Theory Teacher's Blog

Dexter, Psychoanalysis, or Something

I just finished watching the third season of the popular show Dexter, the crime drama whose main character is a serial killer. It’s a very clever program and the writing is wonderful, but nevertheless the whole time I was watching I had the uncanny feeling that the writers were basically dramatizing the stuff they learned in their Freud 101 class in college. They wouldn’t be the first to use the story of a psychopathic killer to do so. The most classic example, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho whose final scene is basically a monologue of simplified Freudian theory by a psychiatrist about Norman’s unconscious and his Oedipal relationship with his mother. And moreover, not surprisingly, I’m not the first to think about Dexter in terms of psychoanalysis as you can see in a couple of other blogs I found doing a quick google search [here and here] and also in three of the chapters of a recently published book of cultural analysis, Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (which I haven’t read yet but would if I were planning to write a real essay and not just this little blog.) So, in a funny way, I can’t help but suspect the show Dexter may give us more insight into the popular imagination of psychology — or how Hollywood writers tend to repeat Freudian ideas — than it gives us about real human psychology. Moreover, because of the way the show uses classic psychoanalytic ideas, it is very instructive for how narrative works.

Let me briefly explain by summarizing the story. The first season is basically about Dexter’s discovery of the repressed childhood trauma that (we are led to believe) produced not only his own psychopathic drive but also his brother’s. Although Freud himself actually argued against such a  deterministic understanding of the unconscious, this rather simple understanding of psychology (the popularized version of Freudian theory) does provide a neat little narrative trick for television and movies — what keeps the audience interested in the story are the two questions of whether a character will discover the hidden truth and how he or she will react to this discovery. The standard narrative convention in the literary genre of “thrillers” for making the plot “thrilling” is to arrange the story so that the character must discover the truth and react appropriately just in time to save an innocent character. So, the Freudian models (whether or not they are accurate) are helpful for a writer in the creation of narrative drive. Moreover, the show very smartly provides us with a character double, Dexter’s brother. Both Dexter and his brother experienced the same trauma and both became serial killers, but Dexter had the benefit of a father figure and his brother didn’t. The narrative effect of this character double is that Dexter’s psychopathy appears reasonable, but reasonable only in contrast to the out-of-control psychopathy of his brother. In other words, if the show did not give us a lawless psychopath (Dexter’s brother), then Dexter would simply appear to us as he really is — crazy.

Seasons two and three also give us these doubles. In season two, the character doubles are Dexter’s girlfriend’s abusive ex-husband Paul and the pyromaniac Lila. In contrast to Dexter, both Paul and Lila are out-of-control individuals whose violent tendencies are anarchic, self-serving, and destructive of the social order. Likewise, in season three, the character doubles are the district attorney Miguel Prado (whom the show represents with all the stereotypical Cuban emotionalism) and the serial killer nick-named “the skinner.” In both season two and season three, Dexter consciously confronts these individuals as versions of himself because they start to do the very same things that he does. My favorite quote from the final episode of season two (and why I love the writing on this show): “It’s strange to have a creation out there, a deeply mutated version of yourself, running loose and screwing everything up. I wonder if this is how parents feel.”

In other words, these doubles are basically just like Dexter, except for one crucial difference that the show reminds us of constantly in every episode — Dexter’s code. In seasons one and two, Dexter has flashbacks to his father teaching him the code that will ensure both that he survives and that his killing somehow serves the public interest. In season three, this shifts from flashbacks to projections where Dexter imagines his father is talking to him, and these fantasy projections might serve to highlight how Dexter is really insane, but strangely they instead work in the opposite direction, signifying precisely how Dexter is different from Lila and Miguel. He serves a code; they don’t.

The code here is what Freud would call the superego and Lacan would call the symbolic order. You can read a brief and clear explanation of the relationship between the ego and the superego (or between the imaginary and the symbolic) written by Slavoj Zizek by clicking here. The superego is often misunderstood to mean simply the “law” or moral order, but Lacan and Zizek both point out that the superego/symbolic order is actually obscene because of its relation to the ego’s desire. In other words, to conceptualize the superego as the neutral “law of the founding father” is to misunderstand that law’s relationship to our own desire. After all, whenever Dexter imagines his father talking to him, this is always a projection of his own rationalization for whatever psychopathic, criminal acts he is undertaking. Hence, the show’s portrayal of the relationship between Dexter and his father gives us a good sense of the superego and how crazy it is. His archetypal father is a “good cop” who desired to punish criminals, and therefore Dexter’s actions reflect the internalization of that sadistic, self-punishing superego, a superego whose mandates are projected outward onto others deemed worse than Dexter.

