Dexter, Democracy, and Nietzsche: Puzzling Through the Deep End of America's TV Obsession

By Maxwell G. Mensinger
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 2/3 |

Dionysian Dexter

Now that I have shown how Dexter is a free spirit, I would like to highlight another aspect of his character. This aspect is perhaps the most pertinent to interpreting how Americans perceive Dexter, which will be discussed later. Dexter exemplifies the free spirit through his existence as an artist. After obtaining a victim, he plunges his paintbrush (knife) into the paint, the body of the work, the spirit, the life essence (blood) and creates for the sake of creation. He lives to create, to evolve, to experiment, to pursue. His familiarity with his creative essence brings him joy every day, especially in his job as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Homicide Department. Dexter's most fundamental instincts are creative, his “[thoughts] [light] up in a flash, with necessity, without hesitation as to [their] form...[he] never had any choice” (Nietzsche 126 EH). Indeed, in the first episode of the series, he claims: “Blood, sometimes it sets my teeth on edge. Other times it helps me control the chaos” (Dexter “Pilot”) Such familiarity, such intuitive recognition of blood gives Dexter a rare happiness. Only when creating, painting, becoming, eviscerating (for Dexter, all are one and the same) does he feel alive and whole.

His willingness to express his overflowing creative energy, to exercise his will, makes him free. Dionysian indulgence liberates Dexter. One might wonder how I can be sure if Dexter's drive to indulge is actually Dionysian and healthy, or whether it is a product of ressentiment towards criminals on the one hand, and society's laws on the other. Is not Dexter simply stifled by the legal system? Why are his trespasses considered Dionysian when the real motive behind them is unquenchable hatred? In other words, why do I have any reason to believe that Dexter's energy is healthy as opposed to sick? Nietzsche addresses this issue:

The desire for destruction, change, and becoming can be an expression of an overflowing energy that is pregnant with future (my term for this, as is known, 'Dionysian'); but it can also be the hatred of the ill-constituted, disinherited, and underprivileged, who destroy, must destroy, because what exists, indeed all existence, all being outrages and provokes them (Nietzsche GS 329).

I propose that Dexter's energy, according to Nietzsche, is not just anger, but creative yearning. His destruction has a creative quintessence. He does not destroy out of superficial frustrations with criminals or societal limitations, but rather a fervent drive to create and 'explore' as noted above. His murders are themselves exercises in becoming, for he is constantly evolving, and testing the limits of the human spirit. His superabundant, Dionysian desires manifest themselves through violence. However, can this violence perhaps suggest that Dexter is indeed, as Nietzsche puts it, 'ill-constituted'? Is his violence a sign of weakness rather than strength? One might go so far as to suggest that “mastering others” is “an inferior form of power in Nietzsche’s mind” (Jonas 9). Indeed, Dexter's bloodlust itself seems to have originated out of trauma, thus forever tainting his pursuit of it with revenge and hatred for all being. However, as proved in the previous section, Dexter's bloodlust is not an expression of hatred for everything. He has come to accept the bloodlust as his own, and pursues it independent of any ill-will towards the original wrongdoers.

Dexter’s strength is therefore healthy, and not driven by outright hatred of all being. Dexter often displays compassionate feelings, at one point he confesses “[If] I could have feelings at all, I'd have them for Deb,” his foster sister (Dexter “Pilot”). Often, when Dexter pursues a target, he does so partly out of pure bloodlust, and partly out of a duty to someone or something. The thrill he gets from tracking down targets, sedating them, and killing them reflects an amalgamate drive to kill and to help others. For Dexter, these motives are not separate, but one and the same. Also, Dexter's relationships with others matter to him, which is evident when he says “They're not disguises anymore. I need them [relationships], even if they make me vulnerable” (Dexter “The British Invasion”). Does feeling responsibility for others limit Dexter? Not in the slightest, because in order to become übermenschlich, one must “establish a certain kind of relationship to others…[for] in relationship to others…the temporality of agency is…lived out” (Havas 31).

