Monday, January 01, 2007

"Dexter" on Showtime

The season ended last month for this new Showtime series, but it’s worth watching out for the DVD release and for the new season in 2007. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer (whose victims are rarely found or investigated) who kills for altruistic reasons, dispatching neatly (literally, neatly) with people who for various reasons “normal” society would consider the scum of the earth.

In his day job, Dexter works for the Miami Police Department as a “blood spatter expert” (a new position, at least as far as I know, in my vast knowledge of crime shows), who analyses murder scenes for clues in what the exsanguinated have left behind.

In the PD crew aspect of the show, Dexter is a cut above routine. The lab work here integrates more seamlessly with conventional gumshoe detective work, blending the best of the now heavily edited, effects-laden CSI series with the more hard-bitten face-to-face investigative sensibility of the Law and Order series. The detectives and crime scene analysts are rich characters on Dexter, although each serves his or her own neat purpose in a fairly generic way.

The squad is lead by Latina lieutenant Maria LaGuerta, whose scrappy, anti-authority pose gets her demoted by the season’s end. Her second is an African American sergeant named James Doakes, who carries a large chip of professional and social jealousy on his shoulder and aims his aggression primarily at Dexter. This conflict sets up the central terms of the show’s engagement with masculinity: James is muscled and butch, given to pulling his gun instinctively and quickly, while Dexter enters crime scenes inquisitively and instinctively, his stature smaller, slinkier, and somewhat fey. James’ bald head gleams rather ominously through the season, while Dexter can’t seem to find a decent razor and wears his beard’s shadow like a sign of his apparent disregard for appearances.

The rest of the squad rounds out the now de rigueur rainbow effect of “hip” television shows, yet here, too, the characters rise above their racial expediencies. Batista is a recently-divorced Cuban-American who wears guayaberas and bowler hats and works on more cerebral instincts than James or Dexter. Dexter’s Japanese-American assistant investigator wears his thick, slipping spectacles like a proud badge of his trade and quips at unlikely moments in sardonic, often very funny ways. Both characters serve their functions as smart squad members, and both reveal surprising vulnerabilities.

Dexter’s sister Deb and his girlfriend Rita round out the cast of characters and their conflicts. Deb offers spectators questions rather than answers about Dexter’s past, since the first season’s trajectory aims to reveal why Dexter kills and why blood is not just his profession but his obsession. Dexter, as we know from the start, was adopted. Although he loves Deb (in the extremely limited way of which his character is capable), he’s not related to her by blood, and blood (without spoiling the season’s ending) becomes determining in the relationships Dexter pursues and confronts.

Deb, too, is a police officer on the squad; she’s just transferred in, and has to prove herself. She’s also the love-deluded woman who ends up in grave distress, a rather pat role that actor Jennifer Carpenter and the generally smart script work against by giving Deb an easily provoked kind of seething rage. Where Dexter’s repressions keep him battened down (even though he reports, in his voiceovers, that sometimes his head feels like it might explode), Deb’s emotions run rampant over murder scenes and her personal life (especially when they overlap). Their contrasting characters—he, all secret depths and evasions, she, all surface and heart—and their insistent commitment to each other based on nurture rather than nature provides the show’s heart.

Dexter’s relationship with Rita, his girlfriend, is more fraught, ambivalent, and convenient. Rita’s recently removed herself and her two young kids from a marriage with a drug-, wife-, and child-abusing husband, whose early release from prison makes him a taunting, complicating presence throughout the season. Rita struggles to ward off her ex’s persistent intrusions back into her life, but she’s weak and vague, damaged by history and uncertain how to handle the future. Dexter’s placid, competent exterior makes him a perfect mate for her, and her fluttering femininity and goopy sweetness make her a perfect beard for him, since his sex drive is sublimated into his executions of evil-doers.

