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The Morality of Blood: Dexter's Influence on Society
The entertainment world of the twenty-first century has become one of the most powerful industries that America has to offer. With a wide variety of different shows, television stations have created an empire that is able to reach out to a vast audience of people. Everyday these people enjoy relaxing in front of the T.V. in order to escape reality and partake in a fantasy. Unknown to us however is that the television shows we escape into can have a subtle influence on our own thoughts, which can change our own views about the world and morals we have developed. One show that has arguably had a wide scale effect on influencing its viewers is the television program Dexter on Showtime. Into its sixth season, Dexter has become a show that has gained a massive following (currently on facebook 8,000,000 people follow Dexter) that has continued to grow substantially. Employing a narrative criticism approach developed by Sonja K. Foss in her book Rhetorical Criticism, I will look at the narrative that Dexter presents and will demonstrate how the show connects with and then challenges the morality of its own viewers .
Based off of the popular novel:Darkly Dreaming Dexterby Jeff Lindsay, the show reveals the mind of a dangerous, but likeable serial killer named Dexter (Michael C. Hall). Normally, having a murderer as a hero would be problematic both from a moral and a common sense standpoint, but what makes Dexter a unique killer is that he only goes after other murderers. This specific profile of the people he kills is taken a step further with a code that his dead foster police father Harry (James Remar) gave to him when he was a child. Harry, who reappears several times throughout the series, helps Dexter channel his dark urges into a force that results in saving lives on the show. In order to satisfy these dark urges Dexter follows in the footsteps of his father by becoming a blood splatter analyst for the Miami police department. Irony then becomes one of the biggest entertaining aspects of the show, since the police effectively hire a murderer into a job that is supposed to keep murderers from murdering.
Presenting the show’s audience with dark humor (dry/witty humor) makes the show enjoyable to watch, but the connection that the viewers form with the main character is perhaps even more important. Unlike most characters on television, Dexter is unable to feel raw emotion or make any kind of emotional bond. He is completely apathetic and as a result, most of his problems come from dealing with drama on the outside world, rather than internally. What is interesting about the show, however, is that Dexter’s thoughts are constantly revealed during the course of the program. While Dexter might not feel any emotional impact to the situation he is narrating we, the audience, are able to feel what Dexter should feel. At the same time, Dexter is able to give us a unique perspective into how he views reality. In the article The Code of Harry: Performing Normativity in Dexter by William Force, Force asserts, “Engaged in a heightened self-aware dialog about his perfomativity, Dexter’s narrative voice makes him something of a practical sociologist; he reveals the social orders constructedness by demonstrating its mundane accomplishment”(333). Through his own discourse about the world, Dexter challenges us to examine the world without an emotional lens, which can sometimes lead to very important or interesting revelations about the human condition.
With the narrative structure of Dexter dissected the last important element to evaluate is the effect Dexter has on its viewer. In order to understand this we have to examine how narratives can influence an audience. Foss sums the power of narrative best when she says, “the narrative creates for both the storyteller and the audience a personal involvement in the narrated world and the act of the narrative”(Foss, 308). Applying this explanation to Dexter becomes effortless because the entire narrative that is created not only takes place on the external world of the protagonist, but also internally as well. Exposing Dexter’s thoughts bridges a gap that the viewer is not normally privileged to hear and because of this extra information a deeper connection with the character can be formed. On top of that, the audiences also are the only ones who know Dexter’s dark secret. Combining these two factors together strengthens the imaginary bond even further between the watching audience and Dexter himself.
Aside from Dexter’s monologue of his perceived reality, the audience still has to justify Dexter’s actions. From what this paper has already analyzed there are two explanations that seem to make sense when identifying and rationalizing an audience’s attraction to Dexter. The first concept that the show explores is the idea of “normalcy” or being normal. While Dexter is emotionally hollow inside he constantly tries to not only act normal, but to actually become normal in society. His attempts to show emotion, stay in a stable job and be a great boyfriend (and eventually father/husband) seem to all focus on the goal of Dexter “fitting in” with the rest of his friends and colleagues. Foss introduces an interesting point when she says,” Specific and detailed descriptions and images activate listeners’ personal imaginations and remind them of their own past experiences, inviting them to connect their experiences to those of the storyteller”(Foss, 309). Dexter’s goal to achieve normalcy is a common aspiration that everyone in their own lives want to experience at some point or another. Despite Dexter’s inner demon preventing him from becoming normal we still relate to him because each one of us has our own inner demon that separates us from the “normal”. His isolation that he then experiences from the rest of world becomes familiar to us because we isolate a part of ourselves from the rest of the world as well, fearing that if we were to reveal ourselves completely, then we would be viewed as a monster or freak. In the Halloween episode Dexter says, ‘I love Halloween-the one time of year when everyone wears a mask, not just me. People think its fun to pretend you’re a monster. Me, I spend my life pretending I’m not’ (Dexter, 104). By representing Dexter as a literal monster instead of a metaphorical monster, the audience is then made self aware about the monsters that reside in each individual.
A second concept to look at in the show’s complexity is the need to punish or dish out justice in a society. Right now, if an outsider were to look at our current twenty-first century structured system they would probably describe it as a civilized form of justice. One that involves fair trials and appeal processes. This civilized form of justice arguably works to a point, but when a major crime, such as murder is presented, then society splits itself into different sections about what punishment fits the crime. For some people the act of murder requires swift action and there are those that believe a life for a life is the only way to settle the score. By having society violently lash out towards a killer, society essentially reveals its own murderous nature in the process. This murderous nature is directly linked to Dexter himself and when Dexter constantly refers to his “dark passenger” a revelation can be made. If we are to view the “dark passenger” as society’s suppressed violent nature at failing to properly punish murderers, then society becomes the personal “driver” of Dexter and his actions. Possibly even more disturbing than the fact that society is driving this killer is that society would have had made a killer in order to dispense its own violent justice. According to the end of the article Dexter: Hero, Villain or simply a Man? by Isabel Santlauria, Isabel states, ”The Dark passenger, in the end, is an inherent part of the character that cannon be eradicated...”(Santlauria, 70). By stating that the “dark passenger” cannot be eradicated by anything, the “dark passenger” then becomes a symbolic representation of societies constant need for violent gratification. If we assume that to be the case, Dexter then becomes just an unfortunate soul that society has molded into a killer in order to carry out the task of fast and messy justice.
Putting Dexter under the magnifying glass to reveal what a psychotic killer is thinking may be the base of Showtime’s popular show, but the underlying factors that emotionally connect viewers to a killer is much more complex. While it is hard to know the effects of having millions of people watching a show about a heroic murderer, it does show a trend in society. Although Dexter is a work of fiction, this trend suggests that murder (when done for the right reasons) can be justifiable. With the show’s powerful ability to connect with its audience on several levels, its discourse on promoting moral ambiguity on literal life vs. death issues is profound. After all, if society is able to empathize with a killer or even make a killer to do their own dirty work, than our society isn’t as civilized or morally pure as we might think.