Dexter: The family-friendly serial killer, brought to you by Dr. Evelyn Vogel

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The new season of Dexter introduces Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a neuroscientist responsible for Dexter’s (Michael C. Hall) ethical code and the reasoning behind his murders. As the trailers and teasers announce the main topic of the remaining episodes is going to be Dexter’s legacy, his final masterpiece of gore and moral condemnation.

However, so far it’s his origins and childhood that remain in focus. The newest revelations make some previous questions about Dexter’s motives, free-will, actions and ‘monstrosity’ relevant again. In addition, the attempt to introduce a more rigid understanding of the science of serial killers undermines some of the show’s previous claims.

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The inclusion of Dr. Vogel seems like a logical and reasonable solution to the problem of Harry, Dexter’s foster father, single-handedly and successfully bringing up a serial killer. He probably wouldn’t have accepted his son’s deathly cravings without some psychiatric advice and qualified guidance. At the same time, presenting Dexter’s childhood as Vogel’s scientific experiment makes him seem like nothing more than its product. It somehow takes away the confidence he gained by rejecting the idea that his violent side, the ‘dark passenger’, is separate from him and solely responsible for his murders. Now it’s Vogel who takes the driver’s seat and credit for Dexter’s actions and understanding of the world.

Around Vogel, Dexter is Frankenstein’s monster, a lost, well-meaning, acceptance-seeking creature with outbursts of violence he neither controls nor understands. She makes him seem childlike while, at the same time, tearing the fabric of the show by introducing a scientist into a fictional reality where serial killers’ behavioural patterns shift to accommodate the requirements of the plot. Like Debra’s therapist who reveals her not as a person but a character in a show  unrealistically full of dramatic turns, deaths and trauma, Vogel stands guard over the academic literature and history which undermine most of the show’s stances on the nature of serial killers.

Jack Levin and James Fox, specialists in the psychology of serial killers, argue that many of them have sadistic traits and because of that need to be able to read and even, to an extent, experience the emotions of their victims to draw pleasure from their pain. These serial murderers are often capable of sustaining strong bonds with their friends and family. This cannot happen, however, when the part of the brain responsible for empathy is missing. The idea of a psychopath lacking human emotions describes very few actual killers but is popular in fiction – perhaps because it draws attention away from the traits we all share with murderers and sadists. Dexter is neither the empathetic sadist nor a cold psychopath, but possesses elements of both – a duality which is, at times, impossible to sustain. Also, the show goes to great lengths to make it easy to forget how serial killers kill at their most indulgent and creative.

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When the police found the last victim of Jack the Ripper they didn’t quite know what to make of the state of the prostitute’s body. The murderer’s mounting brutality finally reached its peak. There was no definition or a concept of a sex crime at the time. The press coverage, as detailed and sensational as it was, revealed that the body was mutilated beyond recondition but omitted the fact that the victims were raped.  The facts that the uterus was removed and the victim was stabbed in the genital area multiple times were also omitted. Such Victorian mentality persists in Dexter. Dexter’s murders and cruelties are not taboo and even fail to take away his likability but the show’s audience would likely not tolerate sexual violence or more explicit sadism.

Dexter seems perfectly clean and asexual unless he happens to ‘fall in love’ with one of the attractive women that surround him. He is safely heterosexual, not experimental and faithful to his current partner. When he dismembers a body it is for convenience of transport. When he is at his best, his style of killing is sanitized, quick, effective, well thought-out and professional. We can safely admire his abilities even if his actions reach beyond the limits of moral acceptability. He replaces the judicial system with his coldly rational moral judgement.  His murders are egalitarian and determined only by the victim’s damnable actions. He has all the charm and lovability of a walking, talking and muscular gas chamber.  In the new series, conveniently enough, responsibility for his actions shifts towards the authoritative, god-like Dr. Vogel who attempts both to control him and provide him with a sense of pride and direction he’s been missing.

Pierre Riviere, a 19th century country boy with insane ambition and decent education, who killed his father, sister and brother, wrote a justification of his actions in which he explains that murder is a sign of status and rightfully belongs to the great people of this world. The Napoleons, the soldiers with uniforms covered with medals, the grand historical figures can and have a right to kill. If the argument seems familiar it is because Dr. Vogel uses it to explain to Dexter the depth of his ‘perfection’. The great leaders and businessmen have traces of psychopathic behaviour. The world belongs to psychopaths. This justification might, however, take no effect on Dexter. The traces of blood he leaves behind are not, after all, that unlike these which lead him to his ‘deserving’ victims.

Episode 801The representation of Dexter, ‘the America’s favourite serial killer’ draws interesting parallels between him and a conservative sense of American morality. It leads to interesting questions about the extent of violent, sexual or morally questionable actions allowed in ‘edgy’ entertainment. Murder is good if it’s performed James Bond style – the ‘bad’ guys die and the protagonist returns a hero. Nevertheless, the show is much more complex than that and its final verdict on Dexter will determine the ultimate meaning of his actions. The new season draws attention to the already prominent tension between Dexter as a protagonist and a psychopath with all the historical, moral and scientific implications of the term. Also, so far, Dr. Vogel seems to take away Dexter’s authorship over the gory ‘masterpieces’ but it is yet to be revealed whether Dexter will allow her to reign over his mind and the resolution of his story. He has the last word.