Indeed, Dexter’s senses of duty, protection, and good will, (when he has such senses) arise freely and selectively. Again, one sees passion tempered by reason in Dexter; he has the “ability to sublimate [his] desires, impulses and passions [to] use them in more powerful ways,” making him a “higher individual” (Jonas 12). Americans, as we will see, are not so free as Dexter, which factors into their enjoyment of the show. However, before I can accurately describe America's fascination with Dexter, I would briefly like to analyze what constitutes American life today.

America in a Nutshell

What constitutes modern America? I cannot pretend to accurately address this issue in any comprehensive way. I do, however, intend to conduct a Nietzschean analysis on America. This will help me paint a generalized American context that will serve my purposes insofar as it allows me to describe: first, what general conditions Americans all share, for the most part; and second, which of these Americans constitute Dexter's audience. I will save the question of why these Americans watch Dexter for a later section. In his writings, Nietzsche dealt with the problem of society often:

Those fearful bulwarks with which the political organization protected itself against the old instincts of freedom—punishments belong among these bulwarks—brought about that all those instincts of wild, free, prowling man turned backward against man himself. Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction—all this turned against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of the “bad conscience” (Nietzsche GM 85).

What Nietzsche outlines, broadly, is repression. When man is drawn into society, it forces him to change and hide his intuitive nature. By hiding this intuitive nature, however, and suffocating it beneath the skin, one becomes somewhat masochistic, as embodied most by Christian morality. This “anti-natural morality...which is to say almost every morality that has been taught, revered, or preached so far, explicitly turns its back on the instincts of life” for it “condemns” life affirming instincts (Nietzsche TI 174). Laws emerge to limit the exploration of the human spirit, absolute individual freedom dissolves and is replaced by civil freedom.

The herd thrives in civil society, for laws generally favor the weak, and even encourage weakness as opposed to banning and punishing strength. Life, instead of spontaneous adventure and creative realization, becomes “[m]echanical activity” characterized by “unthinking obedience [in one's] mode of life fixed once and for all” (Nietzsche GM 134). A certain type of nihilism is present within such a perfunctory life, and for all those who recognize the worthlessness of that life.

This profound depression in both being and perceiving the herd animal, or the last men, “constitutes our greatest danger, for the sight of him makes us weary.— We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater...what is nihilism today if it is not that?” (Nietzsche GM 44). One might wonder if this is the legacy that society inevitably creates. Are all societies doomed to nihilism? Cannot community ease loneliness, and nurture familial and friendly relations alike? Unfortunately, the potential Nietzschean answers to either of these questions are far too complicated and extensive to be addressed fully in this paper. Nietzsche does acknowledge that the “formation of a herd is a significant victory and advance in the struggle against depression,” for within a community, “a new interest grows for the individual [which] lifts him above the most personal element in his discontent, his aversion to himself” (Nietzsche GM 135).

Obviously, people can be self-interested within the context of a society; there are a great many interests in all societies, and one's struggle for those interests hardly ever ends. To a certain extent, this can dull the nihilism inherent in extensive, perfunctory jobs and well-conditioned daily routines. Self interest within a society can distract one from his ultimately pervasive confinement somewhat, though he will no doubt still be tormented by masochism and sick conscience. Despite this brief escape from complete nihilism, however, the “violent transition to the peace and tranquility of civil society left the human animal incomplete and indeterminate” on a fundamental level (Conway 15). Again, Nietzsche's philosophy on the state, or society, is far too extensive for my purposes here to be addressed in full. What I seek to outline is that society inevitably causes repression on an individual's instincts, and alters his nature into something sick, tired, and nihilistic. With this insight, I can begin to hypothesize on the current state of American society.

