Television

Life, Murder and Companionship: Dexter's Quest for Friendship

Looking back over Dexter’s journey, the need for a trustworthy companion has never been greater. As the character has become more human, the desire for companionship and a normal life has overtaken the necessitation to kill. It has become—in fact always was—the driving force in his life.

Dexter Morgan just wants a friend. A comrade, a buddy, a pal, someone with a common interest in serial-murder-vigilantism. Instead of keeping them corked, Dexter needs a companion with which to share his true emotions and swap war stories. If he can swap spit with her, that makes it even better. He or she must share a strict moral code, the only thing keeping that devious dark passenger in check. Seeking a long-term relationship; enough with the short game. Must have a meticulous attention to detail, a fetish for butcher knives and a love of late-night boat cruises to dispose of dismembered bodies.

Entering its sixth season, Dexter has never really been about the (anti)hero’s attempt to maintain a “normal” life or keep his dark passenger in check. Sure, these plotlines are toyed with, and some tension is created by the possibility that he may get caught or the masquerade revealed. But in retrospect, he has always had relatively complete control of his family life and inner-personality conflicts. Oh, and honestly, if Dexter was caught or started killing innocent people, the show would sink.

Amidst all the serial killers, lunatic British women and macho-psychotic cops, the ongoing arc is Dexter’s struggle to find someone to share his life with. To find a companion. Someone who shares a damaged past, someone he can relate to. Someone who he can be honest with and who understands him. Over five years, supposed suitors have come and gone—often in a permanent, grisly fashion. While they have met some qualifications, while they have fulfilled some desire for human connection, none have been totally able to commit to who Dexter truly is.

And when Dexter finally finds someone who he can be honest with, who accepts him? She is forced to leave. Dexter’s latest relationship with Lumen Pierce worked for several reasons. He had just suffered a devastating loss. She is the victim of a traumatic crime. Together, they are damaged. They need each other. For the first time, he is able to be completely honest with himself and another. Fearful of his dark nature, with Lumen he can openly express his emotions, aggressions and affections.

Unfortunately, a relationship born out of necessity can last only until the need is fulfilled. Looking back over Dexter’s journey, the need for a trustworthy companion has never been greater. As the character has become more human, the desire for companionship and a normal life has overtaken the necessitation to kill. It has become—in fact always was—the driving force in his life.

Becoming Human

In the beginning: Dexter’s relationship with Rita enabled him to develop the persona of a family man, first as a cover and later as an emotional truth. She, like him, has a damaged past: an abusive, drug-addicted husband. Put through tough times, she is accepting of a companion to share her burdens and responsibilities. Someone reliable, who will be there for her and her children. Initially it must appear that Dexter’s interest in her is too good to be true. A levelheaded, good-looking citizen on patrol who likes her kids? Ok. Sold. If he occasionally has the late night, well then it must be his job as he says. Why would he lie?

His second season revelation of an “addiction”, a flaw in his armor, makes him vulnerable. She can help, she’s been through this, they can work together. The revelation of an addiction and subsequent affair with Lila strengthens their relationship, even if it has damaged their trust (and aroused her suspicions of his late night activities). If his true self is never revealed, a facsimile comes forth that makes him feel more comfortable around Rita. Despite their bond growing over the course of the show, his secret life, the fear of discovery always intercedes—their love always feels forced, never natural. Hiding the truth, living a lie, she is never the complement to his battered psyche.

Dexter struggles to adjust to family life.

If he is never in love with Rita, he does learn to love her and her two children. Dexter initially maintains the protective-yet-friendly role of father-figure. But as the family becomes an ever-present part of his life, especially as the children begin to worm their way into his heart, we realize—even if he does not—that there is genuine care and concern for these human beings. It seems that in the tradition of contemporary TV antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey, a child can soften a monster’s heart.

Yes, there is love. Dexter, despite his inner conflict, in spite of Harry always telling otherwise, is in fact human and capable of human expression. From his delight at the birth of his son to the concern of his secret damaging the lives of his family to the explosive rage exhibited at the death of Rita, Dexter has slowly begun this realization.

In order to protect Rita and her family, in order maintain his façade, Dexter felt it was necessary to stifle his emotions, to prevent the possibility of the buried killer coming loose. His guard is always up, unable to give in to feelings or desires. He needs someone with whom he can express his true self, his anger as well as his affection. The slightly demented Lila allowed him to open up his animalistic aggression in a sexual affair. He was even able to share some veiled thoughts with her on dealing with addiction, allowing for the development of an expressive rapport.

