Murder for Fun and Profit
by ELEANOR MORROW
Showtime's Dexter is set in a Miami of startling contradictions. Clean, polite, and homicidal, Dexter's hometown has the worst police force in recent memory, narrowly topping the LAPD of the early 1990s. Right now the town is full to the brim with serial killers, making it not exactly the ideal tourist destination.
Perhaps a fascination for continental America's nearest point to the equator lives on in some quarters. The first jungle killer is Dexter Morgan himself, who, over three seasons of gleeful murder, turned himself into a sympathetic character. Now set up with a charming wife, two garrulous children (dulcet Cody and the recalcitrant Astor), Dexter must protect his family from his dark passenger.
He's not quite doing a bang up job of it so far. Last episode, Dex beat up a female cop who he convicted in the court of his own mind of murderering her own family on a whim. Part of a bloody glove in a garbage compactor was his evidence. "Circumstantial" doesn't even begin to describe it. As he's cleaning up the wreckage from his latest kill, his family comes strolling in.
We are taught that it is wrong to kill people, but it is not really wrong to kill people. It is more about being frightened by those who do the killing. Many of mankind's most prominent civilizations legalized murder as a way of excluding certain individuals. Our country still does the same by killing citizens as revenge for their own crimes.
Thus, the glorious seasons of Dexter slaughtering every bad guy who had a traffic violation felt like a true justice, a better justice that extended beyond the system. In the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow?!?) Dexter seems to have met a rule-breaker whose passion for not getting caught exceeds his own.
While it was all right for Dexter to go around cutting up criminals, women are a different story. The writers of the show have become rather nonchalant about their protagonist's favorite pastime. Making Dexter a charming father backfired; now his darker moments fill with dread for him and us of what he really should be doing with the balance of his time. It's not even the murders that makes him a bad man, it's all the hours away from home.
This season also featured the unfortunate return of Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine), whose face was a craggy reminder that grey hair and grey suits don't generally mix. Dexter's sister Debra finds herself in a triangle between the decayed carapace of this ancient creature and weed-smoking, somewhat annoying musician Anton. I haven't been less excited by the idea of group sex since the Manson Murders.
Unable to give its Latino characters anything to do, the show's writers went with the old standby - team them up! Once the most interesting police chief on television, Lieutenant Maria LaGuerta now gives her underlings tugjobs and spends her time calling Dexter into her office for extended sit downs where she asks Dexter for advice on her feelings. Should the top cop in Miami be such a buffoon?
Of course this is all mere build-up. Dexter is at its best when it puts the resident non-moralist in a quandary from which only murder can free him. In the second season, Dexter caged and planned to murder someone who caught him red-handed. What we would give for him to put his sister or wife in such a difficult situation! Life imprisonment is really the greatest fear of a potential murderer, and there is no death he will not effect to avoid it. "Put the pressure on," Frank Herbert once said about storytelling, "and never take it off." Amen to that.
Drama is more enjoyable at a higher level of intelligence, with the characters anticipating each other's every move. With a serial killer in the Miami mist, people seems more relaxed and prone to free association. It's like Dexter is subliminally comforting everyone. Cold and unable to empathize with other human beings, Dexter hasn't become more like Miami's cattle: they've become more like him.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She tumbls here.
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