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Michael C. Hall plays the title character in Dexter. Image courtesy of Showtime

Revenge so cold it numbs

It’s payback time on two popular TV shows that blur the line between good and evil

By Therese DesCamp

If you’re looking for a primer on the horrors of unbridled revenge, don’t bother to open your Bible or get out of your La-Z-Boy. Just turn on your television for two entirely different takes on vengeance: ABC’s popular Revenge series and Showtime’s award-winning Dexter.

Revenge, now in its second season, is a glitzy morality play exposing the dangers of retribution, complete with great clothes and vicarious thrills. While a voiceover in the first episode solemnly intones, “This is not a story about forgiveness,” the opening season was actually a study of how love can pull us back from viciousness.

Revenge’s lead character, Emily (played by Emily VanCamp), sets out to wreak havoc on the people who framed and murdered her father. The fact that all of the targets are filthy rich and pretty nasty only adds to our enjoyment as they are picked off. At the same time, our consciences are appeased by the fact that Emily’s ongoing choices — which begin to cause harm to the innocent as well as the guilty — cost her moral suffering. Even if we don’t agree with her decisions, we can understand how loyalty inspired them, while her struggle with her conscience makes her more accessible.

Dexter, now entering its seventh season, is a much darker and deeper tale. The series follows Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a forensic specialist whose mother was murdered when he was three. When he is young, his foster father, Harry (James Remar), discovers that Dexter is killing neighbourhood animals. Harry, a cop, decides that Dexter has an irrepressible urge to kill that can only be controlled by teaching him a code for the responsible taking of life. Dexter is told that while he can’t quash his inner assassin, he can channel it and use it for “good.” In this case, good means that the people Dexter slaughters must deserve it: they must be guilty of murdering an innocent person and likely to kill again. Viewers are invited not to uphold traditional morality but to call it into question, based on the dubious premise that healing is not possible.

While Revenge is about the cost of vengeance, Dexter is really about compulsion. In both of these shows, the lead character is appealing and vulnerable. We are seduced into caring for them; Emily’s memory of being ripped from her father’s arms and Dexter’s inability to experience normal affection are intended to elicit our sympathy. But while Emily still seems accessible — her vindictive choices, over time, exhaust her — Dexter’s playful attitude toward his killing is repulsive. In each case, caution is advised: our desire to be open-minded and compassionate can tempt us into acquiescence with evil. The line is purposefully blurred.

Collateral damage is a hot topic in Revenge. Almost from the beginning, the destruction of reputations, money and lives is not confined to Emily’s enemies but touches the innocent. Damage also rebounds on Emily as she loses her moral certainty. Her main target is Victoria (Madeleine Stowe), whom she believes betrayed her father. But in a Dorian Gray twist, viewers watch Emily becoming the woman she wants to destroy — a woman who cheats on the man she’s committed to, betrays the man she loves, and tramples dear relationships underfoot in order to get what she wants.

For Dexter, collateral damage can be an issue — when he ends up killing to protect his secret, it disturbs him. But the real story is the grey area the show’s writers want us to experience between right and wrong. At one level, Dexter seems intended to function as a hero figure, saving society from gruesome serial killers — the first person he sacrifices on the program is a child murderer. Yet no matter how winsome Dexter is or how heinous the criminal he’s punishing, his murders are motivated not by a love of justice but by an obsessive craving. Killing may be cloaked in a code of ethics, but at its heart is madness.

The deeper story for both programs is whether love can actually change a person for the good. Both shows start with a parent cruelly ripped from the main character’s life. In Revenge, that loss is consciously held as the reason for Emily’s behaviour; in Dexter, it is implied as the unconscious cause of his compulsion. Both have an innocent and trusting love interest — Emily’s childhood boyfriend, Dexter’s tough-talking foster sister — who holds the moral centre of the show. And for both programs, the jury is still out on whether love will provide sufficient motivation for the main character to change.

A final parallel between the two shows is the assumption of widespread corruption. The background of each is filled with casual adultery, betrayal by friends, crooked cops, venal lawyers and public servants who serve only themselves. Civil society and government institutions are ineffectual at best, nefarious at worst. But Dexter introduces an even darker element into the story world. At the risk of being painted a moralist (a grave sin in liberal society), let me tell you that I find Dexter deeply troubling. Part of this may be my resentment at the consistent pairing of religiosity and perversion. (Much of season 6, for example, featured a killer motivated by the New Testament Book of Revelation.) But more disturbing is the gratuitous twisting of human relationships, brutal episode after brutal episode. Repeated exposure to abuse, humiliation, torture and the sexual excitement of murder doesn’t make viewers more empathetic; it makes them numb to suffering.

Revenge probably qualifies as a good distraction, a morality bonbon, the television equivalent of a summer beach book. I may just tune in on some lazy Sunday evening this fall. I doubt you’ll find me watching Dexter, though. Sure, part of me wants to know if he’ll be redeemed by his sister’s love or simply corrupt her too. But I don’t plan on paying Showtime for the dubious pleasure of watching a serial killer justify himself in a world inured to compassion. 

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