Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Last year, the Showtime channel started a series called "Dexter". I saw some of the advertisements for it on other channels, but I don't subscribe to Showtime, so I didn't see the series itself. I didn't think I would like it anyway. The character Dexter was a serial killer who worked for the Miami police department. That sounded kind of lame to me. Did they arrest some serial killer, then let him off if he would help catch others of his ilk? I couldn't see that as a premise that would work. It really sounded like a crock to me.

Still, a couple of people I know who subscribe to Showtime told me that it was really good. Then, a few weeks back, they started showing the series on CBS on Sunday nights. I watched the first episode and I must confess that I'm hooked. The first season is on four DVD's that are available from Netflix. I've already watched the first three, and the fourth will get here Wednesday. I will probably watch it in a single sitting. The premise of "Dexter" isn't anything like what I had thought it would be. The character really is a psychopath, who cannot empathize with others, and he's a serial killer as well. He straps his victims down to a table and cuts them up while they're still alive. When he's finished killing his victim, Dexter chops up the body, puts the pieces into plastic garbage bags, and disposes of them at sea.

In spite of all that, I find myself liking the character of Dexter. It's what the show's producers are aiming for, and they've been successful. Lots of people apparently like the show and the character. I asked myself how the producers were able to pull that off. For one thing, Dexter may not be on the side of the angels, but he's standing with the good guys, and he has principles. He only kills people who have gotten away with murder themselves, in one form or another. To emphasize that point, Dexter is shown turning down the opportunity to kill people who are not guilty of heinous crimes. For example, Dexter is dating a woman who has two children. Her husband is in prison on drug charges. He was a big-time junkie and he used to beat his wife severely. He gets out of jail, and starts threatening his ex-wife. He wants to come back into her life, and she doesn't want him to. He's demanding unsupervised visits with his kids. He's constantly on the verge of violence. Dexter finally intervenes. He knocks the guy out, hauls him back to where he was staying, and lays him down on the bed. You're expecting Dexter to kill the man. Instead, after injecting him with heroin, Dexter calls the cops, who find the hubbie high and with the needle still in his arm. He goes back to prison for life for violating the three strikes rule. As Dexter said, he needed to go away, but he didn't deserve killing.

Now, I have to say that the show's producers also cheat. In the first few episodes, Dexter says that he's only dating the woman he's seeing because he wants to appear normal. He likes the fact that she had an abusive husband because she's no longer interested in sex. Several episodes later, sex does enter the picture, and it's clear that Dexter does have affection for her. Likewise, he cares very much for his step-sister. That doesn't fit with the sort of psychopath who kills people the way he does. Of course, for narrative purposes, he has to care about someone, so I don't really hold that against the show. I might also add that Michael C. Hall does a masterful job of portraying Dexter. He really seems to have gotten into the character. He can be amiable one moment, and kind of creepy the next. It's very convincing.

All that said, I'm still left feeling uneasy. I should be disgusted by the show. No matter what these people did, this guy doesn't have the right to judge them and kill them.* And that right there is the pivot around which the show turns. Without really meaning to do so, it deconstructs the archetype of the good-guy vigilante. Hollywood churns out picture after picture starring the likes of Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, John Claude Van Damm, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold the Governor, etc., administering their own brands of vigilante justice. However, these guys are warriors. They kill because they have to, not because they enjoy the act of killing in itself. A vigilante like Dexter puts the archetype in a different light. When he kills, he isn't just getting rid of the bad guy. He really is killing, up close and personal. It doesn't make you feel any better to know that his victims are bad guys. It calls into question the archetype itself.

We in the USA are particularly enamored with the good-guy vigilante. It's often the role in which we see ourselves on the international stage. The Bush administration certainly bought into that image when it invaded Iraq. We kicked ass and took names, disposing of Sadaam and his minions in quick order. We saw ourselves as the heroes in an action movie. Hell, Bruce Willis was even a big supporter of Bush and the war. Unfortunately, things rarely work out the way they do in the movies. Reality proved a lot more intractable than the reality that the Busheviks thought they were creating. Now, several years later, after Abu Ghraib and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the war is more in the spirit of Dexter than the Hollywood action boys.

* I might also mention that, in real life, it's often not so clear who's really a bad guy. I don't think that there are many killers of the sort that Dexter disposes of walking around on the streets. As is mentioned in the show, the FBI estimates that there are about 50 serial killers at large in the US. Miami would seem to have more than its share, given that Dexter ferrets one out for himself in just about every episode.


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