What Explains our Cultural Fascination with “Dexter?”

Somehow, the conversation between the lady and me had veered into the topic of television, and that was when whatever congeniality our chance encounter had began to cool.  Turns out she wasn’t too fond of my selection for one of the best programs on TV.

To paraphrase, she claimed that Dexter was irresponsible in its promotion of vigilanteism.  It’s always best to let the law handle things, she said.  As ineffective as it sometimes is, it’s the only thing we have to ensure true justice.

This, of course, is integral to why Dexter is such a captivating series; because at the heart of it lies the question of whether Dexter Morgan is justified in taking the lives of those who have murdered and will likely murder again.  It is a moral conundrum that many of us have considered.  We’ve all wanted to don the superhero cape and do what we know the authorities, with the red tape that ties up the criminal justice system, are ill-equipped to do themselves.

Sure, Dexter has killed an innocent, acting on his false conviction that the man was responsible for a murder when in fact he was just an arrogant womanizer.  And more importantly, Dexter didn’t kill Trinity on any of the numerous opportunities he had, opting instead to get closer to him and learn firsthand how to balance serial killing and family life.  The great irony here is that this desire to be a better family man resulted in the death of Dexter’s beloved wife, Rita, tearing his family to shreds.

These are critical errors in judgment that show that even the most cunning sociopathic minds are not flawless.  Looked at objectively though, doesn’t the number of murders Dexter has pre-empted outweigh his unfortunate casualties?  Society will never outwardly condone it, but the question is so relevant to our criminal justice context that it cannot be easily dismissed.

Aside from the embedded social commentary and complex debate fodder, Dexter has been a success because the eponymous hero is mysterious and relatable at the same time.  On the one hand, we are intrigued by the twist of having at the show’s core a serial killer who hunts serial killers.  Through meaningful and well-placed flashback sequences, we have seen how Dexter came into being – how his biological father Harry helped him channel his psychopathic bloodlust into something more amenable, and how he has struggled to maintain a semblance of normal life.  But he is not normal.  He bears a fundamental distinction from his peers, one that tests his ability to love, to have friends, to behave as other people do.  In this sense, he is identifiable.  We have all felt that need to assimilate, to set aside that which makes us unique in the name of what is common, accepted and understood.  The notion of having an outcast serial killer who we are almost ashamed to like is one of the key drawing points for the show.  After all, he is “America’s favourite serial killer.”  Though that can’t be saying much.

There are critical aspects of Dexter that serve as the icing on the metaphoric cake:  the sound characterization of Dexter’s colleagues (with Masuka providing perfectly timed comic relief), subplots that artfully coalesce into profound consequences, and dialogue that practically bleeds dramatic irony.  And there are quarts and quarts of it.

Dramatic irony, in fact, is one of the things the show does best.  In the season 5 premiere, Deb tells her brother what funeral arrangements he should be considering for his late wife.  As she lists each, Dexter makes a mental note of what evidence he has to destroy now that the feds – and even his own coworkers, primarily Quinn – have him pegged as a suspect.  He routinely talks in double entendres, responding to those around him in ways that would reveal to them his true nature if only they had the slightest inkling that he’s not just a family-oriented blood spatter analyst.

And it’s this duality that pulls us diehards in.  We all have secret lives of sorts, and to see a secret life explored in someone as complex as Dexter is something to behold.  Even the symbolically poignant opening sequence, in which Dexter’s ablutions are performed to expose his serial killer identity, is an exercise in contrast that so effectively sets the tone for what is to unfold.

It doesn’t hurt either that the show was willing to stun us with a finale that changed the scope of things for Dexter in the gravest of ways.  Whereas lesser shows might try to protect their characters, Dexter immerses them in both internal and external conflict, which only strengthens our support for them.  The first episode of the new season served primarily to wrap up the events that preceded it and introduce new concerns.  Now that Dexter is coming to terms with Rita’s death, he has a resentful stepdaughter to contend with (as well as his own biological son to nurture).  He has to satisfy a never-ending bloodlust in the most ethically sustainable manner possible, and fend off the suspicious noses of the FBI and Quinn, who will certainly create problems for him in the weeks to come.

But Dexter’s problems are our problems, too.  And as he goes about solving them, he should know that for better or worse, millions of viewers have got his back.


One thought on “What Explains our Cultural Fascination with “Dexter?”

  1. Yes, indeed, well written, but you have simply enumerated the qualities of Dexter and his compatriots that draw us in.

    The truth of what fascinates us all about Dexter is not simply what is revealed, but what we are secretly (fetishly) fascinated in about ourselves. We all carry our Dark Passengers, and we all strive to assimilate or blend in, but what fascinates us about Dexter is being able to look at the scenario from HIS point of view, instead of taking the extra step and effort to introspect our own Dark Passengers.

    We are all too ready to sit on our comfy couches, and join the friends and coworkers surrounding Dexter in stupefaction as to who is tilting the scale on the side of Justice, while all along we are procrastinating on coming to terms with our own addictive personalities. We search for heroes so that we don’t have to become them.

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