The Death of Independent Dexter

By February 16th, 2011

As Dexter lover’s avidly await season six, let’s wish a happy belated 40th birthday to Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall and dive into the possible death of an independent Dexter with The Psychology of Dexter contributing writer, Stephen D. Livingston.


My essay “On Becoming a Real Boy” discussed issues of social development and strategic presentation of self. I was excited to see that the latest season of Dexter promised to explore these complex themes, but admittedly a bit disappointed by the overall viewing experience.

In “The Pool Guy,” an award-winning episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, the neurotic and duplicitous George Costanza is worried that Susan, his steady girlfriend, has begun frequently socializing with Elaine. George acts differently around Susan, presenting to her only the most desirable aspects of his self, and fears that he will have to constantly hide his true nature if Susan joins his gang of close pals. As he explains to Jerry:

“If she is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza, as you know him, ceases to exist! You see, right now, I have ‘Relationship’ George, but there is also ‘Independent’ George. That’s the George you know, the George you grew up with: movie George, coffee shop George, liar George, bawdy George … And he’s dying, Jerry! If Relationship George walks through this door, he will kill Independent George! A George divided against itself cannot stand!”

Whereas George Costanza worked hard to prevent his social worlds from colliding, Dexter Morgan searches for a way to unify them. Dexter yearns to find associates who can see behind his mask without repulsion. Long-time viewers will recall Dexter’s clear delight in season two, when Lila West seemed like his sociopathic soul mate, and in season three, when Miguel Prado briefly became his apprentice.

In season five, Dexter finds Lumen Pierce. Lumen struggles to avenge herself; to put herself back together again; to pick up her life where she left off; to restore her self-concept to what it was prior to her kidnapping, torture, and rape. When Jordan Chase and his cronies are dead, there will be nobody left to threaten her self-image or remind her of those horrible days in captivity:

LUMEN: Tonight, I felt this, like, this … peace. And it’s because he’s dead, and I know that it’s not going to last. And when it wears off, I’m going to have to find the rest of them … Because that’s the only way that I’ll find that peace again. I don’t even have a name for what I’m feeling!

DEXTER: [voiceover] I do. The Dark Passenger.

(“Everything is Illumenated”)

Dexter also experiences peace after a kill, but his killings do not have a similarly clear endpoint. He cannot, even with Herculean effort, put Rita or his own mother back together again; those visions of family are forever shattered. Dexter has killed approximately 70 times over two decades, and yet he still does not feel whole. We can conclude that Dexter’s Dark Passenger is on board for the long haul.

What Dexter failed to recognize, then, is that Lumen’s Dark Passenger was merely a hitchhiker, one with full intention to hop off her train of thought at a specific destination. Lumen wanted to regain feelings of control, safety, freedom, and agency in her life; we saw how the threats and denials from her captors especially affected Lumen’s emotional state. Lumen’s desire to kill the men who hurt her was motivated primarily by an attempt to again experience feelings of peace, something she felt would not persist until her victimizers were dead.

I was disappointed to see that, by the end of the season, there was little in the way of new character development for Dexter. We learned very little about him that wasn’t already clear. He wants real attachments to others; we knew that by the end of season two. He cares deeply about his children, and feels guilty for their mother’s death; we knew that by the end of season four. He kills for his own sadistic pleasure as much as, if not more than, for the sake of justice; we knew that from the very first episode of the series.

In fairness, there were some new ideas presented this season. The most interesting, to me, were the tantalizing hints that Dexter’s vision of Harry and Dexter’s Dark Passenger are one and the same.

Consider Dexter’s first kill of the season, where he beat another man to death for the sin of callousness. Dexter lamented the fact that Harry would not appear to him after Rita’s death (“Harry? Where are you now, when I really need you?!”). He makes an apology, presumably to the real Harry, for getting an innocent killed–“I never meant to hurt her,” he says immediately before striking the first blow–but this kill is ultimately motivated by rage; it is a sacrifice to his Dark Passenger. The vision of Harry appears immediately after the brutal killing, gently excusing it–“That’s the first human thing I’ve seen you do since she died, Dexter,”–and encouraging Dexter to return to the cover of family. (“My Bad”)

Just before Dexter first searches the home of Boyd Fowler, Harry appears and softly chides him for putting his hobbies above his children. Dexter explains, “Being on the hunt keeps me sharp, focused. Thus, the better killer I am, the better father.” Harry nods, and puts up no further argument, as if he were simply testing Dexter’s resolve to commit murder. (“Hello, Bandit”)

As Dexter prepares a kill room for Fowler, Harry recommends that the murder occur after darkness falls:

DEXTER: I won’t make any mistakes. I’m following the Code. Are you going to help me or not?

HARRY: I only want to help you, Dex. This is a big room. I hope you brought enough plastic.

(“Practically Perfect”)

And after Dexter discovers Lumen and tends to her wounds, Harry criticizes his sloppiness:

HARRY: You almost botched Boyd’s kill … And now you’ve got her. What’s the first rule of the Code?

DEXTER: ‘Never kill an innocent.’

HARRY: ‘Don’t get caught.’ So what’s your plan here? Nurse her back to health so that she can go to the police? … You didn’t do this to her, Dex. She’s not your responsibility.

(“Beauty and the Beast”)

Not exactly the counsel we’d expect from Dexter’s supposedly human side. But if Harry is the Dark Passenger assuming a psychologically pleasant disguise, then this sort of practical solipsism makes perfect sense. In their review of the research literature on command hallucinations, Braham, Trower, and Birchwood (2004) noted that compliance with the hallucination increases with personal recognition of the hallucinated entity and attitudes toward that entity. Dangerous commands are more likely to be followed if the commanding entity is perceived as benevolent. Harry, as Dexter’s rescuer, mentor, and primary authority figure, would fit this bill quite well.

I would be pleased to see a firmer tugging on this psychological thread during season six. The multiplicity of self, with its resultant inner conflicts, is a rich source for compelling narratives. We may yet discover that our (anti)hero is indeed a Dexter divided against himself.

Braham, L.G., Trower, P., & Birchwood, M. (2004). Acting on command hallucinations and dangerous behavior: A critique of the major findings in the last decade. Clinical Psychology Review, 24(5), 513—528.


Thanks, Stephen!

Read an excerpt (or purchase!) Stephen’s essay “On Becoming a Real Boy” from The Psychology of Dexter.

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