Posts tagged ‘Dexter’

Running Man, minus the dignity

Gamer is a terrible movie.

It’s also a strangely written movie, one that goes out of its way to insult its assumed target audience, portraying gaming enthusiasts in lazy shorthand: either spoiled ADHD-addled teenagers or grotesquely obese shut-in perverts.  Who would immediately get the reference to a game changing mod (as opposed to a cheat), or the sight gag of soldiers purchasing upgrades from blank-faced merchants mid-battlefield, but those who spend much of their leisure time gaming?

Also, the aesthetic is an odd choice – in the ersatz Sim world, the clothing, leisure and clubbing set-ups are straight out of Spice World, far more a late-90s hedonistic look than the current scenester gestalt:

Sims 1 didn’t even come out until 2000, and the franchise-defining Sims 2 in 2004 even had an H&M expansion pack, completing the neo-80s modern look of the game. The plotless carnage of the avatar-assisted gameplay is also far more 90s-influenced than the current generation of games, which now more often than not include complex storylines and karmic morality choices.  The hysterical Fake-Violence-Makes-Real-Psychopaths controversy that fuels this ‘sploitation movie belongs to another time, a quaint past that includes Marilyn Manson and a careful hedonism peeking out under the childhood boogieman of AIDS.  Video games want to be your Jiminy Cricket now, putting players through the negative consequences of fun, fun wholesale slaughter.

And yet, it often catches the youthful Web 2.0 drift eerily well, particularly in the cheapness of thrills, the naïve perception that flashing some of your amateur skin is something both expected and hugely valuable.  In fact, the 90s aesthetic would have been a pleasantly nostalgic redeeming feature of this shallow and mean-spirited movie if the Millennial generation’s pre-fab jadedness hadn’t been grafted onto it.

Well, there was a bizarre Michael C Hall dance number.  It’s got that going for it.

All in all: it’s always much more fun to play video games than watch someone else play them.  If nothing else, this movie has left me half-tempted to reinstall Sims 2 (and track down Autonomous Causal Romance mod, of course), but I’m halfway through Bioshock…Mr Bubbles, are you there?

Supes and Bats in Bowling Shirts: Dexter’s Dark Avenger

the Dark Defender

the Dark Defender

Dexter, Season 2

Dexter’s season one self-image begins with the smug self-loathing of a monster, aware that only his conditioning allows him any place in society outside a jail cell. Confronted with two like-minded sociopaths he was unable to force into his mold, he began to see himself as a different and better breed of monster, one who may someday be able to genuinely connect with others as he is. He sees the crowd of curious onlookers as cheering fans, with Deb at his side, smiling and sharing in his applause:

Everyone else would probably thank me if they knew I was the one who drained [the ice truck killer] of his life. Deep down, I’m pretty sure they’d appreciate a lot of my work. This is what it must feel like to walk in full sunlight, my shadow self embraced.

While this is a mixed sign in terms of real progress – retreating into fantasy rather than approaching the issues that the second season will stagger through – the immediate effect is to question the modern heroic archetype: the vigilante superhero.

The show does suffer the requisite sophomore slump, abandoning some of the best first-season elements while deepening the concept’s reach and mythology. While the first season mined and transcended a pulpy beach novel, the second too often lived down to the potboiler source material. One plot thread is painfully predictable: OMG Crazy Hot Girl Is The Only One Who Understands Me And Thus We Must Fuck, which segues into OMG Crazy Hot Chick Is Crazy And Hot, In The Sense That She’s Really Into Emotionally Strategic Arson!

Urgh. Even Dexter’s long delayed leap into sexual puberty can’t justify the stretching of this from its one-episode premise through three-quarters of the short season.

A larger issue was the too-convenient resolution of Dexter’s various cliffhangers. Too often, he is a cipher serving only to bring together the awkward thesis and antithesis that independently resolve his crisis. The long-awaited confrontation with Rita about the real reason her abusive ex-husband was found with a heroin needle sticking from his arm (leading to his re-incarceration and fatal shanking) is derailed after Dexter has been forced to confess – when Rita conveniently jumps to the conclusion he must be an addict himself, apparently forgiving him. This leads Dexter to Narcotics Anon, where he is presented with the season arcs of aforementioned batshit insane hot chick and the addiction filter through which to explore his compulsions. The investigation into the Bay Harbor Butcher (ie Dexter) and the personal persecution of Sgt Doakes crash together, leaving Doakes the top suspect with Dexter’s blood sample trophies in his trunk. Doakes again, stashed in a remote cabin that’s about to be found by the FBI’s great white hunter – not to mention made a connection with Dex and nearly convinced him to turn himself in – is found and spontaneously killed by Batshit Crazy Hot Chick. Who then ties off her own loose end by very publicly demonstrating her insanity and fleeing the country, to be killed by Dexter at his leisure.

