The 'Dark Passenger' Attends Philosophy 101: 'Dexter and Philosophy: Mind Over Spatter'

A fantastically simple hook creates a baffling philosophical paradox in Dexter.

Dexter and Philosophy: Mind Over Spatter

Publisher: Open Court
Length: 303 pages
Price: $17.95
Editors: Richard Greene, George A. Reisch, Rachel Robison-Greene
Publication Date: 2011-05

A fantastically simple hook creates a baffling philosophical paradox in Dexter, the TV series and books. It was only a matter of time before we had the killer who kills killers. The psychopath that outdoes all others. Harking back to Rashkolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment through to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley; we follow the killer and track his motives and emotional and psychological development – or lack thereof.

In Dexter and Philosophy: Mind Over Spatter a range of academics assess the central paradox. This constitutes: Dexter the psychopath has been taught by his father (Harry) to kill other killers, because (their reasoning goes) he would kill anyway thanks to the inescapable compulsion that drives him (due to the childhood trauma of seeing his mother hacked to death and spending two days sitting in a pool of blood in a container at the docks with his older brother Brian). Therefore, he might as well mete out a form of justice towards those who would otherwise slip through the net, i.e., other psychopathic predators.

However, as the moral philosophy then shows, the reason he can kill is that he has a compulsion to do so, something he cannot help; therefore does that not make the other psychopaths whom he disposes of just as innocent on the grounds that they, too, have a compulsion they cannot fight? Or is he not just as guilty as they are if, alternately, all psychopaths know what they do because they try to hide their crimes, as Dexter does when he kills and disposes of the bodies in such a ‘clean’ way so as to leave no evidence? If guilty, in this ethical and philosophic scenario, should he not self-destruct?

These close analyses of the drama series show that they depict the story of Dexter as his gradual self-destruction, but he takes many with him along the way – both guilty (his brother Brian the ‘Ice Truck Killer’) and innocent (his actions lead to the murder of his wife Rita at the hands of the Trinity killer). Dexter is damaged goods and has to wear a mask and that is meat and drink to a philosopher. Similar to many of the essay collections in this series (this one is Volume 58 in Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy ) the trawl through the minute detail does not tire and provokes further ideas.

For me, Patricia Brace’s chapter ‘The Sublime Dexter’ probably convinces most thoroughly and best represents the meshing of Enlightenment philosophy with the appeal of a popular culture anti-hero. She uses Burke’s text On The Sublime And Beautiful to initiate an interpretation of Dexter’s actions on the grounds that extreme acts induce extreme emotional states, such as terror, which are sublime. The ‘Power of the Sublime’ she says ‘explains our ability to feel more alive by experiencing strong emotional reactions to the world we perceive around us’ (100).

This underpins Dexter’s urges and his pursuit to feel something. From there, Burke takes off into the realms of art, as developed from the sublime feelings prompted by that which ‘operates in a manner analogous to terror’. Whatever might ‘excite the ideas of pain and danger’ or anything that might be ‘terrible’, not necessarily beautiful, is a ‘source of the sublime.’ It is within human nature to seek out that which provokes, reinforces and sustains these urges.

This is probably the best description of both the motivations and the character of Dexter and the symbiotic relationships he has with the allies, lovers and enemies he finds himself competing with: Miguel Prado, Lila, and Paul Bennett. There are those who suspect him, wish to collude with him, provoke him to further bloodshed in the name of art or justice, and by contrast those who are the counterbalance and have no ‘Dark Passenger’, such as Rita or Debs.

The audience’s relationship with the range of serial killers in popular culture is a fraught one. Having, as Burke defines it, the urge in us to reveal, encounter, sustain and experience extreme emotions as a way of glimpsing and knowing ‘power’ helps to explain why we view and read such material. Strange entertainment though it is, the mimetic devices used to depict horror, suspense, and violence, are consistently a facet of society’s urges and have always been with us. You only have to remember that the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime was the most bloodthirsty Titus Andronicus, showing a kindred spirit of revenge to Dexter.

This volume pursues, with an accessible tone, how philosophy might help us to understand the darkest urges in the human mind (soul?) and navigates antique and modern philosophies’ relationship with the culture that depicts these darkest acts.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.