(SPOILER ALERT: Proceed with caution if you’re not caught up!)
Dexter’s eye-for-an-eye vigilantism came to a gripping fifth-season finale this week with Jordan Chase (Jonny Lee Miller), serial rapist and murderer, brought to a bloody end by one of his victims, Lumen (Julia Stiles). If you are not familiar with the show, go here for a good feminist overview of the series, or see the series of posts here.
This season, the Showtime TV series had much to offer feminist viewers: blood-spatter analyst (and serial killer) Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) as single dad; female Lt. LaGuerta’s (Lauren Velez) betrayal of Dexter’s sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter); Deb’s mad detective skills and, at the heart of the season, a rape revenge fantasy involving Dexter and Lumen, who were bent on meting out punishment for a group of male rapists and murderers. This time around, Dexter’s partner in crime was an intelligent, articulate, tough woman–a female raped, tortured and nearly murdered who realizes that the violence done to her cannot be buried or denied and will forever change her view of the world and her place in it.
As noted at Feminists For Choice, “the show does an above-average job of accurately depicting the agony of rape trauma syndrome and PTSD.” Why is this good viewing for feminists? Yes, the violence is visceral and the blood excessive. The administered justice is very harsh–with murder on the agenda for those serial killer Dexter decides “don’t deserve to live.” But underneath its brutal exterior, the show also presents us with deeper moral questions about a legal system that consistently fails to catch or punish serial killers, rapist, and child abusers–and deeper still about what type of society breeds such violence and if, indeed, our legal system creates just as many criminals as it attempts to apprehend.
Dexter’s “dark passenger” impels him to dole out retribution as an attempt to make up for the brutal murder of his mother, which he witnessed as a young child. Yet he suffers with his compulsion, feeling more monster than human. Here too, the show grapples with the complexity of morality and justice, showing that, as Deb reiterated again and again in this season’s finale, things are never simple.
This message was also emphasized in the recent episode when Astor, Dexter’s tween stepdaughter, showed up drunk. At first viewers were encouraged to see her as selfish and immature, to view her drinking and shoplifting as signs of a girl gone wrong. Yet, along with Dexter, viewers slowly realize Astor’s behavior was spurred by attempts to help her friend, who was being abused by her stepfather. Such storylines reveal that often the “crime” committed (in this case, tween drinking and stealing) has much deeper roots than an individual’s “badness.” Indeed, the show turns the entire “a few bad apples” idea, where society is harmed by a handful of “evil people,” on its head. Instead, we see that our society is pervaded with rot, from tip to top, and that this rot is intricately linked to the violence done to girls and women by males raised on an excessively violent code of masculinity.
Dexter also explores how the competitive model of dog-eat-dog individualism leads to workplace backstabbing, especially among the few women who have had to claw and fight their way to the top–exemplified this season by the storyline in which Lt. LaGuerta betrays Deb. For me, this was the most problematic narrative arc, not only because it smacked of the “see what happens when you give women power” meme but also because of its racialized undertones, with a lying Latina throwing a wrench in the career of a white female detective.
However, given the racial diversity of the cast, the series avoids demonizing any one racial group, just as it avoids suggesting only men are violent or only women victims. To the contrary, the show reveals that no one is safe from the sexism and violence that pervades our world. This viewer, like the Feminist Spectator, “can’t help celebrating Dexter’s queer victories, and looking forward to more,” not only because the show transgresses boundaries and challenges a social system organized around a decidedly unfair system of power and privilege, but more simply because, as foul-mouthed Deb would say, I fucking love it.