While the keepers of the Emmys seemingly don’t think so, Michael C. Hall does a fantastic job as the titular character on Dexter.
At times, his performance is so unerringly realistic and intensely unforgiving that it literally takes just the opening sequence to recognize Hall’s genius. Perhaps the most principled protagonist on Showtime, Dexter is an immensely complicated character. He lives in a world of moral ambiguity but he doesn’t seem to think so. However, as is the case with any compelling protagonist, Dexter’s conviction is slowly invaded by moments of uncertainty and his moral struggle is the true highlight of the show.
On a strictly visceral level, Dexter is thrilling entertainment. Boasting positives such as charismatic characters, morally provocative writing and some of the best visual and creative design for murder sequences ever filmed, it is understandable that the show is likeable without even considering the deeper themes it touches upon. Of course, it is criminally unfair to end the assessment there because that is a gross negligence of the philosophical inquiries the show calls upon us to make.
Dexter’s moral construction, and his subsequent popularity, is something deeply seated in the world’s tradition to romanticize the lawless agents of justice. As far back as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, audiences have always enjoyed the story of a character that works to clean up the streets when law enforcement is either inept or ambivalent. This literary tradition also inspired the superhero craze that we see in our times, catalyzed by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Today, literary critics analyze Watchmen the way they once analyzed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and civilians take to the streets in costumes, hoping to keep the peace. If nothing else, this trend indicates that we idealize men that reflect society’s lack of faith in legal institutions and instead choose to enact their own brand of justice.
Of course, what happens when that brand of justice fails to coincide with our own? Dexter is legitimately a dark knight in that he has a hidden identity and he uses that cloak of darkness to kill villains. In that regard, he is like Batman, Rorschach or Daredevil, the latter being the most convincing comparison because both are men who masquerade as branches of the legal system but whose actions betray a severe lack of trust in judicial procedure. However, of all these men, it can be said that their sense of justice generally punishes those we likely find reprehensible. Therefore, what about the killers that are also willing to hurt those we do not find culpable?
In No Country For Old Men, Anton Chigurh kills drug dealers and attempts to kill a thief. Up until that point, perhaps, fans of vigilantism would not mind. However, he also plans to kill a woman whose husband failed to take his threat regarding her murder seriously and did not comply with his request; the fact that Chigurh would gain nothing out of the murder is absolutely irrelevant because he made a promise. Earlier, when he considers killing an innocent shopkeeper, the antagonist legitimately changes his mind when a coin toss goes in the potential victim’s favor. At another point, the killer murders a corrupt law enforcement officer but spares the innocent accountant on the simple condition that the latter saw nothing. As another character in the film remarks, this killer has principles. Chigurh’s justification is that he and his coin both reach a person the same way, meaning the victim’s own luck or poor decisions are to blame, not him. Therefore, he has a sense of justice but it simply does not coincide with our own. Certainly, neither Chigurh nor Dexter deserves applause but, for some viewers, the Showtime’s “hero” inexplicably deserves empathy.
Another example is the Joker, as envisioned in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. As the most heavily hyped villain in history, Heath Ledger’s clown prince of crime does well to harm innocents and compromise their safety every chance he gets. However, that does not mean that Joker is malicious exclusively for the common man. The character’s introduction involves him killing at least seven other criminals and robbing from the corrupt. Later, the clown feeds a criminal to his own dogs and rejects the largest pile of money most have ever seen. Towards the end, the psychopath chooses not to kill but instead gives the opportunity to two groups of people, where one group insists that they have a greater right to life because the others victims would be convicts. While Nolan took the easy way out by showing that neither side chooses to kill, the Joker is certainly more than a murderer or anarchist. Simply put, he only wants to prove that, on a fundamental level, no one is truly ethical. And while many pessimists might agree with that message, the Joker luckily never gets the understanding that Dexter bizarrely elicits. Fans of Dexter, and most dark knights for that matter, cannot see how morally comparable all these men are.
Countless other examples come to mind, such as the Riddler, who designs logic puzzles with lethal punishments for failure, yet he firmly believes that the deaths are only a result of the victim’s inherent stupidity. Such characters are not uncommon in fiction, yet some are inexplicably safe from being labeled antagonists. There is no shortage of television shows revolving around morally suspect protagonists and vicious killings, Breaking Bad being the elephant that comes to mind. Yet, no other show plays up the duality of ethics and illegality quite as effectively as Dexter. Here is a man that operates on his own moral code and laughs at any civil system of justice, yet he is a hero to the viewers. Regardless of how one feels about capital punishment, no proponent of society should ever encourage justice being meted outside of the courtroom. And if we are not supposed to encourage vigilantism, is it not disturbing that we repeatedly idealize it?
Dexter’s seventh season premieres this Sunday on Showtime.