America, like all other civilized countries, has a set of laws and a government to impose them. The governing structure, in a broad sense, is split up into three main branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The only time citizens are directly involved, aside from voting, is when they selected for a jury. Citizens effectively have no authority in enforcing legislation passed, or in creating legislation, or in exacting justice. Even those on a jury often feel burdened by the many rules limiting their right to speak about what they hear, as well as the obligation to cooperate amongst each other to reach a conclusion. There are several objections one may raise at this point in the argument: is not the human animal naturally social? Does not voting allow citizens a voice in their government?

Also, just because citizens are not directly involved in decision making or effective politics, does this mean that cooperation negates all satisfaction derived from civic duty or civic participation? Indeed, most children have a fundamental understanding that ‘American freedom’ exists in the context of American laws, and seem to be content with living amongst such laws, in a broad, generalized sense. Morals, not entirely separate from laws, are some of the first societal principles that parents, religions, and schools expose children to. In general, such institutions curb aggression, selfishness, dishonesty, and more importantly disobedience. Here again one might argue that such tendencies must be curbed in order to ensure a proper civil order.

All these objections are legitimate, but altogether not fundamentally dangerous to Nietzsche's assertion that “the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organization as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness” (Nietzsche GM 135). As explained above, community, and participation within a community, alleviates some of the depression inherent in a societal condition. One's vote may be self-interested, and a single vote does grant the citizen a voice, but a single citizen's voice becomes quite muted when it is filtered through the electoral college, and even further through the elected representative. Thus, though one's vote grants him a certain degree of political power, such power is insufficient, and ultimately underwhelming in the grander scheme of Nietzschean free spirited individuality.

Even an excellent human, a free spirit, could be a social being. In fact, a “type of overman” presents itself “in relation to humanity in general,” and thus exists within society, not separate from it (Nietzsche AC 5). The word 'overman' here does not refer to the otherworldly 'overman' of Zarathustra, but rather the free spirit I identified earlier. The übermenschlich quality, what I have called the free spirit, can actually constitute “whole generations, families, or peoples,” thus clarifying the nature of the free spirit as a profound social phenomena, though it can and does characterize particular individuals as well (ibid). For this exact reason is Dexter a believable character; his this-worldly, free spirited existence transcends the transient limitations of American law and social status quo. However, America is saturated with not only legal and governmentally structural limitations, but also myriad complex economic conditions.

One could arguably say that the 2008 economic crisis changed the common American mindset significantly. Considering the causes and explanations of what happened, a few things are generally clear: first, that a majority of Americans are upset about the government bailout of large corporations; second, that certain larger moneyed powers in America could easily topple the inveterate institution of capitalism under the right conditions; third, that underlying the financial system is a complex network of immaterial conditions as best embodied by the modern stock market, and these immaterial conditions have made Americans increasingly detached from the financial structure that so drastically affects their lives. For this analysis, I will periodically employ Marx as well as Nietzsche, though I do not mean to equate the two theorists.

The American “division of labor implies...[that] each person has a particular, exclusive area of activity which is imposed on him and from which he cannot escape” (Marx SW 119). In this basic way, people have less freedom, or at least appear to have less freedom, than the Nietzschean free spirit. Marx anticipated such invisible boundaries when he claimed that “[in] bourgeois society...the living person is dependent and has no individuality” (Marx 69). Just as with its laws, Americans’ economic freedom exists in the context of the jobs available, their level of education, their family name, the size of their bank account, and other relatively distant variables individuals can barely predict, or control. Nietzsche, though fundamentally different in his political theorizing from Marx, noticed some similar problems. As Mark Warren explains, Nietzsche “viewed the capitalist work ethic as ‘mechanical activity,’ resulting in...unthinking obedience, a mode of life fixed once and for all” (Warren 224).

When the government bailout happened, a majority of Americans did not support it. Indeed, about 60% of American expressed “fear and loathing about the idea of government committing billions of dollars to solve the problem,” and this discomfort “crosse[d] party lines” (The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press). Even among those who supported the plan, about 70% worried that those responsible would evade punishment, which they largely did (ibid). The fact that the most prominent concern Americans held in the face of the economic crisis was that those responsible would not meet justice tells us that punishment, and the desire for justice, are both as yet insatiable desires within the American people. I hypothesize that people, especially American people, encourage and seek such punishment as a way of reclaiming their lives.

