Thursday, November 13, 2008

Where the Truth Lies

Hey, guys, this post isn't about the election!

Once again, in thinking about Dexter (yes, I already said I was obsessed), I am falling into the murder-as-metaphor trap. I have said it before and I'll say it again: murder, like rape, cannot exist solely as a metaphor.

Yet it's also true that if something isn't also a metaphor, or at least symbolic, why make art about it? Writing down every single thing that happens to you every single day is not good art. Reaching out using things that happen to you every day, making connections between things, *is* one version of art. Murder does happen every day; it may even be true that murders committed by serial killers happen every day (though I'm not sure about that one). As long as you also take in the emotional reality of murder—which Dexter mostly does, particularly with the character of Miguel Prado this season—murder is kind of required to also be a metaphor, or symbolic, to be part of good art.

And an interesting twist with Dexter is that, while murder is in some ways the center of its reality, and it definitely makes murder something real—our protagonist is a serial killer, the bulk of the show takes place at the Homicide division of the Miami Metro Police Department, where most of our other favorite characters work—it's not precisely a show about murder. For the most part, it's about the conflict between Dexter, for whom not just the existence of murder but the act of committing murder is a constant reality, and the other people in his world, Deb and Rita and Angel and Masuka, for whom it is not. It is about the tension of trying to be something you aren't, and how that effort may actually be able to make you what you thought you weren't, and how people can have genuine, moving, life-altering interactions with something that isn't real.

Dexter is about fiction.

The episode All in the Family began to explore this concept, but for me it didn't get at all aspects. It got at it for Dexter, the character, as an actor (not Michael C. Hall, but Dexter himself acting)—the notion that he tries so hard to feel, pretends so skilfully to feel, that for all intents and purposes it happens. Silvana once cited to me an interview with a leading actor in August: Osage County, who explained that doing such a play was exhausting because "your body doesn't know you're lying." On the show, Dexter is reaching that point. He doesn't know what's true about his relationship with Rita and her children; he doesn't know if what he's doing with Angel and Masuka has, in fact, been friendship. He knows they believe it to be, and as a (somewhat unconventional) sociopath he'd prefer on some level to think he's smarter than they, but nevertheless they continue to have a relationship, an engagement with one another; Dexter has to put on the performance so constantly that the performance is an integral component of who he is.

(Which is another point where murder is not simply a metaphor. We are taught as a society that to take another person's life effectively ends yours, prevents you from being defined as a human being. Procedural dramas like Law and Order examine motivations at a mechanical level, but have neither the time nor the real inclination to delve into the fact that murderers have lives, before and often after they kill people; because the procedural show is simply about courts and justice, murderers are ultimately defined by being murderers alone. While certainly one cannot make the argument that Dexter is not A TV Show About a Serial Killer—particularly in light of Showtime's fucking heinous advertising campaign—you can't show weeks and weeks of murders, murders, nothing but murders. You need a life. You need context. Dexter figures that out for himself as much as the audience does.)

Dexter goes beyond even that, though, in the depth at which it develops its other characters. At the beginning of Season 2 Dexter's sister Deb, recovering from a relationship with a man very similar to Dexter (though she doesn't know about Dexter), says to Rita, formerly a victim of abuse, that "what he [the boyfriend or Rita's husband] had to offer wasn't real. But the way he made you feel about yourself? That was real." (I'm quoting that from memory; might not be exact.) I'm in love with Deb, but even if I weren't this would apply to the whole show.

Rita is honestly in love with Dexter; Deb honestly loves and counts on her brother for support, life-saving, all that good stuff. For both of them, that is the truth of their world. Because my take on the show tends to be very Deb-centric, I can think about how deeply destroyed Deb would be (wow, that sounds Dextertastic) if she found out the truth about her brother, and she would be, which is one of the stunning dramatic tensions of the show. But it's also not the only truth. That relationship is there. There's a lot Deb doesn't know about Dexter and as such she doesn't have the exclusive right to define what the relationship is, but nor does Dexter. Dexter is a sociopath and a serial killer with or without her, but who he is with her, whatever is hidden, is something too. And it doesn't matter whether he is fictional—whether he is a fictional character on a TV show, or whether the Dexter that Deb knows is "real" or not.

Fiction changes people's lives. To use a meta-example, I as a human being have a relationship with Dexter, the show, at the moment. It has an effect on what I think, how I feel. The show is a work of fiction. That relationship is not any less substantive because the show is fiction; it is in fact one of the more substantive relationships in my New York life at the moment. I consent that at one level that's pathetic; however, it's only pathetic viewed from the outside. Something real is changing in me because of the way I think about and react to this show. Something real changes in Deb because of who Dexter is in her life.

Dexter is about why we have good novels, good movies, good plays, good TV shows. Dexter is about acting, writing fiction, directing to create imaginary worlds. It goes back to the quote from Russell Banks I cited a long time ago: "Knowledge of the facts of [the character]'s life and death changes nothing in the world. Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives—no, especially wholly invented lives—deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself." The book can change the world, whether or not it matters to the book.

And Dexter can change the world, whether or not it matters to Dexter. He is even more ambiguous, being, although sociopathic, human, and as such with the possibility of things effecting and changing him, too. I've never heard that sociopaths were stagnant, just that they have no conscience (though all psychiatric experts are free to correct me if I'm wrong). Either way, Dexter's not a traditional sociopath. He's doing what I've always claimed is essential in actors and writers: committing to know, one way and another, what he doesn't know. Sometimes it works.

So to me, Dexter is not only about murder and social ethics (I'm not one who by nature condones or wishes for vigilantism, though time spent on Television Without Pity shows me that many are the Dexter viewers who do), it is about exactly why and how fiction is true. To reference and argue with Atwood's Oryx and Crake again, not real cannot only tell us about real, it can become real. It can be real. Dexter is my favorite show currently on television because it addresses, really addresses, the nuances of that possibility.


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