Spoiler warning: don’t read this unless you’ve seen the Dexter season 7 finale and season 8 opening episode.
For its first six years, the viewers of Showtime’s Miami serial killer/detective show, Dexter, were invited to think about some serious moral questions: does our sympathy for Dexter arise from our knowledge of his childhood trauma, his ‘code’, his commitment to Deb and Harrison, or his first-hand experience of the limitations of the criminal justice system? Do these factors really mitigate the horrendous nature of Dexter’s crimes?
The privileged access the viewer has to Dexter’s inner monologue means that we, unlike Deb (his adoptive sister, and the one constant in Dexter’s life throughout the series), always knew that Dexter believed he was ‘different’, didn’t feel things in the same way as others, is broken in some fundamental way, his seemingly normal life a façade for his dark passenger. We see the true relationship between Dexter and his adoptive father, Harry, a Miami detective who rescued him from the hellish scene in the shipping container when he was just three, where his mother, a confidential informant of Harry’s had been horrifically murdered, chopped into pieces before his eyes (and those of his brother, Brian Moser, who went on to become the Ice truck killer). Again, unbeknownst to Deb, Harry had seen the effects that such trauma often has on the developing mind and brain, and accepted that there was only one path Dexter was destined for. When Dexter killed a neighbour’s cat (a common feature of serial killers’ early lives) Harry made a choice; to openly recognise these tendencies, and channel them into something not quite as bad as they could be. He teaches Dexter forensic counter-measures and inculcates ‘the code’, which prohibits the killing of innocents. The crucial question, to both Dexter and the viewer, is: Was Harry right? Was Dexter’s path wired into his brain, even at the age of three? Could he not have healed from this early trauma, given the right treatment? Was Harry’s decision a pragmatic one, which saved the lives of innocents? Or was it Harry’s intervention (or lack thereof) that ingrained the notion that Dexter has that he is different? Did Harry in fact cause what he was trying to prevent?
These questions were thrown into sharp relief last season, when Deb (at the time the Lieutenant of Homicide) and (separately) her boss Captain Maria LaGuerta discovered Dexter’s crimes and his true nature. Although Harry had insisted that Deb never find out, there’s only so much Dexter could interfere with active cases without having his secret remain undiscovered. Having chased a serial killer (Travis Marshall) for months, she witnesses Dexter killing him. Despite having Travis strapped to a table with cling film (his usual ‘Bay Harbor Butcher’ modus operandi), Dexter convinces Deb that Travis had returned to the crime scene that Dexter had been working, and that he had lost control thinking about Travis’s crimes and killed him. He sucks Deb into his vortex, and she helps him cover up his crime. However, Deb’s instincts and the inconsistencies in Dexter’s story, convince her to dig a bit deeper, and she discovers the whole truth: Dexter is the Bay Harbor Butcher. He framed and killed James Doakes, a colleague at Miami Metro Police Department, when he got too close to the truth. His victims, although with a few notable exceptions violent criminals, are numerous. He lies every day.