Dexter’s character doubles (i.e., his brother, Lila, and Miguel) actually threaten Dexter’s symbolic order (the code of his father) by forcing Dexter to confront the reality of his own evil (his id). In the concluding episode of each season, he has to kill off these individuals, and in doing so he is really killing off himself. And this is what Freud calls the “death drive”; the death drive does not mean we actually want to die, but that the demands of the superego are so severe that we punish ourselves whenever we don’t achieve our idealized self (or “ego-ideal); and hence what Dexter does is not kill himself but kill his character doubles. (And we all exhibit this death drive when he attempt to “reform” or “improve” or “change” ourselves; the show Dexter is simply the literalization of this metaphor.)

And significantly the narrative arc of this death drive for each season of the show always coincides with Dexter’s embrace of the normative family order. In other words, in the final concluding episode Dexter BOTH kills off his double AND reaffirms his attachment to the traditional nuclear family. Season two concludes with a gorgeously sentimental image of the perfect family with his girlfriend Rita that he apparently was only able to embrace by killing off Lila — Lila, the one who encouraged him to embrace his dark side or id. Similarly, season three concludes with his equally sentimental marriage ceremony to Rita. As he says in the very first episode of the first season, his wonderfully conventional relationship to Rita is what supports his “ego-ideal” or his ideal self; in other words, his “imaginary” relationship to social norms. (And moreover the show intelligently clearly indicates whenever Rita doesn’t behave in ways that support Dexter’s ego-ideal — in other words, whenever she is really herself rather than Dexter’s ideal woman.) Dexter’s idyllic family-man self is inevitably threatened by his own character doubles, which are after all just expressions of his own psychosis. Metaphorically speaking, Dexter’s dramatic encounters with his evil character doubles are analogous to his need to work through his own issues with Rita, as his witty voice-over commentary amusingly indicates.

The narrative structure of seasons two and three are almost completely identical and therefore somewhat predictable. Their predictability might make the show a bit boring season after season except for the show’s brilliant writing. What Dexter’s voice-over narration of his internal psychological dilemmas repeatedly provokes us to think about is the obscenity of social norms. Dexter is too much like us, and this produces an effect that Freud calls the uncanny. Now, what’s important to point out here is that the writers of the show did not attempt to write about a “real” psychopath; rather, they deliberately blended and mixed together the qualities of a psychopath with ordinary observations about how we strategically interact with people on a day-to-day basis. In other words, we are always imagining ego-ideals (idealized images of ourselves) in relation to a “code” — a code that we recognize is obscene but cynically buy into anyway — in order to manage our drives (our id). We all do this, and in a sense we are all a little nuts. Hence, through the interplay between normative and psychotic discourse, the show reinforces at the same time it subverts the bourgeois family ideal (wife and kids, house in the suburbs, etc.), and it does this not by giving us an accurate depiction of a serial killer but by playing with Freudian categories and character doubles. The best part of the show is of course not the plot or the characters but Dexter’s own constant witty commentary that deliberately mixes the musings of a psychopath with ordinary observations about social reality and personal relationships.

And here finally we can offer a critique of Dexter by analyzing his character doubles. In season one, his double is the brother who grew up in foster care; in season two it is an aggressive woman; and in season three it is a Cuban who had an abusive father. (In season three there is also the Nicaraguan ex-Contra terrorist.) So, these doubles (or doppelgängers, which is the literary term) are always monstrous “others” because of their social position outside the ideal of the white, American bourgeois family (that Rita, in spite of her own psychological problems, represents.) This is why Lacan once asserted provocatively in one lecture that “woman does not exist” and in other lecture that there is no such thing as “others.” Psychoanalytically speaking, such “others” are merely imaginary projections that enable Dexter (and the audience of Dexter) to construct his own ideal self. (In other words, people aren’t all that different from each other, but we are neurotically compelled to imagine that they are.) But again, what I like about the show is that it constantly reminds us of how creepy the whole situation is, so that we can never fully believe that Dexter is any better than the sexist and racist portraits of his doubles. To put it another way, the mistake would be to read this show literally and think that Dexter is a “good guy” in contrast to the “bad guys” such as his brother, Lila, Miguel, and “the skinner.” Against this literal reading, the character doubles and the brilliant movement between “normal” and “crazy” discourse in Dexter’s voice-over monologues should force us to come to terms with the ways in which we are all a little bit nuts.

