The white passenger

EDIT: Rats. I watched a few more episodes and my argument about Quinn’s promotion got ruined.

Ah, “Dexter.” So many things to hate about you (spoilers): your gratuitous and often misogynistic violence; your unthinking reliance on hackneyed tropes in both action and dialogue; your racism both anti-Black (Mos Def notwithstanding) and anti-Latino (ditto Zayas and VĂ©lez); your deliberate (or else just stupid?) misunderstanding of such matters as addiction and recovery, trauma, and psychotherapy; your kneejerk support for law enforcement, incarceration and the “justice” system; and your insistence on spelling out every possible nuance via the infernal duo of dead fucking Harry and that fucking voiceover. And what to love? Jennifer Carpenter, Michael C. Hall, and, I guess, the sheer bludgeoning quantity of eight streaming seasons on Netflix. We aren’t quite finished, but I’m pretty sure one thing won’t be addressed before Dexter utters the phrase “dark passenger” for the final time, and that’s the way the whole show is built around enabling white male privilege to operate unchecked.

Others have written this about the anti-hero cult of what Brett Martin calls TV’s “Third Golden Age”: protagonists like Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Dexter Morgan do things that no character of color could get away with in today’s media environment. What I noticed about “Dexter” (in, yes, a seven-hour marathon yesterday; sorry, brain cells) is how baldly the show protects Dexter’s power to do his thing. Now, that’s completely natural: as Martin notes, “After all, the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end.” But it’s also an excellent, if presumably unwitting, depiction of how society protects, enables and elevates white men.* Dexter is a vigilante whose right to act as judge, jury and executioner to a sorry underclass of criminal straw men—to be, as Dr. Vogel puts it in season 8, “what he is meant to be”—is never seriously questioned. “It’s a capital offense to be what you are, Dexter,” says his long-suffering sister, who then murders a woman of color to protect him.

Writ small, the same protective impulse plays out in the subplot of Joey Quinn’s ascension to sergeant. Angel, his Cuban lieutenant, encourages Quinn (whom I can’t help thinking of as an Irish-American from South Boston) to take the exam and even gives him private coaching so he won’t “fuck this up.” Quinn passes the test, and Angel wants to promote him even though Matthews, his authoritarian boss, urges him to consider a Black female detective instead. Matthews is a corrupt career cop whose role has always been to mouth the conventional wisdom; the show’s sympathies are clearly with Quinn. Here again, a character of color protects a white character at the expense of another character of color. This isn’t even a case of two equal candidates—Joey is a known jerk with poor impulse control and Miller, the Black detective, seems more than qualified.

I tend to end these posts suddenly (consider it done), and I usually feel inarticulate and hamstrung when I’m writing them. Thing is, I watch “Dexter,” “Alias,” or “Elysium” and it’s so obvious to me that that shit is fucked up; but I feel like I can’t explain why to people who don’t share my starting assumptions. I’m like the guy who knows art when he sees it—and knows this ain’t. Is this because I’m not smart enough? Because I didn’t get that Ph.D. in cultural studies I briefly considered one New Haven afternoon? Or because it’s so hard to untangle myself from the racism that’s choking the media waters we all swim in?

One thing I don’t mean to do is apply a dour literalism to the interpretation of these stories. I still remember how pissed I was when David Denby complained of “Kill Bill 2” that little B.B. watched “Shogun Assassin” as a bedtime movie. Her parents are assassins, for Pete’s sake! But reveling in a world where two serial killers can find love (for half a season) doesn’t mean I’m going to buy everything that world is peddling.

*I’m not adding “cis” here because white trans people who are male-presenting also benefit from this privilege. Kyle told me so themself.

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