Dexter: In One Episode, Mental Health Skyrockets

By December 1st, 2010

Here’s a guest post from Jeremy Clyman whose Psychology of Dexter essay is “The Angels on His Shoulder.” Enjoy!

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In my chapter of the recently released Psychology of Dexter I focused on the positive people in Dexter’s environment and how those voices helped shape an increasingly accurate, adaptive, and optimistic inner world for the lovable serial killer. Season after season, Dexter has had to fight off devilish voices (stemming from traumatic experiences and relationships with dysfunctional others), and inch slowly and circuitously toward a mentally healthier life.

Finally, in season five, episode nine (Teenage Wasteland) we have a tipping point of sorts. The good kind. Dexter’s step-daughter, Astor, is back in town and she’s not doing so well. She’s drinking, she’s shop-lifting, she’s talking back with a rebellious attitude … and she’s only 12 years old. Imagine how she’ll be when adolescence hits full stride. It’s not looking pretty. But Dexter patiently sets aside these troubling developments and eventually discovers that Astor’s new friend, Olivia, endures physical abuse at the hands of her father.

Now THIS is a problem that Dexter knows how to solve (versus the problem of connecting with Astor). He teaches the abusive father a lesson. More specifically, Dexter methodically scares and beats him up in a dark alley way while outlining an agenda in which the dad is out of Olivia’s life forever (let’s hope, anyway). But this good deed is not the tipping point … it is the precipitant for the tipping point.

After the fight, Dexter gets into his car. Harry is waiting and says, “I don’t believe it!” Just as Dexter and every watching viewer is about to place his or her life savings on Harry lecturing about the dangers of beating up non-murderers in public places, we get a surprising twist.

Harry says, “I’m proud of you. You protected Astor. You put yourself out there for another person. I had no idea you had that in you. I underestimated you, assumed you were a monster when you were capable of so much more. If only I’d seen that earlier … I might not have led you down this path.”

Now, Harry is, of course, merely a reflection of Dexter’s own self-view. What comes out of Harry’s mouth is really what Dexter tells himself, but we know that when it comes out of the imaginary Harry’s mouth, Dexter’s ears are perked. The content carries weight. It will be believed. And implicit in Harry’s praise is a re-evaluation of the long-held maladaptive assumptions Dexter has harbored about self, others, and the world.  Dexter can now begin to believe that he is “normal,” that he is capable of loving and connecting with others, and that he deserves to be a respected father.

Observe Dexter’s face closely during this moment (slow-forward on the remote). There is an emotional shift behind his eyes as the revelation sinks in — a mixture of confusion, guilt, and excitement seem to emerge as Dexter simultaneously processes all that might not have been and all that could still be.

The proof is in the pudding. A few scenes later, Dexter and Astor connect with more meaning and vulnerability then they ever had before. Dexter tells Astor how proud he is of her (emotional expression is never an easy one for Dexter). Moreover, he trusts her enough to confess that Lumen is a friend and not just a tenant … and then the big finale comes. Astor asks if his relationship with Lumen helps him to cope with the loss of Rita. Dexter’s default mode in such emotionally-charged interpersonal moments has been to suppress his true thoughts, withdraw emotionally, and seamlessly fabricate some half-truth that leaves everyone alienated and knowing it.

Not this time.

The revelatory look from a few scenes ago passes over his face once again as he turns to Astor and says, “I love you!” Dexter looks calm and seems to trust his instincts. Indeed, they are validated. His adoring proclamation startles Astor but in a pleasing way, and their relationship irrevocably shifts a few degrees toward the intimacy end of the relational spectrum.  Astor smiles and asks Dexter to visit more in the future.

Dexter is now testing the newer, more positive assumptions about himself and it’s leading to an adaptive, happiness-inducing cycle in which loving words are met with accepting actions that, in turn, induce even more loving words and accepting actions.

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Thanks, Jeremy.

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