‘Dexter’ And Why Anti-Hero Shows Are Guilty Pleasures

Dexter is a show I’ve watched extremely sporadically over the years, in part because I have a relatively low bar for being frightened and upset by horror tropes, in part because my experiences with it have suggested that the supporting players are much weaker than the main characters, and in part because it’s often carried an unmistakable whiff of cheese about it. But I’m tuning in this season, both as a spur to myself to get completely caught up, and because I think the show is doing something interesting in the larger context of prestige television. When Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) discovered her adoptive brother Dexter (Michael C. Hall) sticking a rather large knife in an extremely bad man last season, the show put her in the position of a television viewer who suddenly has the panel of glass the separates us from the anti-heroes we’ve consumed so avidly and has to reckon directly with both the consequences of the denial and exercises and moral flexibility that let us like these very bad men from afar.

I’ve written frequently before that anti-hero shows have been able to establish such a powerful foothold in American popular culture because, in a more rigorous way than we normally mean it, they are a guilty pleasure, a harmless way to allow us to experiment with moral flexibility and a sense of amoral sophistication. The term anti-hero’s been stretched beyond meaningfulness, as Salon’s Willa Paskin pointed out in our Bloggingheads episode, but it’s to its strict definition that I want to apply this argument: an anti-hero is someone we root for even though we shouldn’t, often who does bad things with such elan that we mistake the former for virtue, competence outweighing evil. In Walter White, at least for a time (and some viewers think this way), we can toy with admiring genius for its technical perfection rather than its awful ends. Omar Little’s shotgun, cheerful whistle, and way with a courtroom bon mot are an argument in favor of outlawry rather than, as the case with many other characters in The Wire, a sense of waste that the man isn’t turning his talent to other ends. Tony Soprano lets us turn the sport of judging our neighbors and NIMBYism into melodrama: would we begrudge the man his criminality if he kept the lawn trim, his children in school, a local restaurant alive, and kept the blood far away from our property lines? There’s no denying that these thought experiments are hugely engaging, but part of why they’re fun comes from a sense of transgression, a curiousness about whether the show will resolve these questions in a morally satisfying way and bring us along with them.

In Dexter, both his technical genius and the things about him we fight so disturbing are heightened even beyond these examples: in last season’s finale, Dexter managed to do right by threatened undocumented immigrants, rescue his young son, and dispatch Travis, his nemesis of the season. And Dexter is, of all the prominent anti-hero characters, probably the one it would be most unnerving for us to actually have to confront. Omar doesn’t turn his gun on civilians, and shares some of our moral disgust at both criminals and the infrastructure that supports them. Tony Soprano is genuinely invested in certain aspects of American family life. Walter White may be far down the road to monstrosity, but he was once a recognizable figure, and he remains capable of trying for kindness and generosity with the people whose affection he genuinely wants to possess. Dexter is, on a fundamental level, not like us. And while none of us watching at home have to directly confront Omar Little, Walter White, or Tony Soprano and live with the consequences of their disregard for our rights, Deb has to do that directly with Dexter, and I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Unlike Carmela Soprano, who married Tony Soprano knowing who he was, or Skyler White, who came to terms with who her husband was in bits and pieces, Deb has her confrontation with Dexter mid-murder, in total contravention to who she understood Dexter to be. Deb acted like most of us would behave if we were confronted with the reality of someone like Dexter: horror, evasion, and ultimately, clarity. The question will be how she does something none of us at home are burdened with having to consider: taking action, reckoning with her own blindness and her own deep love. That’s a surprisingly old-fashioned moral direction for the show to take, and it’s a surprisingly exciting one.


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