Ethos in Pop Culture: Dexter


It’s often difficult to teach and to explain ethos.  I find it the hardest of the three appeals to explain to my students because it is so complex.  If “ethos” is a new term for you, please first read Modes of Persuasion: Introduction to Ethos.  I’ve found that students better understand the concept of ethos once it is connected to something they understand: pop culture.

Dexter Morgan is the lead character in Showtime’s Dexter.  Let’s examine Dexter Morgan in light of Andrew Dlugan’s four characteristics that comprise ethos.

First, Dexter is trustworthy.  This is difficult to juggle because, if you’ve seen the show, you know that Dexter Morgan is a serial killer.  Dexter’s identity as a murderer must remain a secret from most of the show’s cast because, obviously, there would be no show if he got the death penalty for murdering hundreds of people.  Even though he lies to his family, co-workers, and friends about his serial killing tendencies, Dexter is always 100% honest to the viewer.  Audiences understand his thoughts and motivations because of the internal monologue, the voiceover, streaming throughout each episode.  Since we know his thoughts, we know he can be trusted to act in accordance with those thoughts.

The audience also trusts Dexter because of the moral code Harry Morgan taught his son.  Dexter only kills other serial killers, and he must find proof of a crime or multiple crimes before he murders.  The audience knows that Dexter will only murder people who “deserve” to die.  We have faith that Dexter won’t break or bend that code of ethics.  When he is tempted into murdering just for fun and not in accordance with Harry’s Code, Dexter can be trusted to shake off those temporary desires.  When Dexter does kill outside of Harry’s Code, he does so for credible reasons; for example, he kills a pedophile who is stalking his step-daughter, Astor.  On all fronts, Dexter is a “good” person.  Even though he is a killer, he only murders “bad” people who “deserve” death.

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The voiceover approach also leads us to the second characteristic of ethos: similarity.  Minus the murdering, Dexter is a totally normal, middle-class guy with a job, a family, and a whole lot of confusion about human nature and about other people.  He is often socially awkward and finds himself at a loss for what to say and how to behave.  To other characters on the show, he is good-natured, smart, down-to-earth, and friendly.  Dexter is “just like us,” except with one dissimilarity: his Dark Passenger.

Using the voiceover, Dexter explains his Dark Passenger as the dark, murderous tendencies within him.  Since the Dark Passenger has a name, intentions, and desires, the audience often feels like it is a distant, separate part of Dexter.  Still, the Dark Passenger exists… How does an audience create similarity with someone carrying such a darkness inside of them?

Dexter is constantly evolving and growing into a more human character.  The Dexter in season six has become much more human than the character in season one.  The journey to becoming more human is a long one.  The audience has seen Dexter realize he is capable of love.  We’ve seen him become a husband, a stepfather, and then a biological father.  He has transformed from a feelingless character to someone who is much more in line with our human values and ideals.

Dexter possesses authority over the audience, the third characteristic of ethos.  He is an authority at his job as a forensic blood spatter analyst at the Miami Metro Police Department.  Other characters in the show look up to him, ask him questions, and constantly praise his ability to do his work well (such as, most recently, Detective Mike Anderson and intern Louis).

More importantly, Dexter is an authority on being a serial killer – an ability only the audience and Dexter know about.  Dexter is methodical, smart, and quick.  He has never been caught.  Because of his skills as a serial killer, he is an authority on the subject.  He explains his techniques and motivations to the audience, so we understand his expertise.  We also know the procedure – Dexter first stalks his victims to find proof that they have murdered others.  After finding proof, he injects a serial killer with a tranquilizer and moves the unconscious body to a “kill room” that has been perfectly set up so as to leave behind no forensic evidence.  When the serial killer wakes up, Dexter explains the reason behind the abduction – often by using photographs of the serial killer’s victims to prove the death is a deserved one.  Lastly, Dexter stabs the killer in the heart, cuts up the body, and dumps it in the Gulf Stream to be carried into the ocean.

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In addition to being an authority, Dexter has a strong reputation built over six seasons.  Reputation is the fourth and final characteristic of ethos, and it goes hand-in-hand with authority.  Dexter’s methodical murdering process ensures the elimination of serial killers without leaving behind evidence.  Because the audience has seen the process so many times, we believe in his ability to select victims who deserve to die, and we allow him control over the killing process.  Dexter is the ultimate authority over serial killing because of his reputation: he has done it for so long without getting caught.  His experience as a serial killer is lifelong.  We know from the time he was a boy, he had murderous tendencies.  We know his father developed a code of ethics that he has a 30-something history of following.  For six seasons, Dexter has demonstrated time and time again his ability to kill serial killers in a swift, organized, efficient fashion.

What other television, film, or literary characters display ethos?  Since Dexter has been on TV for six seasons, his ethos has had time to develop.  Do you think it takes a long time for a character to establish strong ethos?  Can you think of any characters who have instant ethos?


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