Dexter: An Analysis of the Representations of Law, Justice, and Criminality

Updated on December 4, 2017
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Asteriaa writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

Dexter Morgan Played by Michael C. Hall

Dexter represents the law, justice, and criminality using ideologies such as the noble cause corruption and vigilantism. Conservative ideologies and the conflict between good and evil found in melodrama are challenged through blurring the lines between good and evil. Vigilantism and noble cause corruption are depicted as a means to get justice on criminals who are not punished by the law. Misrecognition is used to challenge the concept of good, evil, and justice regarding the law. Dexter ideologically positions the audience to accept vigilantism and noble cause corruption. The opposition between Doakes and Batista’s characterizations signifies the existing ideologies about how law and justice are achieved. Ergo, the law is presented as lacking and at odds with justice because the law does not always meet an ethical demand.

Summary of Season 1 Episode 9

The plot, or sequence of events in the narrative (Thwaites et al 2002, p 126), of Season One Episode Nine: Father Knows Best (aired 26 November 2006), Sergeant James Doakes shoots Jacques Bayard and claims it was in self-defence (Dexter 2006).

Blood splatter analysist, Dexter Morgan presents information that conflicts with Doakes’ claim. Doakes’ partner, Angel Batista, did not see the man with a gun and heard Doakes’ gunfire only, which lead Morgan’s information to question the truth of what happened.

To protect Doakes, Batista tells the IAB the other man shot first. Later, Batista reveals he made a promise to his father that he would always be an honest man and tells the IAB Doakes shot first. Doakes talks to Captain Maria LaGuerta. Doakes discloses that Bayard was a death squad officers who killed thousands of people in Haiti. LaGuerta states, “If John Bayard, if he did those things… he deserved a lot worse than he got” (Dexter 2006). The case closes when LaGuerta calls an unknown Washington agency and got them to drop the case due to international security risks.

Meanwhile, the protagonist Dexter Morgan is presented as an anti-hero. He embarks on a cat and mouse game with a killer dubbed the Ice Truck Killer who bleeds and cuts up his victims. He deals with his psychotic urges, which he calls his dark passenger, using an ethical code he calls “Harry’s code” (which is to kill killers).

Because of this code, Dexter, “projects the image of a happy, cheerful blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, but has secret penchant for carrying out murders of his own,” (Fhlainn 2009, p.92). This code is called into question when it is revealed his adoptive father (Harry) lied, claiming Dexter’s biological father was dead.

Sergeant James Doakes played by Erik King

Angel Batista Played by David Zayas

Captain Maria LaGuerta Played by Lauren Vélez

Crime dramas are plays of morality that showcases battles between good and evil, between heroes who support moral authority and villains who challenge that authority (Rafter, 2006). Like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: NY and CSI: Miami, Dexter uses,

Melodrama, which attracts an audience, combines with the form of realism that is characteristic of television which today blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction

— Cavender and Deutsch 2007, p. 78

Melodramas are “‘ameliorative’ in that they show the world as “flawed and requiring reparation of some kind” (Study Guide 2017, p. 126). Dexter is identifiable as being part of the ‘police procedurals’ and forensic crime dramas (Study Guide 2017, p.76-77) because of its use of crime stereotypes and tropes such as police procedurals, heroes and victims, forensics (Study Guide 2017, p.130), settings such as crime scenes, melodrama, and iconography (realistic sets that signifies police stations).

It delivers an unconventional twist where the protagonist is the antagonist and the common interest the audience holds is curiosity about serial killers (Lawrence 2013, p.3). These features make Dexter applicable to the crime genre.

Dexter ideologically positions the audience to accept vigilantism and noble cause corruption by presenting the myth that killing is justified if death comes to an unethical criminal. Dexter challenges the ideologically conservative genre of “entertaining people while also teaching them how to behave in society and to obey the law” (Trumbull 2010, p.825), which was common in the 1980s. Dexter blurs the line between good and evil in its melodramatic aspects (Study Guide 2017, p. 126).

For instance, what Doakes sees as ameliorative is the fact Bayard is not punished for his crimes and that criminality constantly tips the social order. Criminality is defined as one who does not have ethical standards that align with, Christian, patriarchal ideals of justice tied to notions of salvation and “manifest destiny” – the idea that we, as a people, are destined for the good (Study Guide 2017, p. 130).

These ideals are demythified and with the myth that regulation and processes of the law do not meet ethical demands. The law is “… the demand for the mythical restitution of the Law”, which is shown to be at “…odds with the regulation and processes of the law” (Study Guide 2017, p. 130). Normally, crime shows perceive noble cause corruption and vigilante justice as evil.