Just as a free spirit would exert his will over a limitation by imposing the limitation itself, Americans seek to impose the societal and lawful order, as well as the cutthroat economic order, in an attempt to regain control of them. However, unlike the free spirit, who generally imposes his own legal or temporal limitations, Americans have as yet only conceived of American legal and capitalist economic limitations; because the citizen is alienated from both, as noted above, he can thus never truly exert his will over it, and therefore never truly impose it. One could most definitely argue, as Marx has, that people are “more enslaved to a power alien to them,” namely “the world market” (Marx SW 123). The normal American, it seems, is doomed to this nihilistic frustration within the American context. This frustration is only magnified by the promise of the American dream, which grows increasingly more elusive and distant each day.

The American dream is a myth, and many people have begun to realize this. Before I continue, let me clarify just what I mean by 'myth.' There are, broadly speaking, two American dreams: one consists in becoming rich, owning many cars, having an attractive wife, etc.; the other, however, is more simple in that it imagines a house in the suburbs with a white picket-fence, a lawn, a loving family, and a dog. Both of these dreams are altogether unsatisfying, which is partly what I mean by 'myth.' The former, that of the rich man, is almost entirely impossible for most people. This particular dream attributes abundant social mobility to American life, an immaterial and transient if not altogether nonexistent class structure, and compensation for an individual's work ethic and risk-taking temperament. America's liberal institutions promise jobs and fair working conditions, among other illusions, like financial security, and job security.

As Nietzsche predicted, however, “nothing damages freedom more terribly or more thoroughly than liberal institutions” (213 Nietzsche TI). These institutions simply hold the promises of freedom without ever actually delivering them. Someone might object here, that America's social mobility is evident and prevalent still, or further, that the free market provides people with many choices of potential jobs and products in an ever growing marketplace. However, when the wealthiest ten percent of people owns over ninety percent of the wealth, a concrete lack of social mobility, and prominence of class structure becomes apparent, which wreaks upon the country's “moral and intellectual climate” a “heavy, strangulating sense of the emptiness and futility of life” (Baran and Sweezy 281).

Though there may seem to be a lot of choices for jobs and products, these choices are streamlined more to make money than to fully satisfy the customer. In other words, the choices are external; one has no control over the American context. A being “only regards himself as independent when he stands on his own feet, and he stands on his own feet only when he owes his existence to himself” (Marx SW 77). In this sense, the first American dream is a 'myth' due to its impossibility.

The second American dream, however, that of the suburbs, is indeed attainable. In fact, many have attained it. The 'myth' then is its promise of happiness. The suburban American landscape hides and suffocates the free spirit more than almost any other context. Many are fooled by the Declaration's promise of everyone's inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. They are fooled in that they assumed happiness is money, a house, a dog, and numerous other products.

The happy existence becomes that of the consumer, who chooses what to purchase and purchases. Once attained, however, many find its promise of happiness a farce, for the perfunctory job and daily routine prove to be just as depressing as before, despite the comfortable living. Though one may pose the same objections to this American dream as they did to the first one, the same answers remain: American life, for some, is entirely unfulfilling and nihilistic.

This nihilism manifests itself almost everywhere within America in different degrees. A majority of the American pop culture scene, in particular, expresses this nihilism. Due to a lack of creativity, and a lack of the free spirited, vehement 'yes' to life, the artistic expression within movie theaters, coffee houses, popular novels, and other items, becomes muted and dull. Nietzsche's belief that the state “hastens the destruction of peoples by usurping their social fabric of customs and rights” begins to resemble America (Warren 228).. However, though the state indeed does this in America, one might extend the word 'state' to include industries like Hollywood, and others, which maim art of its value through mass-production, leaving Americans overexposed to most forms of art, and jaded.

