Dexter: Repression, Revelation and the Significance of Mommy

Curator's Note

The following piece suggests links between Dexter’s traumatic witnessing of his mother’s murder and his relationship with Rita in Series One of Dexter. Focusing on the similarities between the women in Dexter’s life, I suggest that a Freudian reading of Dexter is relevant and revealing in terms of making visible that which “lies beneath the surface”. 


During a psychoanalytic regression session in episode 1:8 (ironically entitled “Shrinkwrap”), Dexter accesses for the first time a horrific memory which he has repressed. In a flashback scene, we see Dexter as a small child, sitting in a vast pool of blood, drops spattered on his angelic young face. He cries and screams and a large, bloody tear rolls down his cheek. Forcing a return from this traumatic state, Dexter opens his eyes, breathes hurriedly and runs from the psychologist’s office. This traumatic memory is later repeated and extended in the scene posted here - and it is here, in episode 1:10, that the true horror of ‘mommy’s murder’ and its extensive effects on Dexter’s identity become visible. 

If, as is indicated, Dexter repressed any knowledge of his mother’s horrific murder until regression “brought it back,” Sigmund Freud suggests that identity would indeed be affected in terms of a child suffering from a “mother-fixation.”
I argue that such a mother-fixation manifests itself in Dexter’s choice of the beautiful, but damaged Rita - a young and traumatised mother of two - as his girlfriend. Notably, the face of Dexter’s mother (Laura Moser) is not revealed until episode ten (“Seeing Red”). In this episode the blood-filled room Dexter is called out to analyse prompts (again) a re-emergence of the sickening memory of his mother’s desperate and terrified face prior to her imminent murder. The reveal here is interesting on many levels. Firstly, Laura, Dexter’s mother, is startlingly similar in appearance to Rita. Both women are fair, with virtually identical hairstyles, similar face shapes, ages and bodily statues. According to Freudian theory, the mother-fixation is often identified in this way.
Like Dexter’s mother, Rita requires saving from male violence and terror; like Rita, Laura was mother to two young children and was desperate to protect them, giving her life in order that they should be saved. In a conversation between Rita and her estranged husband, Paul, she says to him: “You cheated on me, you broke my heart, you broke my bones, and I took it so those kids wouldn’t have to” (1.11). We see explicitly in the scene here Laura begging Dexter to ‘close his eyes’ – to look away from the violence. As an audience, we may infer that Rita had to make this exact same request to her children, Cody and Astor, when she was repeatedly beaten and raped by Paul. Dexter clearly did not ‘look away’ – and the question thus remains, what doom lies beneath the surface of Cody and Astor’s innocent faces… 


The connection between Rita and Dexter's mother works particularly well here, and this seems to be material that the series itself continues to mine.  This past week, in fact, Dexter came to the conclusion that he chopped up his victims (as opposed to the other grisly alternatives) because his mother met a similar fate and even suggested that he was afraid to get close to Rita for fear that she might leave him, as his mother did. Virtually all of Dexter's behaviors, from his murders to his marriage, stem from this same point of origin (or primal scene?) and from his attempt to prevent his mother's death.   In assuming the role of killer rather than victim, in this complex Oedipal scenario, does Dexter, to some degree, then, identify with her killers, and do they, like Harry, become fathers to an extent?  Thanks for the post!   

Hi Beth

Loved the post, I think its great to see someone being brave enough to bring psychoanalysis to TV Studies! I liked the analogy between Dexter's mother and Rita; it's something I've not thought about before, even thought from your analysis it now appears blindingly obvious. I've always thought about this sequence in terms of flashbacks in a wider noir-ish structure that the first two seasons serve, rather than oedipal repression/regression. Thought-provoking...

A very interesting post, Beth, especially for the way it throws light on Rita, who many viewers seem to consider one of the most unsatisfactory and frustrating characters in the show! It would be interesting to think about what else Dexter and the viewer find out about his mother as the series progresses (i.e., her criminal activities, the connection with Harry) and to speculate whether this information plays any role in Dexter's decision to 'choose' his adoptive family over his 'blood brother' (no pun intended!) Brian at the end of Series One. The other thing that strikes me is that I can think of many serial killer narratives that become much less interesting once the killer is provided with some kind of originary trauma--what Thomas Harris does with Hannibal Lecter is probably the most notorious example. For whatever reason, the character of Dexter is neither deflated nor rendered banal by being given a traumatic backstory--another thing that makes this series exceptional.

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