Dexter’s contribution to his crises and moral quandaries is little more than ethically facile mopping up. Following the insane woman’s version of the NA programme, he spends months attempting to quit his addiction – allowing Rita, Doakes, and Batshit Crazy Woman to believe he is struggling with heroin – and delve into his shadowed past, particularly the grimier aspects of his formerly sainted foster father. He reaches a breaking point when Doakes witnesses him murdering, and Doakes’ sickened reaction forces him to put together two memories he’d previously managed to keep separate: his father’s horror at witnessing Dexter happily dismember a victim picked according to “Harry’s code” and his father’s suicide soon after.

Dexter’s guilt and misery evaporate soon after when he realises God must approve of his actions, having rescued him from capture via a complicated spiderweb of contrivances; sadly, Dexter lacks to self-awareness to consider the possibility of showrunners sparing his viewers from having to make a real judgement on his actions and their own complicity in his actions, their attention literally continuing his existence.

The hints at superhero traits offered in the first season are laid out without subtlety. One local graphic artist has literally made a comic hero of the Bay Harbor Butcher: the Dark Avenger. (Dexter is fascinated by the image but only notes that dark leather would be completely impractical for Miami.) He enters the season thinking that ordinary people would cheer him on and indeed they do, as an abstract concept. When a face – Sgt Doakes’ – is put to the killer, the acclaim disappears.

As Dexter-the-killer, he exposes the childish morality of superheroes who get the bad guys without killing them. Batman and Superman are condoned by the police in their world, delivering criminals to Headquarter’s front door – although you have to wonder how their cases ever went to trial. Much like Dexter, their verdict of ‘guilty’ is the only law. The criminals who have to die for plotty goodness or the satisfaction of a network’s moral code generally cause their own doom, usually by refusing to grab the hand of the person who’s been whaling the life – nearly – out of them for the past several minutes and plunging to their comic-book death.

The show itself resolves the irresolvable in a similar slight of hand, having Lila (a self-deluding murderer-by-arson who seeks out vulnerable new victims) do the dirty work of killing Doakes (a self-confessed monster who admits to isolating himself for others’ safety). Dexter’s ‘code’ remains intact through others’ actions; while Doakes got a raw deal at the end, his obsessive bullying directly led there.

Dexter’s backstory riffs on two of the oldest comic book heroes, recognisable in any part of the world with any access to visual media. He is a superman hiding in plain sight – like Clark Kent, he is physically and intellectually stronger than most; like Bruce Wayne, he builds his ‘true’ persona with technological preparation and stringent training. His motivations…they are something of a different story, but not from a distant shelf. The motivations of the hero and the serial murderer may only be chapters of the same book.

The foundling is raised by a foster father who knows his beloved son is not like other children, who instils a rigid code and the need to hide his difference above all else. Ostensibly on the side of the angels – he wants his strange son to have something of a normal life, unmolested by authority, while using his abilities to make the world a better, safer place – the impotent father conditions him into a black-and-white worldview to further his own agenda. Isolated from other influences – to keep the dangerous secret of his difference secret, of course – the son sees his father as the ultimate, unquestioned authority and is kept from developing an independent personality and the ability to truly take responsibility for his own actions. When the father has died and the son begins a long-delayed maturation process, he’s initially faced with an either/or: continue following the father’s law to the letter, or reject all morality in favour of showy self destruction.

Or: the boy is orphaned by a gruesome murder that will haunt his psyche through adulthood. As a nemesis could later observe,  he had a bad day, and everything changed – he became a vicious freak, avenging that long-ago trauma on present individuals who are innocent of that crime, if not others. Only a personally enforced code keeps him morally separate from those he hunts.

Unlike Clark or Bruce, Dexter actively reminds himself that he is a monster – usually forcing himself into an emotionless archetype he doesn’t actually fit – despite his code. Those other American heroes cling to their codes as the thing that makes them the opposite of the criminals they use violence and intimidation to apprehend. Dexter knows he would still kill without the veneer of justice. The abilities and the need to use them precede any thirst for justice.

Would Bats and Supes do the same in a more realistic world? Where society – or at least its legal system – demanded that only the police force, with its flawed systems of oversight and restraint, use physical force to “protect” society and remove its worst elements?

Darkly Dreaming Dexter: blood and ethical sociopathy

Dexter Season One

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay
2004

Dexter, Season One
2006

Dear Dexter is a single white male in his thirties who lives alone and works peripherally in law enforcement, and is generally considered to be a quietly well mannered and quirky guy.  He is, of course, an insane serial killer preying on the residents of Miami.

However: that “prey” is only those who he can prove to his own high threshold of satisfaction are like him: serial predators who have escaped the law’s prosecution who will continue to kill innocents.  The undisturbed lives of those innocents, unfortunately, are an incidental by-product of scratching his itch to main and kill.

The novel upon which Dexter’s first season is based calls this urge the “Dark Passenger”.  It’s worth experiencing this introduction in all its purple glory:

Moon.  Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full-throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth-grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.

All calling to the Need. Oh, the symphonic shriek of the thousand hiding voices, the cry of the Need inside, the entity, the silent watcher, the cold quiet thing, the one that laughs, the Moondancer. The me that was not-me, the thing that mocked and laughed and came calling with its hunger. With the Need. And the Need was very strong now, very careful cold coiled creeping crackly cocked and ready, very strong, very much ready now—and still it waited and watched, and it made me wait and watch.

