Tube Tied: I Love Dexter And I Don't Care
The fourth season of Dexter premiered this Sunday, and I was rather more excited about it than I would like to admit. I started watching back in the day because it was Michael C. Hall, and I was a Six Feet Under fan from waaaaayyy back, and I made it my business to ensure that the wonderful actors of that show continued to be employed for the forseeable future. As it turns out, Dexter was about as different a role from David Fisher as one could hope for, and I still loved Hall anyway. And then Dexter turned out to have a fallible narrator, which is a favorite literary device of mine. And then, also, it turned out to be bloody. And it had Julie Benz (Darla from Buffy and Angel)! Also there were Latino actors who were not total background characters! I've been hooked ever since. It's camp, and camp can be thoroughly enjoyable when it's as well-written and acted as Dexter is.
But that aside, I tend to have a lot of difficulty justifying my love of Dexter to myself in feminist terms. The macabre is not terribly woman-friendly, after all. Horror movies tends to feed on the startling contrast between blood and really hot blonde chicks, and there's more titillation in it (pun intended), one supposes, than anyone would like to admit. I don't know what makes us morbid; I do notice, though, that the ratio of men to women of my acquaintance who hate horror, and don't like "dark" themes in their arts and entertainment, is roughly 1:1. So perhaps it's an experience that's less gendered than I might otherwise be inclined to say.
The potential for misogyny on this show was pretty strong anyway, what with the whole serial killer of serial killers angle. We all know who Hollywood serial killers like to target: nubile young women, preferably in torn clothing and artfully tousled hairdos. But funnily enough, Dexter doesn't appear to pride himself on the saving of women and children at all. His killers kill all kinds; sometimes women sure, but just as often not. All in all there is very little sense of vigilantism in a show that is, more or less, about a vigilante. Dexter is not presented to us as a hero, per se. He's a protagonist, but his crusade - if one could even call it that, because it isn't animated by his own sense of justice - isn't one that gives the audience much satisfaction. (A caveat: one thing I am afraid of, with John Lithgow's already-terrifying portrayal as this season's serial killer, is that this new killer appears to fetishize pretty young women and I fear a lot of gross wallowing in that is about to happen, so I may speak too soon.)
Even more puzzling is this is a camp show, a morbid show, a vigilante show that has... some great female characters. In particular I'm obviously thinking of Jennifer Carpenter's Debra Morgan, who is a goofball tomboy the likes of which you won't see anywhere else on television these days. Carpenter's female-jock speech patterns annoy some of my friends, but it's been a long time since I've seen someone inhabit a role as physically, totally, as she does. Maria Laguerta, the lieutenant in change, gets to be not just as tough as her officemates, but a sex life too! Of course then there's Benz's unbelievably oblivious Rita and the show's disastrous attempt at a female villain in the second season - Lila, who, crazy and catlike, embodied just about every "women will ruin your life" stereotype there is.
The show nevertheless deftly addresses the roots of Dexter's dysfunction: the childhood trauma of watching his mother murdered before him - without seeming to revel in gore or shock value. And, moreover, without allowing the prior abuse to overshadow some of Dexter's more amoral adult practices. There is something entirely pitiable about Dexter, and yet the solution his adoptive father came up with, these rules of conduct whereby Dexter cannot kill an innocent, are not presented as an ethical solution to the problem; just as a band-aid that keeps Dexter from slipping over the brink into pure evil.
I guess you could say that Dexter makes moral and political confusion a sort of artistic mission. So it's not surprising that one's love of it would be a conflicted one. And yet I never feel, as I do with Lost for example, like Jesus needs to take the show's wheel. Somebody over there in the writer's room is extraordinarily bright. Someone keeps gunning the accelerator on the drama and the camp and somehow it all hangs together. I can believe that Dexter's married now, and has a child, and still manages to answer his primal call to kill. (Of course, he sort of crashed the car this week with a body in it but that was just baby-induced sleeplessness, rather than the difficulties inherent to maintaining a ruse.) So while I remain somewhat embarassed to say I love Dexter and I can't justify it on much feminist ground, I do. Sometimes a girl just needs a little good camp, you know?
P.S. For those of you who are already Dexter watchers, am I the only one who really really wishes they had not killed off Doakes?
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