As the Chris Dorner saga burnt down to its strange conclusion Tuesday evening, most people watching the events on TV presumably felt sad, shocked, or repulsed. A few—crime procedural nerds, Michael C. Hall fans—may have also felt a twinge of recognition. Dorner’s story, or what we know of it so far, bears striking similarities to the Sgt. Doakes plotline from the Showtime series Dexter. (Spoilers for the first two seasons of the show are ahead.)
There’s no equivalence, obviously, between a real-life tragedy and a network fantasy that treats death as glamorous and serial killers as cuddly. But the scenarios echo each other in uncanny ways. In Season 2 of Dexter, Army ranger-turned-cop James Doakes (Erik King) is accused of murdering a long list of Miamians; he winds up in a cabin in the Everglades, which becomes his gravesite when it dissolves in flames. Police (erroneously) close their marquee case, that of the Bay Harbor Butcher, after IDing Doakes’ incinerated torso.
Now we have Chris Dorner, Navy reservist-turned-cop, accused of murdering three people, holed up in a bungalow in the woods that explodes under mysterious circumstances, also leaving behind nothing but charred remains.
One of the obvious differences between fiction and reality: On Dexter, we knew exactly what happened. We knew Doakes was innocent, that femme fatale Lila torched the hideout after dousing it in lighter fluid, that Dexter himself committed the original murders. We knew Doakes only ended up in the fateful cabin because he was tracking the show’s anti-hero. Despite the injustice of it, we even appreciated the neatness with which the season tied up its loose ends.
It certainly looks like Dorner killed the daughter of an LAPD officer and her fiancé and shot at two Riverside cops. (We can even speculate that he was the one to start the blaze, perhaps to die in a storm of glory.) But for now, we don’t know for sure. That flickering uncertainty is one of the many, many reasons that crime-and-punishment tales prove far less satisfying—and far more disturbing—in real life.