However, like all Dexter’s relationships, there is a however. By opening up this passionate side, he became a little sloppy and was almost caught. He also realized the true concern he had for Rita and her kids. As he starts to demonstrate selflessness, he was not willing to allow harm to come to them, even if it would provide a certain self-sentiment. By putting others’ concerns over his own he took his ability to establish a human connection to another level.

The Friendship Code

The other thing about Lila was that she was slightly psychotic—what with wanting to burn Rita’s kids and all. She also appeared capable of torture and indiscriminate murder, things that go against Dexter’s strict moral code. Laid down to him by his step-father Harry, The Code concerns the practicalities of serial murder. Things like how to clean a crime scene and dispose of bodies. Dexter’s victims are to never truly be victims, but instead predators and assailants. The Code implies that by Dexter doling out vigilante justice, he was doing what the courts were incapable of. By killing, he is also be saving the lives of innocents.

But Harry’s Code also is responsible for Dexter’s stunted emotional development. It seeks to retard his human qualities: his search for companionship and a normal life. Harry’s thought process was that by becoming involved in other people’s lives, Dexter could inadvertently bring harm to them. It’s logical, plausible and eventually happened in the instance of Rita’s death. But that which is withheld is only desired more, and so Dexter begins to actively pursue fulfilling relationships and personal connections.

Season One’s Ice-Truck Killer was portrayed as the twisted mirror to Dexter’s good-natured watchdog. Because the Killer was his brother and shared the same rebirth in blood from their mother’s murder, the possibility that Dexter could have become a sadistic predator if Harry had not taken him in, is highlighted. Dexter is tempted by the connection he feels with his brother, his reflection, their shared early life and similar paths of destruction. But the importance of the Code is evident, and Dexter must stick by it. Dexter believes his upbringing and the Code are the only things keeping the dark passenger from taking control. As he obeys, so must his friends.

In Season Three, Dexter’s status as a dark defender taking justice into his own hands attracts the attention of Jimmy Smits’ Miguel Prado. A district attorney who is frustrated with the murderers and rapists who have been allowed to roam free, Dexter’s position as Cerberus is enviable. Likewise, Miguel’s prosperous lifestyle and friendship is attractive to both Dexter and Rita. Two partners with different motives but a shared understanding perform their duty and hijinx ensue: a buddy movie, serial killer style.

However, instead of the two characters coming to terms with their differences and sticking it to the bad guys, their association begins to sour. As Miguel becomes more involved in the physicality of the kill, he begins to feel a rush, the release of emotional burden that Dexter feels. But, where this act defines Dexter, for Miguel it becomes a different kind of addiction, a means to an end, a way to circumvent the red tape and political bureaucracy. He begins to use his power and newfound friend to seek satisfaction on personal vendettas. When he threatens to out Dexter, it’s a mere formality for the course of their relationship and the final disruption of Harry’s Code. The liaison cannot stand and Dexter must cut all ties.

Unable to find friendship, Dexter seeks a role model in Season Four’s Trinity Killer. From the beginning, Dexter knows he must kill Trinity: he has murdered dozens of innocent women and almost kill’s Dexter’s sister. He fits the description of someone who must be dealt with, someone who is in clear violation of the Code. But, still, Dexter wonders how has he survived for so long? He is even more intrigued to learn that Trinity is a church-going family man. Throughout the season, Dexter is at odds with learning how to obtain a happy life and fulfilling the virtues of his code. Under an alias Dexter befriends Trinity, establishing him as a role model in maintaining the façade. Many opportunities arise for the kill, but Dexter cannot bring himself to do it.

Trinity mentors Dexter in the proper uses of a hammer.

By refusing to kill Trinity, Dexter puts himself and his family at risk. It's an act that initially may appear self-centered, wanting to learn how he can create a happy life for himself. It is at odds with his reasoning of learning about Trinity’s home life. It's the desire to have a fruitful relationship, to provide a good life for his own family and newborn son, that drives him not to kill.

Eventually, what lies beneath these masks is revealed, and Dexter sees that Trinity’s suppressions of his dark side have resulted in spousal and child abuse—which is both against the code of the television antihero and Harry’s Code. The realization is that it may be impossible for Dexter to balance his two lives. A charade can only be maintained for so long, and eventually he may end up hurting those who he loves—a point reinforced by the Rita’s death at the hands of Trinity.

All of these companions failed to live up Dexter’s code—of life, murder and companionship. While he was able to engage in shared experiences and discuss hidden aspects of his personal life, these relationships were not meant to last. No matter how he reshapes it, he cannot let anyone in because they won’t understand. If they do understand, they tend to be serial killers of the more psychopathic variety. Not until the introduction of Julia Stiles’ Lumen Pierce in Season Five is Dexter able to find a suitable companion, one that connects to him both emotionally and morally.

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