DEXTER & BURN NOTICE: Fun in the Sun? Or Something Much Darker?

And now, a little overthink for those of you who prefer it when your cortexes go ka-blam!

Miami Justice: Two Sides of the Same Coin – by Ben Adams

Why do we punish? And why is it so much fun to see punishment doled out? From crime procedurals like Law and Order to superheroes dominating the box office inThe Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, we seem to have a collective fascination with the punishment of wrong-doers. But where does the urge to punish come from? Why are we so insistent that the wicked suffer? Because that’s the key question – punishment, but it’s very nature, is generally backwards looking. Punishing the murderer doesn’t bring back the dead. What good does it do anyone to inflict further suffering, even if it seems like someone “deserves” it? My colleague Matthew Belinkie has explored the legal side of punishment at length, so I’m going to turn my attention towards the extra-legal side of punishment – the vigilante.

In the real world, punishment is the exclusive domain of the state – finding and punishing wrong-doers is arguably what makes a government a government. Preventing individuals from enforcing the law themselves is a vitally important part of maintaining order. In pop culture, though, the vigilante is often seen as a viable – if not preferable – alternative to governmental punishment. There’s nothing we like more than to see one man, alone against the criminal underworld.

Why do we punish? And why is it so much fun to see punishment doled out? From crime procedurals like Law and Order to superheroes dominating the box office inThe Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, we seem to have a collective fascination with the punishment of wrong-doers. But where does the urge to punish come from? Why are we so insistent that the wicked suffer? Because that’s the key question – punishment, but it’s very nature, is generally backwards looking. Punishing the murderer doesn’t bring back the dead. What good does it do anyone to inflict further suffering, even if it seems like someone “deserves” it? My colleague Matthew Belinkie has explored the legal side of punishment at length, so I’m going to turn my attention towards the extra-legal side of punishment – the vigilante.

In the real world, punishment is the exclusive domain of the state – finding and punishing wrong-doers is arguably what makes a government a government. Preventing individuals from enforcing the law themselves is a vitally important part of maintaining order. In pop culture, though, the vigilante is often seen as a viable – if not preferable – alternative to governmental punishment. There’s nothing we like more than to see one man, alone against the criminal underworld.

In two different long- running TV shows, Burn Notice and Dexter, audiences tune in week after week to see an attractive white male in his 30s run around Miami and take the law into his own hands. Both characters have deep seated psychological issues stemming from their fathers, have loose ties to the government, and will not stop narrating. This isn’t all accidental – both characters relationship with their fathers are indicative of the deeper ties between our fathers and punishment (See also: Batman, Superman, Iron Man, James Bond, etc.) The tropical setting provides a stark contrast to the darkness of the crimes being fought, and the constant narration keeps the audience rooting for the protagonist, even when his actions would normally have us dialing 911 and calling for them to get sent to the electric chair.

Dexter always kills his victims, while Michael Weston sometimes just scares them away or gets them arrested, but the two men are still fundamentally the same – they have both decided that the government is falling down on the job, and that justice demands they take the law into their own hands. What truly separates the two men is why they do what they do. To understand these two vigilantes and their appeal to the TV audience, we need to explore the reasons that anyone would want to punish someone in the first place.

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