Dexter, Psychopaths, and Vigilante Justice

Dexter provoked a great deal of commentary–as any long-running television serial on a killer-killing serial killer would (and should.) Now that I’ve finished the show–all eight seasons of it, after feeling several times during the sixth season that I would never make it to the end–I’ll throw in my tuppence.

Dexter‘s central conceit–the killings mentioned above–and its attempts to get us inside the head of an introspective, at times tortured serial killer wondering about his humanity, were always likely to need clever shepherding by its directors and writers so as to stave off the implausibility that always threatened to derail it. Most centrally, Dexter was a remarkably sloppy operator, often behaving in ways that should have gotten him arrested and put away several times over. As the show wore on, it became harder to believe that the uncoverings carried out by–in turn, James Doakes, Debra Morgan and Maria Guerta–had not happened earlier and led to his long-term incarceration. So the show did not always succeed in this regard; all too often, I found myself unable to take plot denouements seriously because they rested on exceedingly unlikely developments preceding it.

For all that, Dexter managed to provoke ample conversation about the morality of killing and vigilante justice, which, I presume, will be its central contribution to philosophy classroom discussions in the years to come. (Perhaps I’m being excessively kind in my assessments of its longevity.) There were problems here too, of course: Dexter himself was all too often only concerned with his own mental health, which was befitting a potentially psychopathic killer but which made for little agonizing over the kills themselves; his victims became a little less straightforwardly evil too late and too infrequently; and the Dark Passenger references all too often seemed ridiculous.

The central incoherence with vigilante justice is that it cannot be the norm, it cannot be universalized, it cannot co-exist with systems of law. To tolerate it is to ask for little less than a return to the bad old days–not that they have ever gone away–of unbridled revenge and all the social, emotional and moral costs that entailed. The show’s creators relied on for its appeal to an old weariness with the justice system, one explicitly tapped into in the third season: the machinery of law and justice is antiquated and tired; it moves too slowly; it is worn down by procedural detail; it punishes the good and lets off the bad; it cries out for blunt, fast-acting saviors willing to leap the bureaucratic hurdles it puts in the path of those only concerned with letting all of us sleep a little safer at night. 

Because of this reliance on a kind of knee-jerk impatience with the law, the show was perhaps not as genuinely edgy or ground-breaking as it might have been. To do that, it would have had to really push the envelope and show us a serial killer or psychopath who didn’t put on the vigilante hat; it would have had to explore his psychological development with just a tad more nuance. But that would have run the risk of humanizing the psychopath, not treating him as unanalyzable evil.

That’s still a little too risky.