Dexter and emotional complexity


On a recent trip to California, I took advantage of my alone time to binge on the first season of Dexter in airports and hotels. While I wouldn’t recommend trying to watch the series in four days – it’s a bit too intense in its disturbing imagery and scenes of psychological abuse to process so quickly – I did quite enjoy it and look forward to the next two seasons after a break to regain my balance. One facet of the show’s narrative design particularly interested me and speaks to a larger issue I’ve been grappling with in my project on television narrative, so if you’ve seen it, spoilers for season 1 abound under the fold…

One of the most interesting facets of the season’s narrative architecture is how they reveal the identity of the ice truck killer. The first few episodes set-up this revelation as the season’s big mystery, and thus I was quite surprised when it was revealed in episode 8 with four episodes left to go. The effect is to shift the narrative intrigue away from the question of “who done it?” and toward issues of why and what will happen down the road, away from surprise and toward suspense. Episodes 9-12 foreground the relationship between Dexter and Rudy, with viewers seemingly knowledgeable of the key information that Dexter and Deb lack.

This dynamic is especially effective in episode 9, when Dexter discovers that his biological father left him a house and he travels there to uncover pieces of his past. Rudy convinces Deb to join Dexter, and we watch Rudy insert himself into Dexter’s emotional life by trying to create a relationship between the two, building on the established game that the two killers have been playing. We watch these episodes with the assumption that we have the essential knowledge about Rudy and his twisted motivation, and that our position as more knowledgeable than Dexter frames are pleasures as anticipatory, expecting the payoff when Dexter discovers that the killer has been lurking around his sister.

The season finale pays off this anticipation, but raises the stakes by revealing that Rudy & Dexter are long-separated brothers. This revelation pulls all of the ice truck killer’s actions into focus, providing clear motivation as to why he was tweaking Dexter’s past and repressed memories, and how he knew more than Dexter himself did. What I found most interesting is that the show doesn’t signal these links – it provides answers to questions that I’d forgotten were lingering, and it is only in retrospect that I’m revisiting these moments.

A comparison is The Sixth Sense, when the big reveal is followed by a series of flashback images to moments that take on new meaning. In the film, the narration assumes that you need to be reminded of what you’ve seen only an hour ago, while a serial like Dexter assumes that you’re sufficiently aware of everything that has gone before over the previous 12 episodes, originally spaced out over 3 months, that you need no reminders. This is one of the key traits of television’s narrative complexity: an assumption that the viewer is actively engaged enough to be able to piece together narrative systems over months and years.

Instead of the revelation of Rudy and Dexter’s shared parentage turning our focus backwards toward the mechanics of storytelling that drive this particularly elegant twist, the narrative focuses primarily on the characters and their relationship that gain more depth and complexity in light of this new knowledge. The last half of the final episode plays out the inner conflict that Dexter feels between his monstrous nature, represented by his fellow traumatized brother, and his socialized code, fostered by his adoptive father and sister and their shared profession as police. In conjunction with the tremendous lead performance of Michael C. Hall, the craft of the episode pays off the big twist by focusing inward into the lead character’s damaged psyche, with subsequent events resolving this conflict, at least temporarily.

What I find most fascinating is how many “aha” moments are potentially activated by this reveal, but not actually touched on by the series. It took more than a day of reflection for me to remember that the episode 9 plot had another important layer that the show never explicitly referenced: in going to sort through Dexter’s biological father’s house, Rudy is also visiting his own familial past. I watched this episode first with the sense that I knew how Rudy was manipulating Dexter, but now I realize that I missed an entire level that would only be revealed 3 episodes later.

But amazingly, the show doesn’t call attention to this! There is no introspective moment of Dexter putting together the pieces of his and Rudy’s shared past. In fact, we’re still not sure that they share the same biologicaly father, or what his involvement was with the murder of their mother. Perhaps this will be revealed in seasons 2 or 3 (don’t spoil it if it is!), but the point remains that the show created a fabulous moment of plot mechanics, and chose to ignore it. Instead, I was rewarded for continued contemplation days later, creating my own “aha” that I earned on my own.

This account offers a roundabout response to an article by Michael Kackman in Flow about melodrama and complexity in programs like Lost and others that I’ve addressed in my work on television narrative. Kackman takes issue with my emphasis of narrative mechanics and pleasures over character, relationship, and melodramatic traditions that have often driven television drama. I agree with his analysis of Lost and what is lost if you treat such complex narratives solely as mechanical systems – they are emotional systems as well, and we need to keep those pleasures and modes of engagement in mind.

But as the example of Dexter suggesets, the machinery of emotional and plotting are sufficiently bound up in one another that it is unfair to emphasize one without the other. I’m certainly emotionally engaged with Dexter’s choice between the freedom to be himself with his brother versus the desire to meet his adopted father’s approval by following Harry’s code. But that engagement is deepened and prolonged through the “forensic fandom” of replaying the complex plot for Rudy’s machinations and underlying motivations. Traditional melodrama always pays off such links and connections explicitly – we’d get the revelatory moment that Rudy helped Dexter mourn their shared father and experience Dexter’s realization vicariously. Without such cues, the sense of discovery is heightened by those of us willing to invest the thought to make such implicit connections.

