Monday, October 01, 2007

A very neat sort of monster

Dexter Morgan, the vigilante serial killer of serial killers who is the hero of Showtime's darkly comic mystery series Dexter, describes himself as a very neat sort of monster, and he is.

Neat and a monster.

Neatness is his chief virtue, of which he has many. Of course he’s neat when it comes to his murders. He cleans up carefully after he’s done, naturally, so that there’s no evidence. But he’s also very neat when it comes to the planning and the execution of his...executions. He makes sure that he has the goods on the murderers he murders before he murders them. As a private detective, who has his victims’ victims as his clients, he’s meticulous about gathering evidence and following the procedures he’s late adoptive father, a great police detective in his day, taught him.

But he’s neat in the other areas of his life too. He dresses neatly, he’s well-groomed, he’s neat in his manners, that is he’s careful to be polite and cheerful, he picks up after himself, he’s as meticulous about his day job—he’s a blood spatter analyst for the homicide division of the Miami police department—as he is about his work as a serial killer. And he’s always ready to help his family, friends, and colleagues pick up after the messes, large and small, in their lives.

Dexter himself (brilliantly played with the right mixture of neatness, charm, and heartless glee by Michael C. Hall) wouldn’t describe his neatness as a virtue. He wouldn’t call any of his other virtues virtues either. He doesn’t think monsters like him can have virtues. As far as he's concerned, his neatness, being as coldly calculated as his murders, is part of his disguise.

He’s disguised as a human being.

Because when Dexter calls himself a monster, he doesn’t mean he’s a human being who does monstrous things. He means he is a monster, the way Frankenstein’s monster is a monster. Something not human. A creature who might as well have been created in a laboratory or fallen to earth from outer space, a strange being from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

I’m not being sarcastic with the Superman reference. Dexter’s story is a sinister twist on the superhero myth. Like Clark Kent, Dexter is an orphan who is taken in and raised by strangers and taught by his adoptive father to use his strange powers for good, it’s just that Dexter’s powers happen to allow him to track, trap, torture, kill, and disarticulate small animals.

Like Jonathan Kent, Harry Morgan recognizes his adopted son’s “special” abilities and teaches him to hide them, to pass as a regular person, but to use his abilities to help fight crime.

But it’s not just because he has this ability to kill without regret or remorse that Dexter thinks of himself as not human. His insatiable need to murder and butcher is the least of his problems.

Dexter is lost in an alien world without a guide book to tell him how to deal with the natives and their strange and apparently absurd customs. His survival depends on his passing as human, on no one seeing through his mild-mannered disguise to the monster beneath, and since Harry died ten years ago (although he’s a regular character in the show, recurring in flashbacks and dreams) Dexter has had no way of knowing how to fit in except by taking his cues from the humans he encounters—and they are, as it turns out, mostly nuts.

Trying to be human means mimicking human emotions. Dexter is empty inside (he thinks), he has no emotions, and, as he’s smart and logical, relentlessly, remorselessly so—he can make Mr Spock look whimsical—Dexter has a lot of trouble pretending that he does. Human emotional responses make no sense. People laugh when they should cry. They take pleasure in what hurts them. They love what hates them. They don’t even seem to understand their own emotions, which they routinely mistake for rational thoughts. They are always doing things they would call thought-full when they are being driven by appetites and desires they dislike and condemn when they see other people driven by the same appetites and desires.

Deb, Dexter’s adopted sister, an up and coming young detective, thinks of herself as a smart, tough, hard-nosed cop simply following in their father’s footsteps. In truth, she is a marshmallow, a wreck of insecurities and contradictory impulses, a lost little girl who is using her career to win her dead father’s love and approval. She is also emotionally and professionally dependent on Dexter.

Lt LaGuerta, the head of their homicide unit, thinks she is a cool professional’s professional. She is aware that she’s a calculating careerist, but she thinks that’s simply a fact of life for an intelligent and ambitious young Latina trying to make her way in the face of the old white boy’s net. But she is just as driven by petty jealousies, narcissism—to take her eyes off the prize for a second means taking her eyes off the image of herself holding the prize—lust—it’s probably not the case that she’s slept her way to the top, as Deb and some of the other cops believe; it’s more likely that she’s been too happy to reward men she likes who have helped her in her career with sex—and, to her own confusion and surprise, principle, professional pride, duty, feelings of compassion she has told herself she’s beyond, and more tender emotions—she’s got a terrific schoolgirl crush on...Dexter!

