Rationalizing Dexter

By December 16th, 2010 2 Comments

The season five finale of Dexter is behind us, but (thankfully) we’ll continue to share some thoughts from The Psychology of Dexter contributors over the next few weeks.

Today, we have Wind Goodfriend‘s guest post.

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In my chapter of The Psychology of Dexter, written with co-author Chase Barrick, we argued that Dexter is the reigning king of Freudian defense mechanisms. For those readers who haven’t read the chapter or who didn’t take Psych 101 in college, Freud argued that “defense mechanisms” are ways that our minds deceive ourselves to avoid stress, trauma, or anxiety. If we have a memory we can’t deal with, we repress it. If we can’t handle things like an adult, we act like a child, a mechanism called regression. When we idolize another person, from whom we want support and validation, it’s identification.

Dexter’s focal defense mechanism is rationalization, which is when we tell ourselves that our bad behaviors are acceptable–moral, even–if we can come up with a way to justify them. In seasons 1-4, Dexter uses rationalization in practically every episode, as a way of convincing himself that killing is ok, as long as he’s only killing bad people.

Does this tendency continue in season 5? The answer is a complicated yes. It does seem that Dexter uses rationalization to justify his actions. He continues to tell himself–and his new partner, Lumen–that their actions are moral because they are preventing serial rapists and killers from hurting additional, future victims. Dexter is so good at this that he convinces Lumen to join him in his dark quest (or, potentially the reason Dex is drawn to Lumen is the other way around; her desire to take revenge on her rapists validates Dexter’s views that the actions are reasonable).

However, season 5 presents a more complicated Dexter in that his motivation has changed to being the best father possible for his young son, Harrison. In the season opener, “My Bad,” Dexter resigns himself to having human emotions when he admits that he loved Rita, and that he loves Harrison. In “Practically Perfect,” his grief counselor tells Dexter that the best way to move forward is to do something for himself. This coalesces in “Hello Bandit,” in which he explicitly decides that “the better killer I am, the better father.”

Dexter’s justification has a new, fertile land on which to grow. He can now use rationalization not just in an abstract sense (making the world, in general, a better place); he can convince himself that his actions are making the world a better place for his son. He is protecting his son from all the bad people in the world who could do him harm in the future.

Is this simply a convenient excuse for Dex to continue what he would have been doing anyway? Probably. Does it actually make him a better father? Probably not. But it continues the legacy of why we all love Dexter–because we are rooting for him to do it. We’re on his side–he’s the protagonist of our story. At some point, we’ve all wanted to kill someone to protect a loved one; it’s just that Dexter actually gets to do it. As audience members, we even get to play the at-home game: we rationalize why we’re on his side.

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Feel free to purchase Wind’s essay, “The Dark Defenders.”

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2 Comments On "Rationalizing Dexter"

  1. millie21

    “Dexter is so good at this that he convinces Lumen to join him in his dark quest (or, potentially the reason Dex is drawn to Lumen is the other way around; her desire to take revenge on her rapists validates Dexter’s views that the actions are reasonable).

    This is not accurate. Dexter has never rationalized the monster he claims is inside. He is full of self-loathing and steers clear of human connections (when possible) for fear that others will see the monster. He does not rationalize his killing. He has never said anything about his killings being okay because he saves more lives that he takes. One thing that is fairly consistent is Dexter’s ability to see everything bad about himself.

    With Lumen, Dexter found a person that saw his dark passenger/monster and she did not run away. She stayed and they grew closer. However, it is a gross mischaracterization to say Dexter used his rationalization skills to convince Lumen to stay and “join him in his dark quest.” Dexter asked Lumen to leave several times. He even went so far as to purchase her a one way plane ticket home, but Lumen would not leave.

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  2. WindGoodfriend

    Thanks for your interest in my post! Of course, I completely disagree with you (and I think the writers of the show would, as well).

    You stated, “Dexter has never rationalized the monster he claims is inside” and, “He does not rationalize his killing. He has never said anything about his killings being okay because he saves more lives that he takes.”

    In fact, there are many, many times when Dexter tells himself that what he’s doing is for the greater good, and that following the code is really putting a stop to bad people (which, thus, makes his own actions allowable). I can identify him doing this in almost every episode. He quite literally DOES tell himself that he’s saving more lives (for example, consider the conversation with Doakes in which he defends his actions). In the episode “Popping Cherry,” he tells himself: “Killing will serve a purpose–otherwise it’s just plain murder.” Clearly he’s rationalizing – he sees a difference between what he’s doing and the people he’s killing – and that difference IS his rationalization. There’s just no other way to see it (in my opinion).

    In fact, I’d say that your perception is the “gross mischaracterization” (although I wouldn’t have used those words unless you used them first). I encourage you to read my book chapter to see the full arguments. Thanks again!

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