From the opening title sequence of Dexter, the motif of humans-as-meat is firmly established. Though the show’s central sociopath is not a cannibal, there is plenty of blood and raw meat, some of which is eaten for breakfast, and some of which is Dexter (Michael C. Hall) himself preparing for the day (shots of a steak being cooked—barely—and eggs seasoned with blood-red hot sauce are intercut with close-ups of Dexter’s goosebumped skin, shaving cuts, and even a somewhat sadomasochistic look at flossing teeth). The sequence suggests the fundamental operating principle of the entire show: humans are just dressed-up pieces of meat.
Despite this, Dexter is literally a show about life. This is especially pertinent when compared to star Hall’s last television series, Six Feet Under, which took the opposite approach, beginning with characters as fully complex beings, the kind who are culturally faceted enough to go through the rigmarole of formal burial, and then tried to dehumanize them by putting them in the most desperate and morally brutalizing situations possible (then, in turn, punishing the audience for sympathizing with a particular character). The show was constantly looking from the perspective of the dead, showing the process of being devolving into non-being, how a fully human character becomes just another piece of meat. Six Feet Under began with humans and then reduced them to biology; Dexter begins with the biological and builds toward humanism.
The character of Dexter is, on many levels, pure biology. Lacking any sort of human emotion, his drives are beyond addiction (the primary dehumanizing factor in many Six Feet Under episodes). Instead, Dexter lacks a basic human emotional palette, and because of this, he must master social cues that make no sense to him. When others around him are lovesick, horny or grieving, he puts on a barely successful emotional façade.
Dexter tries to temper its main character’s lack of humanity by giving him daddy issues in the form of “Harry’s code,” a set of rules his father told him, instructing when he could and could not indulge his homicidal impulses (only if a person is a heinous criminal who has escaped the justice system). Dexter must constantly wrestle with this system. Is it just? Is it worth following? Should he scrap it? And yet, despite this being only a code, a list of dos and don’ts, this is exactly what humanizes him: his quandaries, his metaphysical musings. In a sense, this is the question most humans face: How can one temper drives and desires so that they are socially acceptable? Six Feet Under wanted to rebuke its audience for ever considering there is such a thing as socially or morally “acceptable” behavior. Dexter recognizes that the search for and attempt to conform to such norms is the essence of—and quandary concerning—the human condition.
The show could turn Dexter into a sort of unrecognized superhero, a societal scapegoat that necessarily operates outside the system to buttress it. These are the sort of themes that superhero movies like The Dark Knight proffered this past summer, something especially ironic given their essential moral nihilism (I’m still waiting for Batman to give a good reason why he’s superior to the Joker, apart from his unwavering reliance on the essential goodness of most humans). But Dexter is no superhero; he is just an extraordinary guy whose bizarre struggles mirror our own, and this is a sort of humanism.
Whereas The Wire‘s Omar always reminded us that “a man gotta have a code,” Dexter wrestles with his. Revelations in the second season, especially, made him question the validity of the system of ethics he inherited, a system that was always fundamentally about his survival. And yet Dexter cannot live by his code with the same conviction Omar lives by his. Before he can consider himself in “love,” he must justify it through his own twisted convention. Dexter’s code is fucked up, and he knows it. His search for and inability to find somebody who can empathize with his isolation is the emotional current of the show. Season three, in particular, heightens this struggle. Sgt. Doakes, Dexter’s foil, is now gone, and Dexter must now confront an even more difficult circumstance than having an enemy: having a friend, somebody who trusts Dexter and demands trust in return, in the character of Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits). Though Dexter is not a superhero, he must face that age-old question every superhero faces: Should he take the risk of finally revealing his identity to somebody he can trust?
The season begins with Dexter fresh off his close brush with arrest. Previously, the police discovered Dexter’s body cache and nicknamed his serial killer profile “The Bay Harbor Butcher.” Despite this, Dexter continues to indulge his desire for homicide. Unfortunately, his most recent victim turns out to be the brother of Miami’s star prosecutor, Prado. Dexter is able to pass the murder off on a drug dealer but Prado inexplicably forms a close bond with Dexter. Because of Dexter’s lack of emotion, this conflict of interest disturbs him only inasmuch as he must work hard to cover his tracks. Lying and manipulation are second nature to Dexter, of course, but he is mystified at Prado’s fierce loyalty to him. It’s almost as if he feels guilty when he lies to Prado, and yet we know he feels no real emotion. Dexter lives in the gap between feeling and lack thereof, a space previously occupied only by computers with artificial intelligence. In this gulf there is desire, but characters are aimless. There is curiosity but a lack of passion.
Much of Dexter’s thinking during season three is consumed with his itch to join in the suburban banalities. This desire is played out more fully in his relationship with Rita (Julie Benz). Last season Dexter dabbled in a more feral infidelity, but his return to Rita is indicative of his ultimate longing to fit in with the status quo, if only because it serves as a good cover. What is most intriguing here is Dexter’s relationship with Rita’s children. He has fully stepped into the role of a father figure and even refers to them as “my family” in a protective moment where he tries to ward off a pedophile (a person he, as one predator to another, instinctually recognizes). What began as a sort of curiosity about Rita’s children seems to break into real joy. It isn’t clear whether we should trust Dexter’s narrated musings or his actions more.
At a certain point, one has to wonder how well Dexter actually knows himself. Being that he is a mass murderer and not necessarily given to excessive emotional self-reflection, the audience may have a valid reason to distrust what Dexter assumes to be true about his own psyche. Is it possible that Dexter actually does have emotions but that he does not know how to identify them? Should we actually trust his actions over what he says as a true indicator of who he really is? It does not seem that the writers of the show have discovered this apparent problem in their storytelling, but it certainly could be something worth exploring in the coming season.