Rita, Dexter’s girlfriend (He claims to be dating her only because he’s learned that normal men his age have girlfriends. So she’s part of his disguise.), thinks she’s finally escaped her emotional dependency on her abusive and alcoholic ex-husband and has made long strides towards becoming an independent and self-reliant person in her own right. But to the degree she has achieved this she has done it by transferring her dependence onto Dexter, and the masochism and insecurities that caused her to stay with her ex-husband long after it became clear what he was are now blinding her to what Dexter really is. By the final episode of last season she had developed some doubts and this season she’s going to figure out that he is hiding a dark secret from her—his drug addiction. She makes him go into rehab.

Dexter of course would never do anything so un-neat as use drugs.

And Detective Sergeant Doakes thinks he’s a righteous cop out saving the weak and innocent from the bad guys, but he’s driven by angers and memories that quite possibly are turning him into a less rational, and much less neat, version of Dexter, a murderer of murderers. It’s no wonder he’s the one person in the department who can’t abide Dexter. Of course Doakes thinks he’s got Dexter figured out. What’s likely going on is that he’s afraid Dexter will figure him out.

Nobody in this crowd is really thinking at all, which makes Dexter, because everything he does is thought out with monstrous rationality—even his killings, which have method and purpose and require intense self-control and discipline, at least before and after the actual slaughters, are rational—the sanest person he knows.

That’s one of the themes of the show and the source of much of its humor. Our emotions, the qualities that make us most human, that is normal, also make us crazy. Much of the comedy arises from Dexter the Monster’s utter bafflement in the face of human beings acting emotionally, crazily, and expecting him to react in kind.

But beneath the humor is pathos. Dexter describes himself as empty of feeling. He doesn’t know that his emptiness is a feeling. If he were truly without emotions he wouldn’t miss having them as much as he does.

Dexter needs to seem to be a normal human being. But he also wants to be one. Another feeling he doesn’t know is a feeling.

It’s not true that he has no emotions. It’s more as if he has downloaded them into a computer that he keeps in another room but with which he is in unconscious contact, wirelessly, at a frequency too low for him to always hear. Startled, though, the right buttons pushed by circumstances or by other people’s insistent hands, the connection will suddenly intensify and all at once Dexter will feel. Love, anger, guilt, compassion—he experiences them all. They are just over too fast for him to think about at the moment, and they go without leaving a trace. He can remember having felt, but he can’t feel having felt. And because he doesn’t understand how human beings work, he doesn’t recognize the feeling he’s remembering as an emotion. He remembers it as a sensation, usually as an unpleasant sensation he’d prefer not to experience again.

Another thing that Dexter doesn’t understand about us human beings is that quite often a feeling doesn’t exist until after we act upon that feeling. Hugging someone causes us to want to hug them. Acting as if we love them, makes us love them.

Dexter wishes he loved his sister. He wishes he felt for Rita the same passion as she feels for him. He wishes he cared about her children. He wishes he could get angry about the crimes he’s solving and avenging.

He doesn’t know that he is loving his sister and Rita by going through the motions of brotherly concern and sexual passion. He doesn’t realize that he is caring for Rita’s kids by taking care of them.

Dexter has ideas about what it’s like to be normal. Those ideas are wrong. But because what goes on inside him doesn’t match up with those ideas he rejects himself instead of the ideas.

He doesn’t understand that by being pretending to be normal he is actually making himself normal.

In one of the episodes last season, Rita is seen tucking her kids into bed after having read to them from one of their favorite books.


Dexter thinks of himself as a puppet for which he himself is the puppeteer pretending to be a real live boy. The question is will his pretending turn him into one?

Emotions, after all, are so messy, and killing can be so neat, and...satisfying, for a very neat sort of monster.

Besides having a wonderful cast, smart scripts, and a great look---lots of gorgeous shots of South Miami Beach at night---Dexter has one of the best theme songs and wittiest opening credits since Get Smart.

Dexter starts its second season this week. Here’s the schedule.

Download Season One or catch up on on DVD.

Cross-posted at newcritics.