There’s an old adage in drama that the protagonist is not superior to his adversaries because of any power he has. He may possess better technology and sit upon billions of dollars, like Bruce Wayne as Batman, but these attributes add nothing to the pull of the story. They merely set the stage. What truly matters then, is not the protagonist’s wealth, IQ, toolbox, or connections. Instead, it’s the protagonist’s ethic, and perhaps even more importantly, his willingness to assert it.
The final episode of the first season of Dexter is called “Born Free”, which refers to the 1966 movie about a Kenyan gamewarden who attempts to retrain a domesticated lioness for life in the wild. As Rudy says to Dex during their clash of the titans climax, “You don’t have a code. Harry did, and he’s been dead ten years. You can’t keep him sitting on your shoulder like Jiminy fuckin’ Cricket.”
But I take the reference deeper, back to Rousseau’s dictum in the Social Contract that man is born free, but everywhere society has shackled him in chains. Who is free? Rudy asks. Not Dex. He’s beholden to a hidebound morality. On the other hand, it’s the philosophers who tell us to grapple with our impulses and the darker movements of our souls. We must restrain them, they say, and only by restraining them, do we free ourselves from the imprisonment of acting like beasts.
This must be what Bryan Caplan had in mind when he wrote:
But back to the principles of drama. Caplan’s only partially right here. I think he’s identified the right clash of morals, a cultivated selfishness pitted against the heroic restraint of deep-seated impulses, but he leaves that important second step out of it, namely, the protagonist’s willingness to assert his values. The code of Harry falls silent unless Dexter imposes it. So yes, I’d agree with the Kant. But only if we flavor it with some Nietzsche.