As we reflect on the meaning of the massacre yesterday in Newtown, it would be worth spending a couple of minutes reading the Wall Street Journal‘s Mark Lasswell’s brilliant deconstruction of the television show Dexter and what it tells us about our culture. I reprint Lasswell’s article here in full. You can send friends a link to it here.
Mark Twitchell, a low-budget filmmaker in Edmonton, Alberta, was obsessed with Star Wars. He spent countless hours scouring the Internet, buying and selling Star Wars costumes, dolls, and other paraphernalia. As of last fall, the license plate on his red 2003 Pontiac Grand Am still read DRK JEDI. But by that time, a more current pop-culture phenomenon had also captured the twenty-nine-year-old Canadian’s affections. On his Facebook page on August 15, Twitchell’s “status update” announced: “Mark has way too much in common with Dexter Morgan.” Many young men might like to think that they have much in common with Dexter Morgan, a Miami police crime-scene investigator who is the main character on the fictional Showtime cable-television series Dexter. Over the course of three seasons that have brought the series and its lead actor, Michael C. Hall, four Golden Globe nominations, Morgan has come across as an appealing fellow who can be socially awkward but is blessed with a sardonic sense of humor that serves him well in the sharp-elbowed banter at the police station.
Like many young men, Morgan has been apprehensive about getting into a long-term romantic relationship, but by the end of season three finds himself taking the plunge into marriage after his girlfriend gets pregnant. Morgan is still quite young at heart; he’s at his most relaxed and natural with the two children that his new wife brings with her from a previous marriage.
Up in Edmonton in the fall, though, Mark Twitchell did more than merely identify with Dexter Morgan. He wrote a movie script inspired by the series and then acted it out in real life. Posing online as a woman interested in a romantic liaison, he lured thirty-eight-year-old pipeline-industry worker John Altinger to a residential garage. And then, according to police, he tortured and murdered Altinger—just the way Twitchell’s hero Dexter Morgan would, because, you see, this most agreeable television character is also a serial killer. Twitchell was charged with first-degree murder and the script was seized as evidence. He pled not guilty.
Soon after the arrest, an Edmonton homicide detective named Mark Anstey said of Twitchell: “We have a lot of information that suggests he definitely idolizes Dexter, and a lot of information that he tried to emulate him during this incident.” At the time of the arrest, Dexter writer and producer Melissa Rosenberg was promoting the teenage-vampire movie Twilight, for which she had written the screenplay, but she soon found herself fielding questions from Canadian media about Twitchell’s affinity for her show. To her credit, Rosenberg did not adopt the usual Hollywood line of soberly contending that no one has ever shown a link between simulated violence and the real thing, a contention that is the studio equivalent of tobacco-company executives in Washington putting their hands on their hearts and claiming they had no idea that cigarettes cause cancer. The Canwest News Service reported on Rosenberg receiving news of the arrest and the Dexter connection: “‘Oh, Jesus,’ she exclaimed. She saw this as a ‘worst fears’ situation—something which had worried the show’s creators from the beginning.” Rosenberg insisted, though, that the series did not “glorify” Dexter Morgan’s murders:
Every time you think you’re identifying with Dexter and rooting for him, for us it’s about turning that back on you and saying: “You may think that he’s doing good, but he’s a monster. He’s killing because he’s a monster.”
The audience might be rooting for the serial killer because it is the particular inspiration of Dexter to make the character a responsible citizen who channels his murderous impulses strictly in the service of removing bad people from the world. Rosenberg said that the show’s creators had steeled themselves for criticism when Dexter made its premiere on Showtime in 2006. “The executive producers were expecting it. They were ready for it. They thought that we were going to get slams,” Rosenberg said, but there was “not a one.”
Well, here’s a one. Rosenberg had it precisely backwards, for just when you think Morgan is a monster, the show takes pains to ingratiate him further into your good opinion. Deviancy has continued to be defined down since the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified the trend sixteen years ago, but Dexter represents a new low: the feel-good serial killer. The he’s-a-monster-no-he’s-not strategy of the show was apparent from the first episode, when Morgan abducts the director of a boys’ choir who moonlights as a serial killer specializing in the murder of his charges. Morgan has dug up some of the man’s victims and confronts him with the bodies—“Look or I’ll cut your eyelids right off your face”—before performing the ritual slaughter-of-the-guilty that is Morgan’s trademark. In this case, he goes to work on the man’s head with a power drill as a prelude to the butchering. “You’ll be packed into a few neatly wrapped Heftys,” Morgan patiently explains, “and my own small corner of the world will be a neater, happier place. A better place.”
As if to underscore that the world is a happier, better place thanks to Morgan’s cleansing campaign, the grisly nighttime scene immediately cuts to a glorious day on the water in Miami, with a sassy horn on the soundtrack lending a note of sexy fun as Morgan roars past us at the helm of a boat powered by twin 250-h.p. Evinrude outboard motors. The boat, in a wink to the audience, is called the Slice of Life. “My name is Dexter. Dexter Morgan,” he says by way of introduction in a voiceover, going on to explain that he doesn’t know why he kills or why he has a “hollow place” inside him. “People fake a lot of human interactions, but I feel like I fake them all. And that’s my burden, I guess.” He’s quick not to blame his foster parents: “Harry and Doris Morgan did a wonderful job of raising me. But they’re both dead now”—here he pauses for a comedic beat and then adds, with an I-know-what-you’re-thinking tone: “I didn’t kill them.”
