“Dexter, don’t crash your car, you have a body in there!”
If you’re a fan of the Showtime hit Dexter, this sentence shouldn’t feel strange to you — after all, you’ve spent the last seven years rooting for a serial killer. You’ve probably also said things like:
“Kill him already, Dexter! You’re going to get caught.”
“Aw, Dexter finally has someone to kill with. That’s sweet.”
It’s a strange thing caring for a psychopath, yet Dexter fans do it week after week, year after year. We’ll be doing it again this June when the show returns for its eighth and final season.
When the show wraps up at the end of the summer and Dexter meets whatever end the writers have in store for him, the question will still linger: Why did we love this character? How could we love someone who killed systematically, brutally, and without regret? Did we hope for his redemption, or did we love him because of his darkness?
Before we answer these questions, we have to get rid of the clichés and pretense: Dexter is not a serial killer with a conscious. His guidelines for killing are rules for self-preservation — don’t mistake them for morality. Dexter doesn’t kill murderers out of an acute sense of justice. He kills bad people because his father, in an attempt to control Dexter’s darkness, taught him to only kill other murderers. Left to his own devices, I’m not sure Dex’s choice of victims would have been as palatable.
We know this is true because Dexter told us as much. Through voiceover, Dexter confides in the viewers. We are his confidants. In some ways, we are his accomplices.
When we take out the moral reasoning used to justify and glorify brutal vigilantism (our kids wear Batman PJs), where does that leave us with Dexter?
It forces us to look at the man. Dexter told us again and again that he is not human, that he can’t feel, that he doesn’t love. But over the past seven seasons, we’ve seen him fall in love with Rita and, to an extent, Lumen. We’ve seen him become a caring father and a loyal friend. We’ve seen him grapple with Miguel’s betrayal and Rita’s death. Dexter never thought himself capable of real emotion but most viewers did.
Dexter is a genius, always the smartest one in the room. But when it comes to his emotional IQ, the guy is a moron. We knew what he felt toward Rita was love, even if it took her death for Dexter to realize it. As viewers, we like that. We like being smarter than the smartest guy on TV.
Dexter is vulnerable when it comes to emotion and that makes us protective. Hell, I wanted Miguel dead after he betrayed Dexter. My heart broke when Lumen left. According to Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, a diagnostic tool used to assess psychopathy, psychopaths rarely feel genuine emotion and when they do, it’s short lived. But Dexter doesn’t fit that criterion. The emotions he can feel, he feels deeply. One of Dexter’s most shocking kills was the bystander he beat to death after Rita died. Dexter, usually so controlled, didn’t know how to handle his grief.
Therein lies the reason viewers relate to Dexter — his demons are surprisingly similar to our own. No, we can’t understand bludgeoning someone to death, but we can understand being overwhelmed by emotion. We can’t relate to the constant urge and need to take another life, but we can understand the fear of being exposed for our true selves. We all carry darkness within us — our own Dark Passengers.
For seven seasons, Dexter has shown us how an even an unfeeling man can love, how a killer can bring life, how a monster can be human. If Dexter can do it, surely there is some hope for us.
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