Rita gives Dexter a cover for his distinct lack of conventional masculinity. Since he’s played by Michael C. Hall, who spent all those seasons as the gay mortician brother David on HBO’s Six Feet Under, the ghost of David haunts Hall’s rendition of Dexter. People sense Dexter has a secret; what in other narratives would be his homosexuality is, here, his propensity for killing bad people. People know there’s something damaged about Dexter, but his fellow characters don’t have the benefit of the quick, teasing flashbacks the audience is fed of a little boy in a blood-soaked room, screaming as his mother is slashed apparently to death.

We know his murderous instincts come from a traumatic past, but it’s interesting to see the other characters try to figure out Dexter’s “problem,” for which queerness is always a presumption close to hand. That Dexter is not at all a closet case but a serial killer is one of the show’s witticisms, although in the final showdown between Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer—the villain du season—homoeroticism leaks into the scene like a distinct, ineradicable, and rather melancholy perfume.

The show’s blood, guts, and gore no doubt appeal to some viewers and require turned heads for others, but the witty writing and the provocative, twisting, season-length story-line offers another level of pleasure, as the writers strew clues around the complicated narrative. The show’s cinematography is equally eloquent and droll. In the weekly opening sequence, the camera captures Dexter’s hands caressing everyday objects in extreme close up, uncovering the innate if hidden violence of, for instance, a razor dragged down a face, or a sharp knife pressed through the skin of an orange or the flesh of a steak. Dexter establishes these quotidian equivalences as if to suggest that the violence our culture sensationalizes lingers close to the everyday, or that there’s only a difference of degree between shaving and slaying someone, between cutting the flesh of a steak and the flesh of a person.

The script sets out murky moral quandaries without taking them too seriously. Much such rumination is covered in Dexter’s wry, contemplative voiceovers, purposefully Chandleresque in language and tone. But his reveries often subtly point out our culture’s hypocrisy when it comes to how we celebrate empty notions of “family” (Dexter’s adoptive father saved him from the traumatic horror scene but betrayed him by keeping a crucial part of his history hidden); of love (as Dexter goes through the motions of sex and affection with Rita, even as he occasionally feels a glimmer of something like emotion); and especially of vengeance.

In the last scene of the first season, after the villain is unmasked and dispatched, the moment slips into fantasy, as Dexter imagines “what it would be like to reveal everything.” He and Deb move through a mob of people and police, whose faces and hands move in to congratulate Dexter on a job well done. He smiles with delight as the crowd chants his name, and wave pictures of him outlined in patriotic bunting. Red-white-and-blue confetti falls as the crowd heralds Dexter as an American hero.

But as the scene dissolves, Dexter admits that his survival depends on living his life in hiding (like the other vigilante superheroes whom he in some way resembles: Clark Kent/Superman, Bruce Wayne/Batman). But he knows and we know that if the crowd knew the truth, they’d appreciate it and want to celebrate him just as they do in Dexter’s fantasy.

That’s the pleasure of Dexter: the wish fulfillment of the ineffectual nebbish who’s secretly smarter than everyone and sees that justice is done, even as his moral landscape is flooded with ethical doubt and emotional ambivalence. Somehow, I can’t help celebrating Dexter’s queer victories, and looking forward to more in 2007.

The Feminist Spectator


  1. I really loved reading this post. In articulates so many of the reasons I fell for "Dexter" this season, and inspired me to post a response at

    Thanks for this keen perspective!

  2. Hi Jill,

    I totally agree! Beautifully articulated. Alistair and I devoured - so to speak- Dexter with queer gusto.

    Happy New Year!

    Tim Miller

  3. Great post! I started a Dexter Fans Blog Carnival if you're interested!

  4. I am not sure if I agree with your opinion about the whole gay/straight issue in Dexter. His persona really doesnt reflect any sexuality to me gay or straight. I don't think any characters in the series think he is gay. It appears that Doakes thinks he is weird,but other than that, it seems that people are pretty accepting of him.