Mona Dexter

Strictly speaking, my family and I do not watch television, but we do have one, and every so often we get DVDs of almost-but-not-quite-current series. This week, while our son is at camp, my husband and I have been more or less obsessively watching the first two seasons of Dexter.

You know the premise: attractive and congenial Dexter works for the Miami Metro Police Department as a forensic specialist in blood spatter by day, but by night he becomes a ruthless serial killer, hunting down others who have taken innocent lives, his killing governed by a strict procedural code but motivated only by his need to feel something other than the great emptiness that otherwise threatens to consume him. Over the course of the first season, we learn the reason for his emptiness: as a young boy, he saw his mother hacked to death with a chain saw, only to spend the next several days locked in a cargo container inches deep in her blood. By the time that the police found him, he had lost his humanity and been reborn, in his words, a monster, unable to feel normal emotions. To protect him (or so he said; Dexter begins to have doubts in the second season), his foster father painstakingly instructed him how and when to kill without being caught. He also taught him how to pretend to be normal: show interest in others even when you don't feel it, laugh even when the jokes aren't funny, smile even when inside you feel nothing but, well, nothing. And, of course, have a girlfriend.

Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, it works. At least most of the time. Even in the midst of a police department, no one except Special Ops-trained Sergeant Doakes seems to have any suspicions of the monster in their midst, so adept has Dexter become at hiding his lack of emotion. And yet, is what Dexter does really so extraordinary? The killing, yes, at least one hopes so, but the pretending to be something other than what he truly is? In the show, Dexter is the only one to whose interior we, the viewers, actually have access. We hear Dexter's voiceover telling us what he really thinks (typically at odds with what the other characters are hearing and seeing), and we accept that he is the only one struggling with himself. We never hear what his fellow police officers are thinking, and yet, other than his sister, they all clearly have dark motives of their own: Lietenant LaGuerta will do anything to keep her job, including sleeping with her rival's fiancé; Sergeant Doakes kills more than one suspect under suspicious circumstances; lab tech Masuka talks (and presumably thinks) in a continuous stream of bad sex jokes; even the aptly named Detective Angel Batista has cheated on his wife, if only once. Everyone, in other words, has something to hide--and does. Except, ironically, at least from our perspective, Dexter.

Is Dexter a monster or a hero? The "Bay Harbour Butcher" or the "Dark Defender"? After all, he only kills bad guys (and women) who have already killed others. As he tells one victim, a child molester and murderer, "I could never do what you do. I have standards." Thus constantly raising the question, "Do we?" Dexter thinks that he is the only monster out there (well, okay, other than the Ice Truck Killer), but over and over again we see him confronted by others who would appear to have no standards, no compunction about hurting others to get what they want. Sure, they aren't all killers, but (as another lovable misfit so memorably puts it), "Everybody lies." Who isn't pretending to be something he or she is not? Who doesn't have things that they would be embarrassed or ashamed to let others know? Who doesn't smile for family photos just to make their mother happy or fake feelings so as not to hurt or offend those whom they love?

We are meant to believe--or perhaps more accurately, Dexter believes that he is unique in this respect and certainly there are those, some of whom become serial killers, who have severe problems with empathy, but the reality is that the only voiceover we hear in real life is our own. Otherwise, we are wholly dependent on what people say and do for access to their interiors. We would like to believe that we are all like Sergeant Doakes, sensitive to the evil in our midst, but the truth is, we're usually not, perhaps because we're so busy trying to cover up our own. I like to believe, for example, that I am peculiarly sensitive to when couples are about to get a divorce, probably because I was so clueless myself until my father announced one day that he was leaving, but most of the time I am more or less oblivious to the tensions and dramas in others' lives. At least, it feels that way when, once again, I am caught by surprise or realize how badly I've misjudged someone. I doubt very much that I'd see through a real-life Dexter, certainly not one so outwardly pleasant as the character on the show.

So, is he a monster or Everyman? Lila, Dexter's NA sponsor, startles him with her insight, as she unknowingly inspects his craftsmanship on one of his victims: "We are all monsters. There is good and evil in all of us." Later, of course, we learn that Lila is not only a meth-addict, but also an arsonist, thus perhaps giving her greater access than otherwise ordinary people might have to the "dark passenger" riding shotgun within us, but Dexter is simply relieved that she understands and is not repulsed by him. As who wouldn't be? Relieved, that is. According to Wikipedia, when CBS announced that it wanted to broadcast the show over the public airwaves, the Parents Television Council protested: "This show is not suitable for airing on broadcast television; it should remain on a premium subscription cable network. The biggest problem with the series is something that no amount of editing can get around: the series compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer, to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn't get discovered." But surely even more disturbing is what the show is trying to show us about ourselves.

Yes, we root for Dexter, but only because we are enabled by way of the voiceover to empathize with him; we know him in a way that we know no one other than ourselves. It is, of course, funny when we hear Dexter thinking, "Don't kill my sister, don't kill my sister," because we know that he could, but so could we. My sister will be delighted to show you the scar on her forehead that she got when I pushed her into a dividing wall when she was about three or four. I was five or six and angry because she had messed up my side of the room; Dexter is frustrated with Debra because she is leaving her stuff all over his place. His dark side is our dark side, which, ultimately is what makes him so fascinating. Are we all, therefore, like Dexter, simply pretending to be human when we're not? How close are we to killing those who anger or frustrate us? Is Dexter weaker or stronger than we are when he gives in to his addiction to kill? It is surely significant that the opening credits show Dexter looking into a mirror, only his image is blurred so that we cannot actually see him, until, that is, he locks his front door and walks out into the world, smiling. As, come to think of it, do we all.

Scary, isn't it?

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