Nonetheless, Doakes restores order is by embracing these ideologies to murder Bayard. Vigilantism is to take the law into one’s hands and create justice when all other established means fails (Rosenbaum and Sederberg 1974, p. 542). Harry’s code and Doakes’ actions adopt the noble cause corruption, which is defined as a moral commitment to make the world a safer place to live, and,

A corruption committed in order to get the bad guys off the streets, to protect the innocent and the children from predators that inflict pain and suffering on them

— Crank and Caldero 2007, pg. 2

Dexter, Doakes and LaGueta’s belief killers should be killed signifies the myth that society wants justice, even if it is through means of violence. For example, these characters have the same urge for ethical violence as Dexter’s “dark passenger.” In this instance, Dexter’s “dark passenger” signifies society’s mythic society’s suppressed violent frustration of failing to properly punish murderers and meet ethical demands. Consequently, vigilantism and noble cause corruption are presented as the ideologies that resolve the imbalances in the social order.

50 Facts You Didn't Know About Dexter

The use of misrecognition is used to challenge the concept of good and evil, and justice regarding the law. Mythic restitution where conservative values are challenged by the show. Through demystification, Dexter presents the value of meeting an ethical demand and placing justice over the law. In ethical philosophy,

An ethical demand is something you cannot refuse as it is addressed to the very substance of who you are as a free individual

— Study Guide 2017, p. 129

For example, the audience is first made to sympathise with the villain through the technique of misrecognition. Misrecognition works by having a character misrecognise another character’s motives, thereby triggering the wrong action or attitude to the misrecognised character that delays the resolution of the conflict and threatens the restitution of the moral order (Study Guide 2017, p. 128). Batista’s mistrust of Doakes’ account of Bayard’s death serves as an example of misrecognition, which makes the audience question whether Doakes is a corrupt officer.

This is because of the imbalance of power between Doakes and Bayard since Doakes is a police officer and Bayard is introduced as a regular civilian. The villain is introduced as a flat character whose silence contributes to the misrecognition. The myth that abuse of power exists in police departments is used to present Doakes as the villain or a corrupt cop. This changes when Doakes states,

They (death squads, including Bayard) made mothers carry the head of their dead sons, forced fathers to rape their daughters. They tied cinder blocks around people’s necks and drowned them and put mutilated bodies in trees and killed anybody who tried to take them down

— Dexter 2006

The graphic details and the emotional language moves Bayard in the position of the villain, which is reaffirmed by LaGueta who allows Doakes to get away with Bayard’s death. Like CSI, this Dexter episode presents criminals as selfish, remorseless people, without a need for a causal explanation of criminality (Cavender and Deutsche 2007, p. 77).

This places Bayard and Doakes’ characterisations at oppositions. Bayard’s reasons to kill were unethical, which presents him as a criminal. Doakes’ reason to kill was to avenge the people Bayard killed and tortured, making him a hero for acquiring justice by any means necessary. Through this, the text does not achieve mythic restitution for conservative values like shows CSI: Miami.

The murder of Bayard demystifies the belief that the law delivers justice and naturalises noble cause corruption and vigilante values such as, “ends are of enough importance that any means to achieve them is acceptable” (Lawrence 2013, p. 7). Lawrence explains the myth where when cops believe their corruption is justified, they are now seen as legislators of the law. In this case, Doakes places his own morality above the law. This blurs the line between what is and what is not acceptable for police officers.

The act of vigilantism and noble cause corruption challenges the state’s ability to implement law and order (Mireanu 2014, p. 3). It suggests that Law is placed at a higher standard and conflicts with the interests of the law. This suggests the difference between a criminal and heroes is that heroes meet an ethical demand.

Thusly, Dexter challenges conservative ideologies of good and evil by naturalising the myth it is acceptable to achieve justice by any means necessary. Dexter naturalises the myth that the law cannot create justice for everyone by asking the audience to bear witness to the aftermath of violence.


Violence occurs in narratives as a visible exhibition of the conflict between ‘good and ‘evil’. By showing this conflict violently, the narrative makes the audience aware of its consequences, especially on the body, and demonstrates the power of the forces and counter-forces involved

— Study Guide 2017, p. 129

The audience was asked to bear witness to the graphically cut-up and bled-dry remains of the Ice Truck Killer’s victims. However, Bayard’s body was not shown as graphically when normally, the show exposes the audience to victim bodies in a gruesome, violated state. The lacking presentation of the violated body puts Doakes’s kill in opposition to the victims of the Ice Truck Killer. The lacking representation of the violated body suggests the show does not want the audience to emotionally invest in the death of Bayard, which is what melodramas normally do (Study Guide 2017, p. 129).

