This feels more like a trailer to me than a really cohesive explanation of the way Dexter operates, but it’s the best things I found.
Most of you probably know the premise of the show; Dexter was a creepy little animal killing kid, and his detective father saw this in him, and, instead of getting him some fucking therapy, taught him how to kill and how not to get caught. He uses him, despite what he says, as a form of vigilante justice. Because Dexter trusted and idolized Harry (Harry isn’t his real father, but the man who rescued him from a crime scene), he believes that Harry knows exactly who he is. How Dexter would have turned out if Harry hadn’t molded him is unclear (and something that plagues Dexter), but the more Dexter, and we, learn about Harry (the affairs with paid police informants, his eventual suicide), the more we doubt whether Dexter is innately a monster or whether he was made into one because of Harry’s opportunism and poor judgement.
So this is the question of the secret identity trope: since an identity is kept secret because it is shameful/illegal/immoral (or all three, in Dexter’s case), and will ostensibly ruin the character’s personal and professional lives, how does the show keep us rooting for the identity to be kept secret and for the main character to succeed?
Dexter’s creators have solved this problem by making us (or at least Dexter) believe that this is something within him that he cannot fight or overcome. So we feel sympathy that nature created a monster through circumstances beyond Dexter’s control, and added sympathy at the fact that he only uses his murderous impulses to fight crime and that it is crippling for Dexter to keep this secret from everyone, including his wife.
At one point in season one, all of Dexter’s victims were found in the water by Miami, and people begin rallying around the killer when they discover that all of the victims are repeat offender felons. Rita, Dexter’s eventual wife, says that she hopes they don’t catch this civil servant, and it is a great moment of validation for Dexter in the audience. We want Dexter to keep his secret (of course, no matter what Rita says, there is no way she could continue to love someone who habitually stabs people to death), and we also feel pride that Dexter’s careful work is being recognized.
Something interesting that Margaret brought up during our presentation was that seeing Dexter murder people is cathartic for us not because he is bringing criminals to justice, but because it is the one time when Dexter is whole. He always seems to feel a great sense of relief and be the most relaxed when he can admit to someone (in this case, his victims) his true nature. Dexter, throughout the course of the show, has confidants (Bryan in season one, Lila in season two, Miguel in season three, and eventually, Arthur in season four), who seem to share his murderous impulses and revere his work, in a way, but they always spiral out of control so that he has to destroy them. It’s interesting that Dexter is drawn to people who are close to this darkness, always feeling that they have answers that will allow him to exist in both worlds (his domestic space and killing time) without making sacrifices in either one. Unfortunately, none of them have the answers that will allow him to feel completely comfortable with his life choices and he becomes disillusioned with each one.
Obviously, it would be impossible for Dexter to lose his secret identity. Both because the very nature of his identity would be the (literal) end of his life, but also because he seems to crave an area of secrecy in his life. He is rarely comfortable being vulnerable even around Rita, and there seems to be something disparate between his voice over, where he seems to judge Rita for her ignorance and innocence, assuming she wouldn’t be able to handle it, or continue to love him, and the scenes where he opens up to her, crawling into her lap and begging her to love him unconditionally.
So the question with Dexter’s secret identity is whether he would take away the part of himself that he has to keep secret if he could. I would argue that Dexter would not. Being a serial killer is ingrained in his self-identification, and I honestly don’t believe there would be enough for him with his family and blood spatter analysis work to be a complete life, in his eyes. I really like this quote, which appeared in the second to last episode of the fourth season:
Watch 3:45 to 4:00.
Dexter is kind of the extreme when it comes to secret identity. It is probably the show that works the hardest to justify the least justifiable act. In its success, it has become one of the best shows on television.