Guest Post: Dexter’s Work-Family Balance by Morrie Mullins

By February 22nd, 2011

For another Dexter fix, read about the work-family balance of Dexter‘s characters with The Psychology of Dexter contributing writer Morrie Mullins.

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In my essay for the collection, “The Scientist and the Serial Killer: A Study in Work-Life Balance,” I examined three perspectives on work-family balance as reflected in seasons one-four of Dexter. Season four, as most of us know by now, culminated in the death of Rita, Dexter’s wife, at the hands of Arthur Mitchell/Trinity. Season five picks up at the moment where the prior season left off, with Dexter’s discovery of his wife’s body and his infant son sitting in a pool of blood nearby.

If anything, season five may provide more opportunities for psychological analysis than the other four combined. Dexter’s emergent “human” side, the various reactions to the situation and the way characters progress through the grieving process (a la Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages), issues with Astor and Cody, the violence that finally led to Dexter’s realizations about himself–and that’s just the first episode! In keeping with the theme from my prior essay, though, I’m going to return to Miami Metro Homicide, Dexter’s workplace, and pick up with the ideas that I introduced before. The way the people who presumably know Dexter the best react to Rita’s death; the variety of ways they try to cope again allow us to consider how people manage the conflicting demands of work and family, and how complicated these become when we work so much with a group of people that they may become as much of a family as the people we go home to at night.

The reactions, early on, are many and varied, but the one that captured my interest is that of LaGuerta. Just hours after her marriage to Batista, where Dexter stood as their witness, she finds herself dealing with the brutal killing of one of their own and hands the investigation off to the FBI. “Rita’s one of ours,” she says. “She’s family” (“My Bad,” 5-1). Ceding jurisdiction to the FBI is a means of creating psychological distance, specifically between the work that she and the people of Miami Metro must do and the feelings she has about the death of someone close to all of them.

In terms of the three perspectives I talked about in the essay, LaGuerta is attempting to create segmentation, to draw a hard line between work and family. The problem, of course, is that she is doing this at work, in an environment where not asking questions about homicides goes against every established norm, to say nothing of the instincts of the detectives she oversees.

Consistent with the presentation of work-family balance throughout the series, LaGuerta’s attempts at segmentation begin to break down almost immediately. Quinn and Masuka obtain a copy of Dexter’s 911 call and share it with others at Miami Metro. Quinn learns about Rita’s kiss with Elliot, and Dexter’s subsequent reaction, and begins asking questions. The detectives of Miami Metro continue to engage in precisely the behaviors their jobs normally require of them, despite having been warned off the case and having no jurisdiction.

The question then becomes, is this actually spillover? LaGuerta describes Rita as “family,” but what are the boundaries on “work” and “family” for the people with whom Dexter works?

A full analysis of this question goes way beyond what I can fit in this blog entry, and could probably be a book all its own. Why? Because understanding the boundaries between work and family requires understanding the psychology of each individual character. What kinds of attachments do they form? What are their individual expectations of people in the workplace? Why do they do the jobs they do, to begin with? There are a lot of questions about workplace psychology that have never been asked, because they require us to wander back and forth across the line between clinical psychology and the industrial-organizational psychology disciplines of work motivation and job satisfaction. Interestingly, these areas don’t tend to inform one another much (though it’s noteworthy that most disciplines within psychology don’t tend to read one another’s work–and more’s the shame).1

That being said, it’s clear just considering the reactions of the four primary non-Morgan members of Miami Metro Homicide that no clear shared understanding of the difference between “work” and “family” exists.

LaGuerta, despite having gotten married in her office, wants to draw a hard line, to keep the investigation about someone whom she views as family from interfering with work, and to keep the workplace relationships that exist from interfering with the investigation. Procedurally, this might even be the best thing to do (though as a psychologist rather than a law enforcement official, I won’t pretend to know the answer to that!). Unfortunately, living in Miami, her line ends up drawn in the sand.

Batista and Masuka, from the beginning, seem willing to do their job and follow established protocols. Was Rita a friend? Certainly. Was she family? Maybe. Do they have a job to do? Emphatically, YES. Here, we might actually make an argument for segmentation; Batista and Masuka both had feelings for Rita, but are willing to put those aside in order to do their jobs. They will grieve (each in his own way, to be sure…), but they are willing to do what has to be done, prior to LaGuerta’s decision to cede jurisdiction.

Quinn, then, becomes the most complicated of the bunch. He investigates despite LaGuerta’s orders, brings to light information on Rita and Elliot, and shows little sense that the people with whom he works are “family” at all. The message his actions send (early on, at least), is that he has a job to do, and he will do it, and if there are people who feel like he shouldn’t be asking the questions he’s asking because of who he’s asking them about, that’s their problem. Here, we have an even harder “segmentation” line being drawn; work is work, period. These people are not Quinn’s family. Rita was not family. She was a nice person, probably, who ended up a murder victim, and Quinn’s job is to find murderers and put them away.

What makes the people who work with us into family? The men and women of Miami Metro don’t give us enough data to answer that question. What they do give us, though, is a very realistic sense of the extent to which a variety of factors, both individual difference and situation-based, may color our perceptions of the people with whom we work, and where, exactly, each of us draws our own line. Watching how all of this plays out–how the characters develop, how their different perspectives and approaches reflect different assumptions about the underlying nature of “work” and “family”–is interesting. Dramatically and psychologically, this conflict is the type of thing that continues to make Dexter into compelling television.

1. In a short 2002 article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Daniel Gilbert asked the question, “Are psychology’s tribes ready to form a nation?” Although Gilbert focused primarily on the intersection of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, the issue of researchers in different areas of psychology not paying much attention to things outside their areas of expertise is notable in many areas.

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Thanks Morrie!

Read an excerpt (or purchase!) Morrie’s essay “The Scientist and the Serial Killer” from The Psychology of Dexter.

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