Another way to look at the show Dexter and its brilliant investigation into the relationship between id, ego, and superego is to consider the notion of the “state of exception” theorized recently by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. This is a political concept that is used to justify a state of emergency when the government can suspend the rule of law in order to pursue an action whose intended goal is to return the world to a state of law and order. In other words, it is a paradoxical state of affairs, since most believers in democracy would find it impossible to produce a lawful state through extra-legal means. And not surprisingly, Agamben’s book explicitly critiques George Bush’s “war on terror” which basically claims that its illegal activity is justified because only through non-legal means can law and order be restored during a state of emergency.

And isn’t that what Dexter is constantly doing? For him, the ordinary legal structures are not adequately prosecuting criminals and protecting citizens, so he must supplement the law by engaging in exactly the same illegal behavior as the criminals. And moreover, if he does not hurry, then other innocent people will die, and hence, Dexter always has his own private states of emergency that compel him to act.

But Agamben’s concept is a political concept, so what does it have to do with the psychoanalytic concepts I’ve been discussing thus far?…. Hmm…. Well, Dexter helps us understand how our “codes” (or, the “law” or intention of our founding fathers) are actually a little nuts because there is a dialectical relationship between the “law” and our own “ego-ideals” and our ugly id. After all, in order for the code to seem reasonable, we must constantly be committing acts of suicide by attacking imaginary “evil-doers” which are actually just our own character doubles. What I’m suggesting here is that one of the things that makes Dexter so compelling is the extent to which its story begun in 2006 seems to mirror the story spun by the mainstream media just a few years before to justify the war in Iraq and the extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists. Dexter’s rationalizaton of his actions in some ways mirrors the American government’s rationalization of its actions. After all, in season 3 of Dexter, the “skinner” was an interrogations officer in Nicaragua for the Contras, who were sponsored by the U.S. government through the CIA and many of the interrogations officers would have been trained in Georgia at the School of the Americas. Similarly, al Qaeda was an American creation and funded by the American government back in the 1980s to fight against Soviet communism.

In conclusion, the lines I quoted above from Dexter about character doubles perhaps also serve to explain my psychanalytic argument about the state of exception: “It’s strange to have a creation out there, a deeply mutated version of yourself, running loose and screwing everything up. I wonder if this is how parents feel.”

October 24, 2010 - Posted by | television

3 Comments »

  1. Enjoyed this, thanks.

    Comment by Carla | October 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. Meanwhile, I just finished watching Season Four, so I have a quick addendum. First, in many ways, season four repeats the same structure as the previous season. The narrative is structured around a double, and now that Dexter is married with children, appearing to the world to be living the most conventional of suburban middle-class lives, his double must also be married with children according to logic of the plot as I argued a month ago. As Dexter soon discovers about this season’s double, “Trinity is a husband, a father; he’s… like me.” In Dexter’s many conversations with himself, he is constantly put in the position where he has to differentiate himself from the monstrous psychopath whom he must kill.

    And the end looks like it will be similar to the earlier seasons which end in assertions of bourgeois nuclear family norms — this time, Rita wants to have a honeymoon. Except that Dexter’s indecisiveness about his own identity leads to a more tragic interruption.

    OK, so much for my psychoanalytic literary analysis. But how has Dexter been received by the general public (by which I mean random people I talk to who aren’t scholars)? This is the disturbing part, because many say to me that they think Dexter is “the good guy” — that his actions are right and that his victims deserved it. But while his victims may deserve punishment, even the show sheds doubt on this. For instance, Dexter is sometimes mistaken and kills an “innocent” person by accident. This is why our system of justice is based on the “innocent until proven guilty” principle. Moreover, his actions always create chaos that lead in turn to quite a few innocent deaths that he never intended. Plus, although he is a cop, he deliberately prevents his own colleagues from solving the crime and punishing the “bad guys” in the legal way so that he can satisfy his own lust for blood. So, instead of being an agent of justice, he is an impediment. Despite all these things, I’ve met people who think Dexter is doing right. What do we make of this?

    Comment by steventhomas | December 6, 2010 | Reply


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