Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vigilantism & the American Serial Killer. (Or, WTF Is Up With Dexter?)

When I first heard about Dexter—sometime around the end of its second season, when it was picking up real popularity—I got indignant. Massively so. "Are you kidding me?" I remember ranting in someone's face (retroactive apologies if it was yours), "First The Tudors makes King Henry VIII sexy, now we're making light of serial killing?! This is like a bad parody of American television! Has Christopher Guest taken over Showtime??"

Then, of course, boredom struck one afternoon some months later, & I decided to take advantage of my cable box: I watched all of the second & third seasons (yes, I skipped the first—a fault I later remedied) in a matter of days. Something about this show was just so addictive—the darkness of it; the garish, heightened quality of Miami; the constant suspense that Dexter (Blood Spatter Analyst By Day, Serial Killer By Night!) is ever closer to getting found out—while, at the same time, I had the palpable experience of not enjoying what I was watching. Part of this dislike, I'm sure, stems from the constant brightness & heat of the Florida setting, which is an atmosphere that I personally could really do without (I'm very much an all-four-seasons lady). Part of it, too, is due to the frustrating dearth of interesting, relatable minor characters—&, consequently, the frustrating presence of boring, unsympathetic ones—especially Deb, Dexter's foul-mouthed, anorexic-skinny stepsister, who is both badly acted by an over-emphatic Jennifer Carpenter & badly written into exactly the kind of "Loud & Obnoxious, Ergo Positive Female Character" archetype that drives me bananas.

Still, there's something deeper than setting or supporting actors, something stranger & skin-crawling-er & not quite right—& I do think it goes back to what I originally viewed as problematic, then wrote off as interesting & satirical: the fact that we end up rooting for, or believing in at all, a positively-represented mass-murderer.

Or—well—It is, in fact, indicative of my state of mind (& extreme personal interest in the subject) that I understand how "mass-muderer" is a misnomer for our death-dealing protagonist, despite the fact that he commits a massive amount of murder: technically speaking, while both serial killers & mass-murderers kill repeatedly & often, a serial killer is someone more methodical, more compulsive. Think Mickey & Mallory Knox from Natural Born Killers vs. Hannibal Lecter: the duo kill indiscriminately, constantly—even joyously—for the fuck of it, while the doctor is portrayed as particular, obsessive, & downright creepy. Dexter is crafted specifically to fit the Lecter model (who was himself, of course, modeled after certain big names in fatal American depravity—Fish, Gein, Gacy): he performs his killings in a ritualized setting (a plastic-coated room & victim); he collects souvenirs of the crime (blood drops on slides, hidden in a box behind his air conditioner); &, most importantly, he feels compelled from somewhere deep inside him—somewhere primal, uncontrollable—to do violence.

The basic backstory of this urge—intricacies of which are ever-unfolding, still to this season—goes something like this: once upon a time, young Dexter was abandoned inside one of those truck-trailer-storage-units with multiple dead bodies, left near-naked & alone in a vast pool of blood for some unthinkable amount of time. Because of this trauma, he now fetishizes blood & death to such a degree that he can only ever feel catharsis—part-spiritual, part-orgasmic, it seems—when plunging a Bowie knife into someone's chest. Harry, a policeman & Dexter's adoptive father, recognizes his son's violent tendencies &, rather than seek therapeutic help, trains him to kill (without a forensic trace) only those who really deserve it—that is, violent criminals whom the negligent Justice System lets back out on the street.

Thus, Dexter (italics or no) represents the culmination of two American-purported phenomena I find fascinating—specifically, the Platonic, idealized Serial Killer & the glorified Vigilante. The fact that he has achieved such popularity makes him a perfect point of study—& the fact that I find these issues here botched explains my uncharacteristic dislike for such a lauded crime show.

To begin: it seems that we as human beings love to look into the heart of Evil (especially we American human beings into the heart of a Serial Killer)—& that, at least in my experience, we do it for two simultaneous, if contradictory reasons. First & most obvious, there is a serious Othering that takes place: "Eew, how gross! How scary! How bizarre that these fucked up people feel compelled to do such terrible things! Thank God I'm not like that." It's a way to eschew our darker impulses by confronting them, then projecting them onto someone like Lecter or Patrick Bateman. Still, there is a way in which it's crucial that these evildoers are people, are sympathetic to us on that basic level; it's not nearly as interesting—or psychologically cathartic—to watch a lion maul a zoo attendant. Part of this pleasure in watching human depravity seems to stem from daring ourselves towards the darkness, examining up close the ever-dwindling thread—one cerebral chemical, one childhood mishap—that separates us from what we fear.

Take, for example, the case that gives me chill upon chill—one that I became a little obsessed with this past year, to catastrophically unproductive results—that of Jeffrey Dahmer. Though you've probably heard of Dahmer's many atrocities, here's a basic overview: he killed 17 young men, as far as we know, always after/as a result of pursuing them sexually. His intent, especially towards the end, was to create a "zombie" partner—someone who would (could) never leave him; he would perform haphazard lobotomies with hydrochloric acid on those whom he could lure back to his apartment. When these procedures inevitably went awry, he would dismember the bodies, keeping certain parts as trophies & even engaging in occasional cannibalism.

