Thursday, 11 December 2008

A Short Story About Free Will Part II - The Monster Inside Me

In "Dexter", the main character is the opposite of Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho". The argument in the shocking story set in the Reagan 1980s when even the music was kind of inhumane was that in an economy and state that bring out the worse in people, it is only logical that the distinguishing line between a good yuppie and a successful mass murderer was, at least, shady. The same features required in that economic surroundings were also especially important for the work of a killer. The contempt for and hatred of poor people and those who couldn't make it to the top translates perfectly into an argument for murder of those considered inferior.
In "Dexter", none of this applies. The urge to kill, without really relying on either a genetic or psycholigical explanation, has no natural direction. Dexter, played with an unsettling genius by Michael C. Hall, is a psychopath. He feels a desire to kill that is incorporated like a daily chore into his life - the openening sequence that, with every episode, repeats his morning routine, is a perfect way to introduce that idea. Killing, for Dexter, is a natural part of his being which he, much like preparing his breakfast or tying his shoes, he has turned into a routine.
What distinguishes him from almost every other serial killer ever portrayed in fiction is his personal history. After witnessing the murder of his mother and spending days covered in blood in a container, one of the police men who freed him adopted him. The giant father figure soon figured out that something was slightly off with his adoptive son (who is, in another act of genius, portrayed as a horribly awkward kid and teenager) and, after realizing the truth, forced a strict code unto him meant to preserve his safety from being found out and giving the urge a direction which is productive for society. "Dexter" really does that: making a certain argument that a serial killer, if injected with the right kind of rules, could be a perfectly useful part of society, probably even better adapted to the workings of civilization because everything is fake.
Dexter makes the argument himself: he has no feelings, no natural sense of good and right, therefore he has to follow strict rules in order to "pass" as human. That he has done perfectly well. In the beginning of the series, he has a girlfriend (played by Julie Benz, deviating far from her former role of Darla in Joss Whedon's "Angel") who is damaged goods and therefore easy to handle for someone who doesn't exactly understand human closeness or sex, he works as a blood expert for the Miami police, he has a healthy relationship with his adoptive sister Debra (played by Jennifer Carpenter). Sticking to the code his father installed in him before dying, he kills those who have slipped through exactly the criminal justice system he works for, which he easily justifies by saying that he uses his essential damage to make the world a safer place. The question of whether or not he is happy with this kind of life is not raised: after all, he has no feelings, and everything that does make him go is either the desire to kill, or to keep up his normal life facade, or a challenge.
And despite all of this, he comes across as a good guy, occasionally even as likable as the robots I mentioned in the first part who look at humanity with a certain kind of wonder at the workings of human emotions and the irrationality of actions, yet with an innate desire to be one of them. He does not admit to this in the first few episodes, but it soon becomes obvious that this is the whole point of the show. From his perspective, Dexter is the only one of his kind, but with each of the three seasons so far he is posed with a new hope for company. In the first season, he finds out about an unexpected blood relation - a brother who has exactly the same drive to kill as him, and the same analytical mind, but lacks the necessary code to direct the kill or to make him a good part of society. After enjoying this, for quite some time, the idea of not being the only person on earth possessing that kind of state of mind, he also realizes that it is impossible - and he ends up killing the only person who promises to understand him.
And that seems to be his curse. All the time while seeming so untouchable, always one step in front of the justice system, never giving up his facade and not even really struggling with being found out (although the entire second season is about him - his own department investigating the Bay Harbor Butcher after his dumping ground is found) - he is desiring a companion, wanting to share this huge secret with somebody. He almost does in the second season and once again ends up killing the person willing to say, I understand you, I am like you. Before that, he brutally assesses the usefulness of a nemesis when another police detective finds out about him, and deciding that he is actually worth more because he is not a lone wolf - he has a girlfriend and kids and his sister depending on him who would be shattered if the secret was ever revealed. This is one of the most disturbing arguments of the show because it seems so logical in our times: the the worth of a human being does not depend on the values or the morals, but on whether or not the facade it tries to keep up fits the needs of the society. We don't really question Dexter's motives as long as he sticks to his code of only killing "those who deserve it" - even if it does feed his own hunger. In the third and most recent season so far, he decided to include somebody else in the act of killing, a friend, the first one, and while still in awe at the feeling of actually being understood and being able to share this huge reality of his life, he also realized that he has made an awful mistake and created a monster, that, consequently turns on him and needs to be destroyed. There is a certain sense that Dexter is the only one exactly because he sticks to the code, because he still follows in the steps of a father whose undisputable rightfulness has already been damaged badly. But apparantly, he can not deviate from the code without causing destruction far too big to keep him safe.
This effect on the viewer is what makes "Dexter" one of the most extraordinary shows currently on air. You root for a killer. The viewer does not want Dexter to be found out or caught. You understand the code of a killer as something essentially true and, in a twisted way, morally justifyable. It isn't justifyable in political terms, but certainly understandable because there is no sympathy for murderers of innocent people. Dexter, as a character, bears resemblance to the robots in both "Battlestar Galactica" and "Terminator" because he looks at human society from the outside, with a sense of longing and wonder, yet there is also a sense that his constant superiority stems from an essential instinct of self-preservation. In the course of the seasons, he regards the desire to kill in different ways: as an addiction, possibly even curable, as a part of his being he has to accept, as something explainable from what happened to his mother - but the creators of the show are too smart to give an definite answer to what caused it. We see the effects on screen, the struggle of a man making sense of it all, with an innate desire not to be the only one of his kind.

"Dexter", 2006-, Idee: James Manos, Jr., nach dem Roman "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" von Jeff Lindsay, mit Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Julie Benz, C. S. Lee, Lauren VĂ©lez, David Zayas, James Remar, Jimmy Smits, Jaime Murray, Keith Carradine, Anne Ramsay.

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