Showtime’s lovable mass murderer, portrayed by Michael C. Hall, walks through an adoring crowd, a street lined with fans. Serial killer groupies carry signs that read “Way to go buddy” and “You cut em up real good”. Overhead a plane pulls an enormous banner that announces, “We heart Dexter”. It’s all the public acclaim that a quiet loner who keeps to himself could ever desire.
This brilliant scene, a dream sequence/meta-moment at the end of season one, captures the strangeness of the Emmy award winning series’ premise, the idea that a psychopathic killer could be a sympathetic protagonist. It also speaks to the strangeness of an audience allowing a killer to lead the narrative by the nose and guide them into his world, forcing them to read that world through his murderous eyes.
If you have been under a rock (or in a body bag) the past few years, Dexter tells the story of handsome, affable Dexter Morgan, a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami PD. Beneath a seemingly normal exterior lurks Dexter’s “dark passenger”, a part of himself that seeks release in murder. His father, a homicide detective, recognized the telltale signs of a psychotic personality and sought to channel his son’s murderous impulses, directing them to a life of vigilante justice. The Showtime series explores Dexter’s effort to sate his blood lust within his father’s code while also maintaining his day job and his relationship with his girlfriend and her children.
Douglas L. Howard’s edited collection Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television explores Dexter and his complex world fully. The essays range from a close analysis of the show’s much-discussed opening sequence (the quotidian elements of breakfast and morning ablutions presented as operatic mayhem) to a fascinating description of how Dexter has been received on German television (not so well though perhaps because of odd translation decisions and absurd dubbing rather than an inherent, cultural revulsion to the series).
Academic essay collections dealing intensively with aspects of popular culture are common. One of the treats that set this volume apart is the inclusion of interviews with both James Manos Jr., the original developer of the Dexter novels for television and the author of those novels, Jeff Lindsay. The questions posed to each go to the heart of the series and to the character. Lindsay in particular gives a thoughtful interview on both the character of Dexter and what its like to watch his creation taken places his novels never envisioned.
At least two of the essays in this collection deal with whether or not Dexter can be considered part of the horror genre. Stacey Abbot and Simon Brown argue that Dexter ignores or subverts traditional elements of gothic horror while employing performance art and other aesthetic themes to create true horror. Stan Beller notes that the show is written and shot in such a way that the more gruesome aspects of the narrative never overwhelm the audience. Beller argues that Dexter’s work in forensics contains the horror of his “dark passenger”‘s nighttime activities. He suggests that Dexter succeeds in abstracting horror in the fashion of popular police procedurals like C.S.I. or Bones that idolize the clinical aspects of police work.
If this thorough collection leaves one area unexamined, its how audiences read the politics of Dexter’s vigilantism. Several authors acknowledge that the series is pitched toward an educated, left-leaning viewership. These liberals with Showtime might not be prone to cheer for Dexter’s Charles Bronsonesque style of dispensing justice or his moral arrogance regarding who deserves to die (he’s “the decider”).
Simon Riches and Craig French’s essay, “The Ethics of a Serial Killer”, does look at the philosophical underpinnings of Dexter’s crimes, while Michele Byers reflects on how Dexter as a character embodies certain neo-conservative ideals. Neither really explores audience reaction and the complex cultural dynamics at work when an audience cheers for a character that fundamentally subverts their values. The latter issue does not, of course, only apply to politically progressive audiences. Whatever your thoughts about the nature of the state in relation to crime and punishment, it’s likely that Dexter’s power saw will make you a bit queasy.
However, David Schmid disagrees in his essay “The Devil We Know”, arguing that audience identification with Dexter suggests that sympathy for serial murderers “has been embraced as part of the American mainstream”. Schmid is applying here an argument he made in his book Natural Born Celebrities that traces the trajectory of America’s serial murder obsession from the 19th century to the present. He shows that the serial killer partakes fully in celebrity culture, famous for being infamous.
Although this is the strongest collection of essays responding to a specific theme in popular culture I’ve read in a while, it does have its limitations. The quality of the contributions are uneven and some of the authors do bring their own theoretical templates to the task rather than looking at the implications of Dexter‘s own narrative arc. Few readers will be interested in whether or not Dexter conforms to the demands of ethical consequentialism or whether his dark passenger would benefit from some Lacanian psychoanalysis.
The few essays that misfire detract little from this excellent collection. Dexter fans will discover new elements to their beloved psychopath. It’s even likely that someone encountering this book would feel compelled to watch the series and have their own encounter with Dexter’s dark passenger, the first truly post-modern serial killer.