The case is horrifying. The man is horrifying. But—& please, please understand the trepidation with which I phrase this section—there is something tragic, something understandable about the root of his crimes: as he tells it, he bludgeoned his first victim to death because "the guy wanted to leave & I didn't want him to leave." Though no balanced, healthy person would ever respond as he did, I can only imagine that every person, balanced or no, has experienced this feeling of desperation as someone walks out the door. Moreover, Dahmer was gay in a time when homosexuality was still unacceptable to the mainstream; with societally-legitimized cause, he was afraid of being eternally Alone. Of course, of course—of course—the lengths to which he went—the unspeakable violence, the repulsive disregard for human life—are in no way sympathetic or forgivable, nor should they be. But there is something terrifying, revealing—something necessary about the extent, small though it may be, to which Dahmer is, at his core, relatable.

What Dexter does, though, is take this intense, complex sympathy & trivialize it, making it either a joke or a banality, depending upon the scene. The premise of the show, ultimately, seems to be, "Serial Killers: They're Just Like Us!"—almost as if we're watching a Discovery Channel special. The question of whether wrongdoers should be painted sympathetically is certainly an interesting one—an unavoidable one, I would say—but the approach that Dexter takes is ham-handed & odd, glossing over the soul-wrenching confusion that it takes to find oneself in Evil, to merge gently with the darkness while still keeping enough boundaries intact—preferring instead to assume our complicity on a very surface level & make a coy title sequence that portrays Dexter's everyday actions as latently violent, tongue always firmly in cheek.

However, it is important to remember that Dexter is not just a killer. Oh, no: he kills for Right; he kills for Justice; he kills only those who have killed—people unpunished for the suffering they have caused. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth—he represents the personified, self-interested Lethal Injection. & this seems to be an aspect of the show that most viewers who might be inclined to disagree with such policies (read: myself included) glossed over during the first couple episodes, just so relieved to have an easy excuse for our sympathy. It's okay that he kills people: they're bad people. It makes sense. If, though, we separate out these two issues—the sympathy & the killing of wrongdoers—we can see that Dexter is, on the one hand, a show that simplifies the relatability of serial killers to a clever premise & that, on the other, subtly promotes what is often seen as a conservative viewpoint: that killers deserve to die.

& this, I think, is where a good deal of my frustration comes from: the unquestioned glorification of vigilantism, which is itself such a bizarre, paradoxical issue, as it forces us to distinguish between Violence For Good & Violence For Evil—or even to recognize that such a distinction can be made. The killer who kills killers necessarily muddles in such hopeless ethical limbo that it seems almost impossible to render one a hero—& yet we do, constantly: with Batman, with The Boondock Saints, & any number of flashy action movies starring Men Outside the Law.

Because, as I see it, there is something inherently American about the character of the Vigilante. He's in our second amendment, clutched desperately in the hands of Southern Tradition—& just as equally in the dreadlocks & piercings of our Anarchists, tattooed limbs & stolen clothes. In a country founded on rebelling against authority, whose basic tenets include a clause allowing its citizens to Revolt, it seems only right that we be skeptical of government, ready always with our Well Organized Militia for some Violent Upheaval. In less hyperbolic terms, it seems especially encouraged in this country to never let Authority go unchecked, to be aware of & vocal about the ways in which Big Government's brand of Justice is inefficient & impractical & screwing us all over—& the next logical step, of course, is to take action.

However, most of us stay home & mind our own business—maybe write a letter or two, hoist a harmless picket sign—because we recognize that we don't live in Gotham City, that we don't have a cartoonish Bad Guy who will take too long making his dramatic world-ending speech. Most of us, in fact, are not familiar in any way with serious, repetitive violent crime; we leave that to the fiction-makers, again projecting out a piece of our inner darkness, our Revenge, this time onto the superheroes & rogue hitmen.

Perhaps, then, this is why Dexter is so very popular, even when riding on such a shaky premise: he represents an acceptable scapegoat for our violent desires by rendering them justifiable, making it okay to root for his compulsion, his sickness to take another life. Unlike the complex & frightening humanity of the actual serial killer, Dexter offers us the illusion of guiltless sympathy because he is Right; he allows us to take pleasure both in senseless violence & in revenge—those primal instincts lurking somewhere behind our bones—free of any ethical or intellectual constraints. Ultimately, operating on this level of thoughtlessness, though momentarily cathartic, just leaves me feeling icky.

There is a reason we leave vigilantes confined to unrealistic, heightened fiction; when we attempt to modernize or explain them, as far as we can tell, they end up looking like Dexter: compulsive killers, blood-spattered & smiling.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

More remixes—this one particularly excellent. This song is one of those ones you almost can't not like—however you may feel about Passion Pit or Wispy Voiced Electronic Music in general, & I would assert that this remix makes it, in fact, far, far cooler.

Furthermore: through some Random Insomniac Clicking, I discovered this free EP of some great electronic-y tracks: remixes, mash-ups, straight techno, including a version of Das Racist's infamous Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell. Enjoy.

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