Dexter showcases the talents of my new favorite writer/producer, Wendy West.
West knows how to push my thematic buttons. My TV tastes favor stories of the human condition. Think of David Milch’s heroes coping with alcoholism as a stand-in for human emptiness and alienation. Think Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue, or Calamity Jane in Deadwood.
Dexter lends itself a priori to such themes. Serial killers are addicts, after all. Plus, other Dexter writers had worked the addiction angle before West began working for the show in Season Four.
But Wendy West goes for the thematic (ahem) jugular. Her writing strikes the optimal balance between methodical structure and dramatic authenticity. For instance, she returns to a single trope, over and over, giving variations of it in each of her five episodes: in each script, she contrasts Dexter to a second killer, deftly marking out the boundaries of Dexter’s values and aspirations as he kills the other killer.
- Season 4, Episode 4, “Dex Takes a Holiday
- the killer: Zoey Kruger (police officer, killed her husband and daughter)
- Season 5, Episode 6, “Everything Is Illumenated” [sic]
- the victim/killer: Lumen Pierce
- Season 6, Episode 7, “Nebraska”
- the killer: Brian Moser, “the Ice Truck Killer”
- Season 7, Episode 4, “Run”
- the killer: Ray Speltzer (forces victims to run through his torture maze)
- Season 8, Episode 8, “Are We There yet?”
- the killer: young psychopath-in-training, Zach Hamilton
In the most darkly hilarious episode of Season Six, “Nebraska,” West has Dexter’s addiction talk to him in the form of his dead brother, Brian, a serial killer whom Dexter was forced to kill in Season One.
In this road-story plot, Brian is ravenous for junk food. In each scene he tries to persuade Dexter to kill freely–i.e., to dispense with Dexter’s code of only killing serial killers—all the while scarfing drippy, convenience store nachos and falling-apart, Dairy Queen cheese burgers. The motel side table strewn with the burger’s detritus is not only a sight gag (more than anything, ghosts miss eating), but also a way of reifying the character, and in turn dramatizing the power of Dexter’s addiction.
Later in the episode, rather than rushing to kill Jonah Mitchell, Dexter insists on working to verify Jonah’s guilt. This annoys brother Brian:
“Ugh, your code, again…”
“The code is more than that. It’s kept me safe. It’s given me a life–“
“–A life that’s a big fat lie.”
Remember, this is Dexter’s addiction talking. If Brian can persuade Dexter that his life is “a big fat lie”–that his family relationships are merely a front to hide a serial killer in plain sight–then darkness wins.
But Dexter wants a real life, wants love and to be loved. This is the force of Dexter’s burgeoning humanity struggling against his addiction. Dexter is a psychopath. Psychopaths are incapable of emotion. For Dexter to be the best serial killer he can be, he needs to be fearless, unattached, uncaring of those individuals he’s manipulating to be his camouflage.
What makes Dexter a tragic figure is he wants the lie to be real. He wants to be honest with his friends and family. He wants to be worthy of the trust he has falsely cultivated.
This is Dexter wanting his own undoing. Were any family or friend to know the truth, they would not only shrink back in fear. They would turn him in to the authorities. Plus, because Dexter truly cares for his friends and family, he is vulnerable to his enemies using them as leverage against him.
In the end Dexter spares Jonah, and Brian vanishes. West gives Dexter a closing monologue. He wonders “if darkness is defined by light. If so, darkness can’t exist on its own. There must, by definition, be light somewhere, waiting to be found.” Translated: Dexter’s “Dark Passenger” (the nickname he’s given to his addiction) has a companion of its own–the light. Perhaps Dexter is not simply a monster. Perhaps he can nurture the light in him to overtake the darkness.
This is brilliant thematic writing. We so want Dexter to succeed.
The tragedy is that’s the same as wanting Kryptonite for Superman.