My own writing thus far on such programs has emphasized the narrative mechanics without attending to some of the emotional dimensions, in larger part because I find that the literature on television narration is much thinner than the research on emotion, melodrama, and cultural politics. In my larger project, I certainly plan to address these dimensions, but primarily in light of these innovations in narrative structure.

As with Dexter, I believe new modes of television storytelling open up some new possibilities for emotional enagement and the creation of complex characterizations. And I intend to explore how these storytelling models allow for new technologies of gendered engagement (building on the work of Robyn Warhol on effeminate pleasures), and suggest that we need to move beyond the framework that suggests that all emotionally compelling television can be understood within the purview of melodrama. However, that’s part of the larger project that I must leave for a future installment.

6 Responses to “Dexter and emotional complexity”

  1. 1 samford

    Great piece, Jason. Out of curiosity, what is your thought around the characters other than Dexter? I ask because the show was recently nominated for best ensemble cast, and I was bemoaning to fellow Dexter fan Dave Feldman (whose Imponderables is very blogroll-worthy) that this show was while Friday Night Lights was not. No knock on Dexter; the show is phenomenal, but it’s always seemed that the supporting characters are there often solely to move the plot and support the story of Dexter Morgan. From an emotional standpoint, this show is largely a close study of one complex man, and out interaction with those around him is more incidental. (One spoiler-free note: I do feel the show expands on some of its supporting characters as the series goes along, so this isn’t a House situation, where so many of the characters serve little emotional purpose at all…BTW, House was also nominated for best ensemble, which surprises me…Great actors, but I don’t feel that the cast is given enough even weight to really do what I think of as great work for an ensemble…)

  2. There is an additional level of emotion that should be considered in respect to Dexter. This is the depiction of the lead character’s emotions (or lack thereof).

    In the books on which the show is based, it is made much more clear that Dexter is emotionless. The only thing that he seems to feel is hunger, which of course ties into Dexter’s oft-used metaphor where he discusses his need to feed his “dark passenger.” Dexter is constantly consuming; he rarely produces anything. This, of course, ties directly to Dexter’s depiction as a cold, calculated predator. Dexter must constantly work to appear like a normal, feeling human.

    I completely agree that the show provides multiple possibilities for emotional engagement and it does so at the expense of character emotions. Dexter does not feel so we, as the viewers, must do this for him. The bigger question is what should we feel. The answer to this depends on how we choose to read the lead character, which depends on what we choose to read the character against.

  3. Great to hear you’re watching, Jason. Now you’re ready for this fun instance of Dexter advertising:, and for Luminosity’s excellent “Blood Fugue.”

    Nice to see big meaty blogs posts from you again too. I need more time to think about this, and I like that.

    Meanwhile, Sam, I’d agree that in Season 1 the characters are all pretty much there for Dexter’s sake, but that doesn’t diminish the strong ensemble acting. If a good ensemble means wonderfully deep and fleshed out characters, then it arguably doesn’t live up to that, but if they increase our appreciation and understanding of even just the one character, as long as they’re good, it can still be an interesting way to go (and one that both Macbeth and Hamlet are famous for, I suppose).

  4. 4 Daniel Marcus

    Very useful comments, Jason, and from the responders as well. And I agree that Dexter is NOT a show to be watched through DVD bingeing, though some of those connections would be easier to make if episodes are watched rapidly (gave me nightmares, which TV never does to me). I’ll be interested to see what you come up with in arguing for non-melodramatic emotional registers, which is an area definitely underdeveloped in film/media studies, and for which I got hammered for asserting relative to The Wire at the FLOW conference.

  5. I am glad to have found your post on Dexter, for I am working with the show theoretically and trying to find work already done… at least you have watched the first season. I must say that this show, like some choice others these days, offers challenging storytelling “architectures”, etc., that you write of across seasons; just wait until you view season 2 and 3! Its wonderful to me that each season is an encased storyline, each one another attempt by Dexter to form a relationship of some sort with another human.

    I just came back from the International Gothic Association conference and there were 2 academics presenting where they at least touched on Dexter, both also sticking only to the first season (“I just don’t have the time to watch tv”…!!). From what they spoke, and from audience responses, the general consensus there at least was that Dexter is a show that is trying to “normalize the monster”. I, however, am leaning towards the theoretical position that it is rather a dynamic of “monsterizing the normal” if some troughs are dug deep enough with considerations of identity and becoming. And this is, of course, a popular trend in the “quality tv” of current shows, ie: True Blood, Breaking Bad, Supernatural, as some examples imo. “Normalizing the monster” is ideologically suspect to me, and a somewhat predicatable read.

    Do you know of any subtantial work being done with Dexter that I may refer to?

    Also, if you haven’t already seen this, the recent Comic Con press panel for Dexter was interesting just to hear the Executive Prodeucers speak of how the character of Dexter is “a prism for all of us to learn about what it is to be human” (I’m paraphrasing…).


  1. 1 Complex TV: Comprehension « Just TV

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