Urgh.  Take a moment—that was a thick chunk of corrugated prose to force down an unsuspecting reader’s throat.  The series, fortunately, lacks the Dark Passenger.  The Dexter who partially garrottes a secret paedophile, forcing him to confront the bodies of the boys he’s murdered, before antiseptically dismembering him, is the same Dexter that greets his girlfriend’s children warmly and patiently guides the career of his impatient sister.

With his deserving victims, Dexter is a more honest version of himself, ironically closer to connecting, but he stalks and kills on his own impulse rather than obeying a voice in his head.  Unlike the common perception of a sociopath, Dexter does want to connect, and with some logic seeks an understanding from monsters like himself as much as he tries to force upon them an understanding of their own crimes.

Blood

“Blood. Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge. Other times it helps me control the chaos.”

Dexter works as a blood splatter technician with the Miami police department.  Early on, he tells the viewers (or the inside of his own echoing head) that he chose this position and city to monitor his own criminal activity, and feels Miami, with its law enforcement’s 20% solved murder rate, is the best setting for a journeyman killer.

Blood is the one indulgent memento he keeps from victims, single beads dried onto slides and tucked away in his ac unit.  He enjoys flicking through his collection and remembering his work, fingering the dry red ovals.

He reveals in later episodes a great antipathy toward blood, despite making it his life’s work.  His plastic sealing of his killing scenes turns out to be not only a practical method for hiding DNA but a way of containing the splash and gush of sticky blood.  His job, as well, while it requires he confront and contemplate his personal bugaboo, allows him to explain and contain it as well, like his kills, tidying away his corner of the world.

Dexter begins to realise why he has such an intense connection to such an abstract bit of life, eventually unearthing a long-repressed memory of not only witnessing his mother’s brutal murder at the age of three but also spending over two days in a drying pool of the victims’ blood.  He was discovered and rescued by Harry Morgan, then an ordinary policeman, who fostered and then adopted the young boy, but his fixation with blood and murder was already set.

Sociopath

Harry recognises in dear dark Dexter (to follow the book’s alliterative nomenclature) the signs of a budding sociopath, specifically the torture of animals and lack of normal emotional responses.  When he pushes young Dexter into admitting his need to hurt and kill, the boy clings to his foster father for comfort.

Harry, by now a detective and growing jaded with the justice system, becomes a more sophisticated Pa Kent.  He teaches Dexter how to fake normal with the rest of the world, encouraging a dual identity.  One side he makes into the perfect son, helpful, happy and obedient, and shows him how to feed the other side with socially acceptable murderous acts, like hunting.  This doesn’t totally satisfy Dexter, and perhaps doesn’t totally satisfy his mentor, either.  Dexter’s high intelligence and physical strength, combined with his need to ritualistically murder, are wasted on deer when there is a city full of dangerous men outside the hunting range.

Dexter voiceovers that he can’t connect with people, and to the degree that someone without remorse can be bothered, he is bothered by that.  Here is where the book and series diverge most sharply; book-Dexter ends up breaking from the Code of Harry, killing LaGuerta and planning to kill Doakes to remain undetected.  Deb has learned the truth about him but he’s sure she’ll come around to approving what he does, like their father.

Series-Dexter comes to care for Rita, becomes frantic that Deb will be tortured and killed, and mourns after killing his truly sociopathic brother.  He is helped by talk therapy (even if he does later murder the therapist).  He leaves a session that has begun to bring up memories of his Traumatic Event to finally have sex with a girlfriend without creeping her out.  He also seeks out a connection with a young serial murderer, intending to be the mentor to the teenager that Harry had been to him.  In the end he imagines himself surrounded by normal Miami residents who would cheer him on, even love him, if they knew what he did, and smiles.  The saving of innocents is no longer purely a byproduct.

His way of life is only possible because of his bond with Harry, whose approval and comfort he needed as much as understanding and protection.  Young Dexter really really really wants to kill people, especially a bullying jerk at school, but he doesn’t because of Harry—not because he doesn’t want to be punished or imprisoned, but because Harry would be disappointed and hurt.  The 1 sociopath in 25 individuals one encounters any day wouldn’t have that connection to prevent his or her destructive actions.

Brian deliberately brings Dexter to the realisation of his past, in the hopes he’ll be free to join him in the ritualistic killing they share.  They’re both the children of criminals, and may possess the faulty mental wiring in their shared DNA.  Harry thought that Dexter might be young enough to remain unaffected by his gruesome experience, leaving Brian to mental institutions, but when proved wrong labelled the boy a sociopath and trained him like an attack dog.  But, while he’s a deeply disturbed man with a compulsion to kill, Dexter’s emotional growth suggests he’s something less than that.  More pathetically, he may have spent over thirty years with the emotional acuity of a three-year-old.

Ethics

To come: Bats and Supes In Tropical Bowling Shirts