he says. But when monsters feel, we can’t distance ourselves from them as clearly, because their emotions are intimately familiar. Either the monster is human or we are monster. And when Dexter has relatable human emotions, it’s easy to forget what else he is. And then, when we are good and empathetic, when we are most likely to see Dexter as he sometimes sees himself, a person who puts an end to horrific crime and to horrible people, when we are most likely to see Rita and Dexter’s family life as irritating, hateable obstacles, the show reminds us of exactly what Dexter does and what it costs.
“That boy in the blood, he scares me.”
I feel for Dexter because his story’s tragic as well as Grand Guignol. Dexter can never have what he wants, not because he’s a monster, and not just because what he wants—to be who he is and accepted for it—is impossible, but because he’s a man who has done terrible things. And those terrible things will come back for him, and chances are, they will hit when he has become human enough to feel his loss the most.
*making Dexter a peculiar mirror for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic
**and Superman a peculiar mirror for Dexter.
*** In another parallel to Catman, who is disappointed to discover that Batman eats burritos.