“We are all good and we are all evil.”
It’s not exactly sound Biblical theology, but neither is it totally false. After all, many protestant Christians affirm both total depravity and common grace. But somehow I don’t think that’s how the writers of Showtime’s Dexter intend the statement to be taken. Dexter after all is a crime dramedy about a forensics specialist with the Miami PD who has a particularly gruesome late night hobby: serial killing. This theme, that we are all good and evil, is a recurring one throughout the series. It makes for some interesting television, but the message itself seems flawed when we consider who is communicating it.
Dexter Morgan is the lovable yet unsettling serial killer and main star of the show. The plot line revolves around his struggle to deal with his internal demons and to hide them from his closest friends and family. That story is compelling to watch and disturbing. But that story often gets mixed in with the related point that like Dexter, we all have masks that we wear. Repeatedly Dexter’s voice-over reminds us that he’s not the only one wearing a mask. First and foremost are nearly all of his victims, who though they appear like normal and decent people, are actually secret murderers themselves. Take for example the car salesman who rapes and murders potential female buyers; or look at the junk yard manager who holds refugees and illegal immigrants for ransom. But beyond those “bad guys” there are the other regulars on the show who wear their own masks.
Deborah, Dexter’s sister, hides her low self-esteem behind a veneer of bravado and a foul mouth that boasts of confidence. Dexter’s boss is struggling to hide her career mishaps since she accidentally landed in the position of lieutenant. Then there is Dexter’s co-workers who each respectively hide their divorce or their military background. In short, Dexter would have us believe that we are not all so very different from him. We all have our demons and our dark places. We all wear our masks and conceal who we really are. We all, like him, play the game of polite society.
The point is true at one level. Often we do wear masks and keep the skeletons in our closets. None of us is perfect and none of us wants everyone to know everything about us, our pasts, and our failures. Yet this point is largely lost when we consider that the one communicating it is a serial killer. Of course, no sin is worse than another in the eyes of God. That is to say we are all sinners and if you have broken even one part of the law, the Scriptures say, then you have broken them all. Jesus even highlights how our view of sin and his differ, and we are far worse than we think (if you lust it’s the same as adultery; if you hate it’s the same as murder). But somehow a serial killer’s attempts to communicate this point actually diminishes its truthfulness. In fact this theme gets communicated at points throughout the show in a way that it starts to feel preachy and overbearing. And it’s not the kind of preaching that pricks at sin in your heart. It’s the kind of preaching that feels pretentious and self-righteous.
I actually like the show, though it should be said that it is not for the squeamish or the easily terrified. It also contains excessive foul language and an occasional nude scene. Nonetheless Dexter is a brilliantly crafted dark comedy. But that one theme just doesn’t seem to fit with the story. I’ll be the first to admit that we are indeed all sinners. But while Dexter is telling me that I have a speck in my eye, he’s got a massive log sticking out of his own and I just can’t get past that to hear his moral counsel.