[On November 17, 1894, infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Holmes and four other murderous histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on true crime from one of my favorite scholars!]
On antiheroes, vigilante justice, and serial killers.
Although the character began in 2004 in the first of a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, when Dexter Morgan was brought to TV life by Michael C. Hall across eight seasons on Showtime he fit very nicely into the dominant 21st century trend of television antiheroes. While Dexter might seem to be the worst of the bunch, given that his defining characteristic was killing people week in and week out, I would argue that he’s more representative of the type than unique; after all, Frank Underwood and Tony Soprano both kill their fair share of innocent people, while Walter White kills numerous fellow criminals in order to further his own criminal enterprise. Indeed, since Dexter only kills the guilty (something that the show makes sure its audience knows with certainty in a way that would be impossible in real life), he’s not unlike another heroic antihero: Jack Bauer, who only tortures and/or kills those whom viewers know are necessary to thwart terrorist plots. Dexter is unquestionably haunted by his actions (given tangible form through his “dark passenger,” the ghost of his adopted father Harry Morgan), but so in one way or another are these other TV antiheroes as well.
Yet at the same time, Dexter’s explicit and primary motivation is to find ways to kill his deserving (as he sees it, and again as the show portrays it) victims without being caught or stopped; if and when those other antiheroes kill, they do so as a means toward other ends (some more noble than others, to be sure), rather than the end in and of itself. That doesn’t necessarily make Dexter worse than them, but it does link him to a different cultural and American type: the vigilante, one pursuing a self-defined vision of justice outside of and opposed to the law (a narrative driven home with particular clarity and irony due to Dexter’s day job as a policeman). As is so often the case with such vigilante characters in popular culture, while the audience is given various forms of distance through which they can critique Dexter’s actions (such as the stories of his fellow police officers investigating his killings), the ultimate success of the show depends on the audience sympathizing enough with him to remain invested in his story—or, to put it another way, if the audience became more sympathetic to his victims than to him the show would quickly cease to work.
So Dexter Morgan is an antihero and a vigilante, two types we’ve seen quite a bit on television and in popular culture more broadly over the last couple decades. But he’s also a serial killer, and to my mind the only serial killer protagonist of a TV show. Contemporary TV is full of serial killers—they’re pursued just about every night of the week by the detectives on numerous procedural and cop shows—which certainly reflects our collective fascination with such characters and narratives. Yet even when those killers are charismatic or compelling (as were Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal and James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll on The Following, for example), the logic of the shows requires them to be the hunted, locating the audience as one of those hunting them. Whereas, as I’ve argued in each paragraph here, the logic of Dexter locates us in an uneasy but clear parallel to Dexter himself, concerned about what might happen to him (legally but also psychologically) but taking part in his ongoing killing spree. Perhaps the show was simply an anomaly—but perhaps it represents a next step from some of the cultural texts and narratives I’ve highlighted throughout this week’s posts.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other serial killer histories or stories you’d highlight?