Morgan’s voiceovers are an essential element of the show’s seduction of the viewer. Far from offering a forum where the ghastly evil of a serial killer might be revealed behind the façade of his counterfeit human interactions, Morgan’s narrated thoughts are one of the show’s pleasures: a self-deprecating quip here, a bit of biography there, plenty of mordant observations about life, and lots of cheerfully pedestrian chatter. In short, Dexter is good company. With his marriage imminent, we squirm along with him as he tries gamely to think up his contribution to the couple’s self-written wedding vows (“Once you were a dream and a prayer. Now our future is as bright as the sun glinting off the morning dew . . . ”) and we laugh when he stops abruptly and mutters: “Sounds like I’m marrying a unicorn.” We’re in the passenger seat as he makes conversation, confessing that he loves to eat while driving but regrets “not being able to employ the 10-2 hand position on the wheel. It’s a matter of public safety.” He can be chatty during his murders as well. His victims are customarily gagged and wrapped tightly in plastic, leaving Morgan free to soliloquize. In the middle of one killing during season three, when he is dispatching a man who murdered both of his wives—the guilt of Morgan’s victims is never in doubt—the David Bowie song “Changes” happens to be playing in the background. To the consternation of the whimpering man, Morgan says cheerfully: “I’ve been going through some changes myself lately. I’m getting married and have a baby on the way. Me!”
If his voiceovers and asides make us intimate with Morgan, then it is the strict “code” he observes in selecting his victims that makes us complicit. As in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the Jeff Lindsay novel that inspired the series, Morgan kills only those who have escaped being brought to justice for murder. (Mark Twitchell apparently allowed himself more latitude: his Dexter-ish script described a killer whose victims used an online matchmaking service for husbands who want to cheat on their wives, and it seems that John Altinger was a bachelor.) How did Morgan end up a vigilante? The code was instilled by his foster father, a police officer who discovered that Morgan as a boy was torturing animals; Harry Morgan knew a nascent serial killer when he saw one. In a flashback, we see Harry urging the boy to “channel” his murderous impulses: “Use it for good.” The young Dexter eagerly agrees. “It’s OK, Dex,” Harry says. “You can’t help what happened to you. But you can make the best of it. Remember this forever: you are my son, you are not alone, and you are loved.” After this touching scene, Dad goes on to tutor the boy in the techniques of identifying the murderers walking among us, the proper method for killing them, and the best way to cover one’s tracks. Plastic sheeting, rubber mats, and duct tape are involved.
Morgan becomes so adept at not leaving evidence of his messy hobby that he also develops an expertise for assessing the work of lesser killers—a talent that serves him well in his job as a police-department blood-splatter analyst. Although Harry himself has passed away, he remains a ghostly presence in the series, advising Dexter, urging him to live up to the code, cautioning him when he seems to be getting sloppy—in other words, generally looking out for the mass murderer in a paternal manner.
At the close of the third season, one of Morgan’s potential victims turns the tables on him in a literal sort of way. Morgan, for a change, finds himself the one incapacitated on a tabletop while the killer pauses to savor the moment before tucking in. The interlude provides an opportunity for a visitation from Morgan’s tearful father, accompanied by heavenly music and a golden light.
“I’ve never seen you cry before,” Morgan tells his dad, who replies: “They’re not my tears, Dex, they’re yours.” Morgan, confused by his surging feelings, says that he desperately wants to live—his pregnant fiancée, Rita, is going to have a boy. “To raise him with Rita,” Morgan says, “to watch him grow up, protect him . . . it’s all going to be taken away”—the man waiting to kill him, after all, is idling nearby—“I want to be there for him. I’ve never wanted anything so much in my life.” Morgan looks up from the table with a new resolve: he must free himself and kill the man who would stop him from becoming a good father to his son. How could the audience not root for him? Melissa Rosenberg was right: Dexter doesn’t glorify the murders. It glorifies the murderer.
The world of Dexter is not so much a moral vacuum as a moral swamp, one in which the main character’s taste for slaughter is presented as, at worst, a character flaw in an otherwise good man. It’s all done in fun, of course, with a fillip of what the creators no doubt think of as aren’t-we-naughty transgressiveness. Early in the series, Morgan observes: “There’s something strange and disarming about looking at a homicide scene in the daylight of Miami. It makes the most grotesque killings look staged, like you’re in a new and daring section of Disney World. Dahmerland.” If there were any doubt the show itself is a weekly trip to Dahmerland, a theme park where the theme is cheerful mass murder, the doubt evaporates with a visit to the Dexter website. It’s a strange and disarming place. In addition to episode guides, video previews, and downloads (this is the place to find a blood-splatter screen saver just like Morgan’s), there is a section called Blog Buzz. The first posting displayed on a recent visit to the site said: “I found myself liking Dexter, which I didn’t think I would or could.” The blogger’s screen name is Principled Parent. Another fan says: “A nice guy who just happens to be a murderer.” The site also offers cheeky fake magazine covers featuring Dexter: a faux GQ magazine shows a debonair Morgan with the headline “In Cool Blood.” The Details parody calls him “American Homic-Idol.” People magazine: “Serial Sexy!,” with a story inside called “Lose Pounds Instantly,” accompanied by a photo of Morgan contemplating a severed foot.
The site’s pièce de résistance, though, is a video game called “Body Bag Toss.” We see Morgan out in the ocean aboard the Slice of Life, awaiting our assistance: “Help Dexter dispose of the evidence,” the directions instruct. ”The farther you throw it, the higher your score. Click once to start the bag spinning. Click again to toss.”
For Dexter fans who cross over from enjoying the playful side of serial-killer fantasy to actually emulating the nice guy who just happens to be a murderer, disposing of the evidence isn’t so easy. That’s especially true if you live in landlocked Alberta, far from the Gulf Stream that Morgan favors as an evidence-dispersion tool. Still, police in Edmonton say that Mark Twitchell managed the job. John Altinger’s remains still haven’t been found.