Growing up, I always gravitated toward stories that were grounded in reality. I didn't believe in fantasy worlds like the far-away galaxy of Star Trek or the other-being nature of The X-Files. But I certainly got my jollies by watching fictional characters track down monsters. Whether it was the everyday petty criminals of NYPD Blue or the more severe psychopaths from Profiler, there was something about the quest to make the world a better-- cleaner-- place that just spoke to me. So it really should be no surprise that today two of my favorites still happen to be about hunting monsters. Albeit, very different kinds of monsters, but monsters nonetheless.
On Supernatural, the Winchester brothers travel the country in their arsenal-outfitted Chevy Impala taking on everything from demons to ghosts to shapeshifters, and in one very special episode, "just people." Meanwhile, on Dexter, the monsters are much more humanized, in that they are always just actual people: serial killers, drug dealers, rapists. Miami Metro Homicide hunts them down, puts them behind bars, and when they can't, there's a very special kind of vigilante justice that takes over in the form of Dexter Morgan himself.
Some might call Dexter a monster, too, but those people just don't know him like I do.
In some sort of bizarre cross-over, Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) might end up hunting Dexter himself (Michael C. Hall), but perhaps that is because he recognizes just how much they have in common and feels the need to take out his competition?
Both guys have extremely on-the-nose instincts when it comes to what the "bad thing" is that they are hunting. You could say that Dean's instincts have been honed from years and years of training with his father-- and that is true for how to kill the being-- but in actuality, there is more to it than that. There is something in his blood-- in his destiny-- that says he can't be anyone but who he is and he can't do anything but what he does. Even if sometimes he fights against it and tries to prove otherwise. He was fated, destined, born to do what he does.
Dexter's instincts are innate, too, though his own adoptive father did train him on how to best put them to use. He may have been nurtured on the methods, but it was always in his nature, born in blood, to hunt. In neither case do the men question what they were shown how to do, though at times they do question the true nature of themselves. They both suffer from hero worship when it comes to their father figures, and that can lead them down a dark and dangerous path in the so-called real world. What if those grown men were wrong-- distracted by events they could not control in their own lives and determined to teach the new generation how to right the wrongs they could not? Not an issue for Dean or Dexter. At least not in the beginning.
By the time these men learned it was okay to rebel, it really wasn't anymore. They were long-past the years of adolescence where lashing out at a parental figure was just par for the course and a way to pass the time of day. Their insubordination had greater consequences; for Dexter it meant spiraling and turning sloppy with his kills, while for Dean it meant taking a stand against his true father and furthering the destruction of society. Needless to say, both men carry really heavy burdens when it comes to feeling the pressure of preserving life as we know it. Without them, who will take out the trash?
Dexter's instincts are not necessarily innate because of some larger than life factor that he is meant for something bigger-- greater-- than just he alone but instead because what he recognizes in those others he hunts is exactly what he sees in himself. He considers himself less than human so when he hunts others that do evil acts, he sees it as putting down animals and therefore not irreprehensible acts.
And while we're on the topic of self-deprecation, both Dexter and Dean have serious issues with self-esteem. Dexter struggles with feelings of inadequacies because he spent most of his life being unable to really feel anything or connect with anyone. He learned to fake it, but he really had no friends other than his stepfather and stepsister. Even his stepmother sensed there was something "not right" with him. And these days, he knows what he does is wrong-- in part on an intellectual level, but more and more on an emotional level when he sees just how it impacts those around him. Yet he is powerless to stop, so he fills with self-loating and hatred.
Dean, on the other hand, didn't have a quote-unquote- "apple pie" normal childhood either. While Dexter was off killing neighborhood dogs and stray raccoons or possums or birds or whatever, Dean was being shuffled from school to school, always a loner, on the outskirts, building up a wall of sarcasm to hide the fact that he couldn't make any real friends. He only had his own dad and sibling with whom to bond, and such a limited, specific world view greatly stunted him.
Both men were forced to grow up too soon by learning things about themselves and the world in which they live that little kids should never have to consider. Dean was given the tough task of playing both father and big brother to Sam when his dad would leave them alone in motels for days on end while he was off hunting. Dean learned to make them meals, put the kid to bed, as well as how to use guns and that whatever you think lurks under your bed or in your closest is, in fact, very much there. Once Harry saw what Dexter was doing-- and who or what he was-- he began to point out the irregularity from "normal" boys his age; while most kids just go through periods where they feel different, Dexter was actually made acutely aware of just how different he was and why.
Both men, you could say, experienced a form of abuse as children, at the hands of their own caregivers.
Neither man thinks he is worthy of love. Sure, they may set out to have relationships-- one driven by his libido and for purely carnal reasons and the other to blend even further and just do what everyone expects of him-- but they are both so emotionally stunted they don't feel they deserve the true affection that comes from a deep or meaningful relationship. In part because of the lack of self-esteem I touched on earlier but also in part because they figure they are just on borrowed time.
Death certainly surrounds both Dean and Dexter both by design and by demand. It is enough to make even the most sane, well-adjusted person wonder if it is following them. From the earliest days of their mothers' demises to Dean's literal sit down with the Horseman in Detroit and Dexter's chosen profession...and hobby.
Dean saw his mother die a horrific death at a very young age. So did Dexter, even if he couldn't remember it without someone jogging his memory years after the fact. But furthermore, when they were young men, they both had to make a choice-- something which probably didn't even feel like a choice to them at the time-- to save the only people close to them. Dean did it at the crossroads after Sam had been skewered by Jake. Dexter did it in the hospital, "stopping" the nurse who was slowly killing his father. Undoubtedly those early images of death shaped their subconsciouses and still managed to haunt them and their decisions for years. They couldn't deal with someone else they counted on dying, so they did whatever they could to prevent it, even if their actions proved purely selfish.
Also, both Dean and Dexter are a bit afraid of dogs. I can't even blame them on this point, and I'm the biggest dog love there is. They've had bad experiences: Dean got ripped to shreds and dragged to hell by some ghost incarnate versions, while very much alive ones can just sense what Dexter is and that could cause trouble for him in many, many ways...
But neither are totally heartless, though their actions might sometimes seem otherwise. They have both been responsible for taking innocent lives due to mistakes; they're not perfect, after all. They are not superheroes but merely human. But they both have a very real soft spot for kids. Maybe-- more than with anyone else, and perhaps even more than they realize-- they even identify with kids. So much so that they embraced being a father figure to children that were not even their own. Even under gruff or otherwise seemingly unfeeling exteriors, they both acknowledge that they lost something in their youth, and they don't want to see that same light go out in another child's eyes. So regardless of what any mistakes they have made, they are both more than redeemed.
What drives both of these men is an unseen force telling them they have to commit certain acts; they have a certain job to do. It is their obligation, their gift; their curse. More than anything these two are the same because their situation has them enslaved to this force, or perhaps in better terms, compulsion.