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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

High Definition: Dexter, 24 & The Fallenness of Man

By Josh Jackson

For the longest time, I resisted watching Dexter. I didn’t want to find myself rooting for a serial killer, justifying his murderous appetite with the fact that he only kills bad guys, that he’s really a nice guy who brings doughnuts to the office each morning, that there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing justice served to the most wretched of criminals who had thought they’d beat the system. I’d already got caught up in a season of 24, and it left me feeling a little icky.

The central message of 24 seems to be that we’ve seen enough pansy-ass pussyfooting in dealing with inhumane terrorists who deserve our wrath—even our torture—and I quit the show after only one season because I realized how easy it was for me to start pulling for justice without the niceties. Jack Bauer was like a walking argument for the Patriot Act—the logical conclusions of all the hypothetical moral questions of putting the security of the innocent many before the rights of the evil one. He’s Clint Eastwood, cleaning up streets; of course we’re on his side. There’s real evil out there, and every time I read of massacres in The Sudan or child prostitution in Cambodia, I want to pick up an Uzi and fight. 24 appealed to my better nature—a desire for justice—but constantly tried to corrupt it. I stopped watching because, without fail, I found myself right along side Bauer, pulling for him to do whatever it took to save the day.

And so now I also find myself pulling for Dexter Morgan, the blood spatter expert who has been secretly spattering the blood of dozens of victims—all of whom deserved their fates. Every time it looks like he’ll be caught, I’m on edge. I’m emotionally invested in this vigilante with a bloodlust as he stalks his prey, and while I don’t like what that says about me, the show never pretends that Dexter is a hero.

24 might tap into some of the same dark places as Dexter, but it celebrates them, while Dexter reveals them for what they are. Dexter doesn’t kill to protect society. He doesn’t kill to avenge the innocent, though his adopted code ensures that those are the byproducts of his butchering. He kills because he’s broken. He’s been damaged by childhood evil that’s left him emotionless and merciless, and killing makes him feel alive and powerful. He’s learning to be human. After the death of his father, he’s trying to make his own way in the world—what it means to be a brother, a friend, part of a team, even a husband and father. But his “dark passenger” is still along for the ride. And the two characters that come to accept Dexter’s violent hobby are undone by their own demons.

In Season Two, Dexter’s psychotic girlfriend Lyla says that she’s not afraid of what’s under his mask, that it’s like looking into a mirror. And for hours after watching any episode, I’m looking into the same mirror, and it does scare me. My desire for justice in the world is a good thing, especially those times it gets me off my ass to help support the fight against modern-day slavery. But that lust for justice can be easily manipulated into a self-righteousness and vengeance. And while neither are particularly an area of struggle for the passionless Dexter, it’s good to be reminded of my own brokenness. I subscribe to a theology that says we’re all broken. Dexter’s monsters are bigger, scarier versions of our own. Sufjan Stevens gets at this in “John Wayne Gacy”: “In my best behavior/ I am really just like him/ Look beneath the floorboards/ For the secrets I have hid.” Flannery O’Connor nails this in so many of her short stories, dredging up the evil that lurks in the shadows to show us the evil that lurks in our hearts. And Dexter does this nearly every episode, and I can’t stop watching. Dexter is a nice guy, and he’s the devil. And that’s something I should never forget.

source: paste magazine

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