Meanwhile, LaGuerta, convinced of Doakes’ innocence, and having found a slide of Travis’ blood at the burnt down scene at the abandoned church where his body was discovered (another aspect of the Bay Harbor Butcher M.O.), begins to seriously suspect Dexter. At the end of the last season, LaGuerta plans a sting to catch Dexter, arranging for the release from prison of one of the men responsible for Dexter’s mother’s murder, Hector Estrada. A close call for Dexter, as he makes his move against the man whom he regards as responsible for who and what he has become, but no cigar for LaGuerta. Dexter, tipped off that LaGuerta is seriously gunning for him, plants some evidence to make it appear that LaGuerta, still unable to come to terms with Doakes being the Butcher, framed him. LaGuerta doesn’t let it go, and comes up with some new evidence that shows Deb’s involvement with covering up the Travis Marshall crime scene, and although Deb manages to bullshit her way around it in the moment, Dexter knows that LaGuerta won’t stop until she can prove her claims: that Dexter is the Bay Harbor Butcher and that Deb knows it, and has aided and abetted his crimes. So he constructs a plan: track down Estrada, use him to lure LaGuerta to them, kill him, kill LaGuerta, and make it look like they killed each other. All goes to plan until Deb shows up at the door of the shipping container unexpectedly. She is confronted by the scene of Dexter is his killing garb, nasty butchers apron and all, Estrada dead, strapped to the table, and LaGuerta slumped unconscious. She enters with her gun raised, and what follows was one of the most tense, emotionally charged scene in the show’s history. Deb is horrified at what Dexter is doing, distraught at seeing him this way, but torn by the visceral fact of their closeness, her complicity, and the unfairness of her situation. LaGuerta implores her to shoot him, telling her “You’re not like him”, Deb’s distress is only increased. Dexter gives her implicit permission to shoot him, saying “It’s true, everything she said. You’re a good person. Do what you gotta do.” As a shot rings out, Dexter is momentarily confused, checking for a wound. But there is none. Deb has shot LaGuerta. She then runs to LaGuerta’s body, hugging her, beside herself, hysterical.
As season eight begins, it is six months on from these events. Dexter has gone back to ‘life as normal’, working as a blood spatter analyst for Miami Metro, looking after Harrison, bringing doughnuts to work, with LaGuerta’s suspicions about Dexter relegated to the dustbin, and the police department concluding that Estrada had been responsible for LaGuerta’s death (and she for his). With one major exception: Deb is gone. From Miami Metro, and from Dexter’s life. When we see Deb, she is holed up in some shitty motel, coked up and in bed with some scumbag (name of Briggs, but I’ll just call him scumbag) who’s obviously into some shady stuff. It becomes clear that Deb is in fact working on a semi-freelance basis for a private investigations agency, dealing primarily with bail jumpers. She’s undercover with this guy because he’s jumped bail on a robbery charge and wants to catch him fencing the jewellery he stole, but her boss at the agency tells Dexter that she hasn’t checked in with him for weeks. This worries him, although there is more going on with his desperate attempt to find her, but is it self-interest, with Dexter being concerned that she might spill some of his beans? Or is it that he can’t stand the idea of the only genuinely good person who ever really knew who and what he is might hate him and condemn him for it? Or, is it a genuine concern for her mental well-being? And what about Deb? Is this just a job for her? Or is it more than that, an externalisation of her self-destructive nihilistic, desperate state of mind?
Dex catches up with Deb in a market down the road from her motel, demanding to know why she hasn’t been in touch, why she doesn’t want to see him or talk to him. “Why?” she asks, incredulously, “Um, because you made me compromise everything about myself that I cared about, and I hate you for it.” She goes on to add: “I shot the wrong person in that trailer.” Later, Dexter rejects what she says, saying she’s just confused, lost, messed up.
Dexter steps in to save Deb (he discovers that the guy Deb’s scumbag is trying to fence the jewellery to is actually a hit-man for the mob, whom said scumbag had unknowingly robbed, and fears that Deb might become collateral damage), driving up to Fort Lauderdale with Harrison in the back of the car (jeez, where’s the nanny when you need her? Schtupping Joey Quinn, that’s where!). They have their second confrontation of the episode, where Deb tells Dexter to go back to his “little life and pretend that everything’s fine” but that she can’t do the same: “I am not fucking like you!” Scumbag comes out of the motel room to see what the yelling’s about. When Dexter tries to grab Deb and frogmarch her to his car, Scumbag (or guy trying to protect his lady-friend, in this moment) goes for Dexter, initiating a violent confrontation in which Dexter stabs him. Deb is again, horrified, saying “I felt ok around him”, prompting Dexter to respond “You didn’t belong with him”, not understanding that the alternative is worse: she doesn’t belong with the people she worked alongside for years, trying to fight injustice, for she became part of that injustice when she shot LaGuerta, but she deserves more than to be with Dexter, who lied to her, compromised her, and perhaps even is not capable of loving her in any normally recognised sense of that term.