It also puts Doakes’ kill in opposition to the killing of criminals since Bayard and the Ice Truck Killer tortured their victims. In contrast, Doakes did not torture Bayard. This characterizes criminals as being sadistic killers who enjoy the suffering of their victims while cops like Doakes are heroes because they do not take pleasure in the pain of others.

This naturalises the myth that killing is only acceptable if the victim is an unethical criminal and that the law cannot create justice for everyone. This is supported when LaGueta protects Doakes. Therefore, Dexter presents the ideologies of noble cause corruption and vigilante justice being capable of meeting an ethical demand when the law does not.

5 Killers Who Were Inspired by Dexter

The oppositions between Batista and Doakes’ characterisations present different ideologies of how Law and justice are achieved. A character “is a sign in a system of signs (a narrative system)” (Study Guide 2017, p. 95). He follows the processes of the law when he tells the IAB that Doakes shot first. Doakes’ way of handling justice is his version of criminality.

Batista values honesty, integrity and justice, and follows the law to achieve this. Batista’s character signifies the conservative ideology that criminals should be judged by the law. This characterisation is common and found in Bones, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, NCIS, and Midsomer Murders. In opposition to Batista, Doakes’ ideology is to achieve justice by any means necessary, which fits into the values of noble cause corruption and vigilantism.

This puts other cops such as Batista in opposition because they obstruct justice by holding Dexter and Doakes back from killing killers. Hence, the oppositional characterisations of Batista and Doakes naturalise the ideologies of noble cause corruption and vigilantism.

Dexter explores the law, criminality, and justice by naturalising vigilantism and noble cause corruption. Dexter identifies as police procedural and forensic crime drama due features such as characters, iconography, setting, and melodrama. Noble cause corruption and vigilantism are naturalised as solutions for the ethical demand the law does not meet.

Dexter demystifies conservative ideologies on the law by naturalising the myth that the value of meeting an ethical demand should be placed on the law. The opposition between Bayard’s corpse and the victims of the Ice Truck Killer helps naturalise the myth that killing is only acceptable if the victim is an unethical criminal. The show argues that the difference between lawful justice and criminality depends on one’s ethical standing.

Oppositions between Batista and Doakes signifies the argument between conservative and vigilante and noble cause corruption ideologies. Ultimately, crime dramas showcase and comments on existing ideologies found within western cultures.

Source

Reference List

Bones 2005, television program, TNT, USA. Produced by Far Field Productions, USA., Josephson Entertainment, USA., 20th Century Fox Television, USA.

Cavender, Gray., Deutsch, Sarah 2007, ‘CSI and moral authority: The police and science’, Sage Publications, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 67–81.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation 2000, television program, CBS, US. Produced by Alliance Atlantis Communications, Canada., CBS Paramount Network Television, US., CBS Productions, US.

CSI: Miami 2002, television program, CBS Paramount Network Television, US. Produced by Alliance Atlantis Communications, US., American Travelers, US., CBS Paramount Network Television, US.

Dexter 2006, television program, Showtime, US. Produced by Showtime Networks, US., John Goldwyn Productions, US., Colleton Company, US.

Fhlainn, Sorcha 2009, ‘Dexter Season 4 (Showtime, 2009)’, The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies 7, vol. 7, no. 22, pp. 92-93.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit 1999, television program, channel 5, UK. Produced by Wolf Films, US., Studios USA Television, US., Universal Network Television, US.

Lawrence, Alyssa 2013, ‘A Deconstruction of Dexter: An Analysis of Noble Cause Corruption Within a Crime Drama’, PhD thesis, Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead.

Midsomer Murders 1997, television program, Independent Television, UK. Produced by Bentley Productions, UK., Independent Television, UK.

Mireanu, Manuel 2014, ‘Vigilantism and security: State, violence and politics in Italy and Hungary’, PhD Thesis, Central European University, Budapest.

NCIS 2003, television program, CBS, US. Produced by Belisarius Productions, US., Paramount Network Television, US., CBS Paramount Network Television, US.

Rafter, Nicole 2006, Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, Oxford University Press, New York.

Rosenbaum, H. Jon., Sederberg, Peter 1974, ‘Vigilantism: An Analysis of Establishment Violence,’ Comparative Politics, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 1-259.

Study Guide CMM19 Text and Culture 2017, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Virtual Location.

Thwaites et. al. 2002, Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: A Semiotic Approach, Palgrave, London.

Turnbull, Sue 2010, ‘Crime as entertainment: The case of the TV crime drama,’ Continuum, vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 819-827.

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