Decoding America’s favorite psychopath, Showtime’s Dexter

The sub-text of the award-winning cable TV series has a lot to say about a society that bred Enron, Dick Cheney and Real Housewives

MICHELLE MORRA-CARLISLE: “Sociopaths can’t feel psychic pain but they can feel physical pain,” says narrator Dexter as on-screen Dexter plucks a hair – with gusto – from the head of a likely serial rapist and killer. It’s for a routine DNA test but the viewer, along with Dexter, feels pleasure when the bad guy says, “Ow!”

The bad guy somehow is not Dexter Morgan, hence the mastery of this Showcase series now in its fifth season. A man with an irrepressible urge to kill, Dexter (played by Michael C. Hall) is not an antagonist for the hero to catch. He is the hero.

From Enron and Wall Street graft to the White House — both occupants on the inside like Dick Cheney and crashers from the outside like the reality-show Salahis — psychopathic behavior in the world around us seems to be at a collective high. Dexter serves as a sympathetic benchmark for the mental miasma in our midst.

The show’s creators have rigged it so that we feel for, even cheer for Dexter, and we’ve taken the bait. Sure he’s a serial killer, but that’s okay — he only kills other serial killers. Not only is he not so bad, he’s an unsung hero. The bad guys Dexter kills fit the classic criteria of psychopaths or sociopaths (terms often used interchangeably). This begs the question: Does Dexter?

Whether or not he is a true psychopath has become a favorite online debate as well as the subject of a new book, The Psychology of Dexter, edited by Bella DePaulo, PHD. Medical professionals and fans tackle a question even Dexter himself can’t seem to answer: Just how void is his conscience, really?

Bad vs. Ugly

Dexter’s victims are aggressive, have a complete disregard for the wellbeing of others and feel no remorse for their crimes. Their whole world revolves around filling their own urges.

Right from the first episode Dexter describes himself as unfeeling but confesses he has a soft spot for his sister, Deb (played by Hall’s off-screen wife Jennifer Carpenter). To us he presents himself as a fraud when entering a relationship with wife Rita (Julie Benz), but finds himself capable of feeling – feeling sexually aroused by her, feeling tender towards her, even feeling protective of her and her children. This cuddle-bear of a father and quirky blood spatter analyst is the Dexter we grow so fond of, even though his antics are interspersed with the occasional “fix” where he quells his addiction by driving a stake through the heart of a less lovable killer.

True psychopaths are not lovable. According to Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, widely used as a diagnosis tool, they lack in compassion and empathy. They can’t live in social harmony. They are aggressive, grandiose, narcissistic, socially deviant, impulsive and irresponsible.

Dexter  is the first to admit he is low on emotional IQ, yet he is anything but grandiose. Like a psychopath, he gets antsy when too much time between satisfying his urges. But he is not a true social deviant. He is not sexually promiscuous or perverted. And losing his wife to a slaughter by one of his victims he blames himself – exhibiting something pretty close to remorse. This season, he even sloppily forgets his me-me code to help another person (the new woman in his life, played by Julia Stiles).

We’ve seen worse. Canadians recently got a glimpse into the mind of David Russell Williams, a murderer, serial rapist and army colonel convicted of 88 crimes and dealt two life sentences in October, 2010. Over the years his 82 home invasions progressed from stealing and photographing himself in little girls’ underwear to multiple rape and, finally, murder. Aside from the fact that Dexter Morgan wouldn’t wear a training bra, he also would never awaken a woman asleep with her baby with a blow to the head and then rape her.

The show couldn’t work if Dexter met all the criteria of a psychopath. Viewers accept him as borderline, however, or at the very least a narcissist like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Like them, Dexter is different from a true psychopath because he identifies with a cause, which he also conveniently uses to justify his aggressive means to an end.

Not all psychopaths are serial killers – some simply terrorize or leach off their families or are mini-dictators within their businesses. Nor are all serial killers psychopaths. To be a serial killer and a true psychopath, as well as a beloved TV hero, probably wouldn’t fly. As yet, audiences still want justification for being deliciously entertained by brutal violence.

It’s scary when the real-world psychopaths among us, to use Robert Hare’s phrase, are scarier than a TV serial killer who chloroforms his victims, wraps them in plastic and carves them up with hunting knives.

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3 Responses to “Decoding America’s favorite psychopath, Showtime’s Dexter”

  1. It’s very telling that at this moment in history we are mesmerized by serial killers, rapists and murderers. People like this have always existed but now we can glorify them in TV shows and movies. Just shows how sick we really are as a society and how far we need to go to reach true enlightenment. Personally I’m really tired of watching movies and TV shows where women are always the victims.

  2. Hey Robert, the point of Dexter, if you watch the show, is two-fold:

    It drills down to display a text-book profile of a psychopath.

    Remember that book and movie, Silence of the Lambs? There’s a memorable line by Dr. Chilton at the Baltimore super-max pscyh prison: “He’s a monster, a pure psychopath — so rare to catch one alive.”

    Silence of the Lambs, which *did* glorify its erudite protagonist, got that wrong on a couple of counts: Hannibal Lecter does not conform to the DMS IV description of a psychopath; he’s just crazy. Also, psychopaths are not rare. If I stepped into the financial district and had a gun, I could shoot a bullet through 10 of them in a row. 1 out of every 100 people we know would score clinical on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist.

    The brilliance of Dexter is that it displays a clinically-correct depiction of a psychopath who happens to have crossed over into violent crime (most do not). Most psychopaths are like the author here describes: the Sahali White House crashers or other Real Housewives.

    And that points to the second service that Dexter provides: This guy looks sympathetic next to the real-world figures who make news every day, including Bush 43, Dick Cheney, Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff . . . thrill-seeking egoists who display a stunning lack of empathy and conscience and leave a trail of wreckage for others to clean up.

    FOOTNOTE: Dexter, through another prism, is an update of the Charles Bronson vigilante — and the vast majority of his victims are men. The new season introduces the actress Julia Stiles (Bourne Identity) as a confederate who Dexter has to *reign* in!

  3. Dear Michelle; I myself have wanted to write about this highly-psychological show that has been ignored by the psych community.

    It’s a very tricky subject to write about, and I applaud you for going head-long into it — and making the associations you did with the borderline sociopathic society around us.

    Incredibly, a week after this post, the show Dexter made your thesis explicit. The show opens with the lead character, Dexter, in a Self Help seminar styled after Est, Tony Robbins and some of the people you see on Oprah.

    Dexter’s opening line: ‘I’ve never been in a place where so many people made me feel like I’m normal’.

    Exactly: we live in such a mad, mad, mad world that it even drowns out psychopaths and people suffering from borderline personality disorder.

    And more to the point: They are increasingly in positions of power or a morally-neutered media spotlight.