He tells her that she is lost. She replies, “I am not lost. I know exactly where I am, I am in some shitty fucking hell, which is exactly what I deserve. But you… you are lost. All my life I thought that I needed you, that I couldn’t survive without you, fuck! Fuck! It was the other fucking way around. It was the other way around.” She doesn’t allow Dexter to touch or dispose of the body, but instead calls it in to the police. He returns to the car, but finds Harrison gone. He finds him after a bit of calling, but manages to get blood all over Harrison’s soft toy, and we see him scrubbing it under the sink in his kitchen.
Going into the eighth and final season of Dexter, it seems that Dexter may face a stark choice. If he is to ever truly put Deb out of her misery and perhaps (re?)gain a small semblance of her love and respect, it will be by committing a self-sacrificing act, something genuinely altruistic. It is only by doing this that he can show her that he is capable of being in a reciprocal relationship, by showing the smallest smattering of empathy and understanding that the needs of those closest to him might be more important than what he wants, which is to be able to kill, unencumbered, uncritiqued, hidden, whilst enjoying the (false?) love and respect of his family. That’s why I hope the ending of the show will include Dexter turning himself in. But what then? A lynching? Tabloid stories of monsters? I’d prefer an acknowledgement that sometimes both biology and traumatic and violent experiences, can twist an individual’s psyche into shapes unrecognisable to others.
There is a plethora of research indicating the effects that violence and trauma can have on the developing brain. There is evidence that true moral learning involves the rational (being able to foresee and understand the consequences of one’s actions, understanding the nature of those actions, and that those actions are considered wrong and are illegal) and the emotional (being able to emotionally connect with the suffering of others, having empathy). If empathy is impossible because of biology, how far should we hold the individual responsible for their actions? This is a question Dexter introduced in the season eight premiere by the introduction of a new character: Dr Evelyn Vogel. She is a neuropsychiatrist specialising in the neuropathology of psychopathy, consulting with Miami Metro over a case where the victim’s skull was cut open, and the part of the brain associated with empathy was removed. Vogel seems convinced that this is the work of a serial killer. But it becomes clear in the final scene of the episode that she has another motive for being there: Dexter. In a series of cryptic encounters, she asks him about Doakes and the Bay Harbor Butcher. When Dexter tells her that Doakes seemed angry, she observes: “That doesn’t sound right to me. As a psychopath he’d be disassociated from his feelings, not quick to anger”, Dexter replies “Maybe he wasn’t a psychopath”, and Dr Vogel pointedly remarks “Oh yes, the Bay Harbor Butcher was definitely a psychopath. He’d have to be, to masquerade the way he did.” In the final scene, Dr Vogel hands Dexter a dossier of his own childhood drawings, full of violence and mayhem. When he physically confronts her, slamming her against a wall, she tells him he can’t kill her. When he asks why not she simply replies “Because I don’t fit Harry’s code.”
It is clear that Dr Vogel has some kind of agenda, and that she will be a character that will help us understand more about Dexter’s psychopathology. As much as we all want an exciting ending to the show, I do hope it’s one that sticks to the science, and that it encourages viewers to think about how we treat those among us who transgress as deeply as Dexter does, about responsibility and how it is embedded within our biology and culture, as well as how it is that we come to be beings that exercise free will. How can someone who has been told their whole life, by the one person they trust the most in the world, that they have no free will, that their destiny is written in their brain, memories, and trauma, be expected to believe, and act, as if he does?
The only way that this kind of exploration is justifiable is if Dexter is finally caught. I will be cheering if Deb continues to stand her ground, and if this results in Dexter’s incarceration, or if seeing her response to him inspires Dexter to give himself up, then great. As things currently stand, Dexter is emblematic of those in our society who indulge in incredible feats of self-justification, who think that they know better, who think they are entitled to what they want, and that this entitlement trumps others’ rights and needs. But maybe the scene of Dexter desperately scrubbing the blood out of his son’s toy foreshadows an upcoming epiphany. Here’s to hoping.
Read our spoiler-filled review of Dexter’s season eight opener, A Beautiful Day, here.
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