Though freedom of expression allows for the proliferation of numerous television shows, movies, books, and other sorts of media (including Dexter itself), most available entertainment is formulaic and redundant. All too familiar productions are reflected through typical sitcoms, romance/fantasy novels, and a wide swath of other mediocre entertainment. Americans rarely witness true art, the bulwark of a healthy culture. An abundance of repetitive, unaesthetic material has transformed most Americans' television-viewing, book-reading, movie-watching rituals from active enjoyment into habitual boredom. Real beauty, born of creativity, invigorates; it “reminds us of states of animal vigor...[and serves as] an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it” (Nietzsche WP 422). Beauty itself is “relative” to individuals' “most fundamental values of preservation” (Nietzsche WP 423). Every person may reconnect to his or her primordial nature through art, but few have been able to do so in the relatively dormant vacuum of American pop culture.

Are Americans last man-ish? In some ways, they seem to be. Their nihilism and contentedness with mediocrity in their own lives surely resembles last man-ish tendencies. However, there is a shadow side to such tendencies as seen above. Unlike the last men, or the traditional herd, Americans subconsciously feel squandered by the herd. On the one hand, they do not feel adequately human in the herd. On the other hand, they are too afraid to leave it for a higher life, and would probably prefer the easy life of the last man to difficult struggles of the free spirit.

Americans have, one might say, a love-hate relationship to America. They do not want to live with it (to a certain extent), but they really do not want to live without it. There is, then, a potentially disconnect between how people act every day, and what they like to read, watch, or think about. This, I argue, is the primary separation between most Americans and free spiritedness.

As this section addressed America, it articulated some generalized drives within many Americans, but did not identify who exactly watches Dexter.


Though one might, at first glance, assume that Dexter's audience consists of disillusioned 18 to 20 year old males, at second glance Dexter's fan base reveals itself as large and quite ecletic. As blogger HieroHero notes, Dexter's audience is 50% female. Wendy Dennis, an author for “Maclean's” articulates how “Men aspire to Dexter's 'James Bond-like power and clarity,'...whereas women admire his 'etiquette among thieves'” (Dennis 2). She candidly describes why women like Dexter in more detail:

“Sure, he keeps a ghoulish stash of his victims' blood samples behind his air conditioner, and leads a sinister double life. But he's brilliant at his job, mordantly funny...deeply aware of his limitations, and gallant toward women (he thoughtfully made [his girlfriend's] troublesome ex disappear)” (Dennis 2).

For my purposes, these confessions should be accepted only at surface value, Dexter is an appealing character to both men and women within America (and Canada, apparently).Despite Dexter's outrageously masculine characteristics, he is alluring to both men and women. One may genuinely be surprised by this aspect of Dexter's demographic, but he surely cannot refute it. When an edited version of Dexter aired on CBS, the show multiplied its viewership by seven, totaling 8.1 million viewers as opposed to an average 730,000 viewers; this was following the first season, and the show has only grown in popularity since then (The New York Times). The show has also received widespread critical acclaim, and in 2010 Michael C. Hall won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor In A Television Series – Drama, as well as a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

The show has much more than a cult following, and though not comparable to shows like American Idol in its audience, it has generated enough attention to inquire into what makes so many Americans so attracted to Dexter. From this point forward, I will refer to Dexter's particular audience as both 'America,' and 'Dexter's audience,' for the demographic is widespread and eclectic enough to suggest more-or-less normalcy in Dexter's American fan base. Rather than identifying some discernible difference between Dexter fans and regular Americans, I postulate that there indeed are none.

Other than the fact that fans might enjoy the crime-drama genre more, or a variety of other inconclusive variables, I believe the most important reasons some are drawn to Dexter are found in their status as Americans, not their status as weird people. In other words, I will ignore any distinction between 'Dexter's audience' and 'America' for facility in writing, and also because the generally American conditions listed above, when juxtaposed with Dexter as the Nietzschean free spirit, are the concepts that will give us insight into why so many normal Americans are drawn to Dexter.

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