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‘Dead to Me’ Ends Its Second Season with an Even Bigger Bang, But To What End? 

Photo Credit: Netflix

It would be silly to expect realism from a show like Netflix’s Dead to Me – a pitch black comedy built on the very unlikely scenario of a well-meaning kook (Linda Cardellini, Mad Men) trying to atone for her role in a fatal hit-and-run by stalking and eventually befriending the man’s grieving, bitter widow (Christina Applegate, Samantha Who). Though the first season was filled with twists and slow-burning secrets, the conceptual premise was kept grounded by the chemistry of its two stellar lead actresses. The friendship and dark humor Jen and Judy share in their struggles to cope with guilt and loss ultimately elevated Dead to Me above its soapy plot.

Rather than expound upon their evolving relationship, Season Two of Dead to Me instead hits the reset button – sending the pair back to square one by rehashing and inverting the major beats of season one (with Applegate’s Jen now hiding the nature of her role in the shady death of Judy’s fiancée) and relying too heavily on credulity-straining plot twists and giving the friendship at the heart of the original short shrift. 

That Jen did not kill Steve (James Marsden, X-Men) in self-defense but in a fit of rage was hardly surprising given Jen’s ever-present anger and hair-trigger temper, so it certainly made sense to drop that reveal in the first episode rather than drag it out as an unsatisfying mystery. The true nature of Steve’s death shouldn’t come as a shock. However, the reality of Jen’s brutality is not an easy pill to swallow either. When writing about the first three episodes, I thought about the rarity of depictions of unexcused female rage and the comparative lack of women anti-heroes in pop culture and whether that dearth is due to the fact that we are more reluctant to justify violence at the hands of women than we are in our Walter Whites and Tony Sopranos. 

While I’d personally love to see more Amazing Amy-types added to the pantheon of charismatic movie / TV sociopaths, ultimately Jen doesn’t fit the bill precisely because the writers seem afraid to frame her in such a way. Instead, they consistently walk back their presentation of her terrible actions with after-the-fact justifications. We knew from season one that Steve was callous and selfish, but now – in Judy’s bird funeral flashbacks and voicemails from the night of his death – it’s revealed that he was also abusive and threatening, as well. Don’t get me wrong; Steve was clearly a POS, but the revelation of this new layer to his treatment of Judy seems intended more to absolve Jen for his murder in the audience’s eyes than it does to serve as an awakening for Judy. 

For most of season two, Jen’s guilt functions in a very Edgar Allen Poe-esque manner (even after the disposal of the telltale freezer) in that it revolves mostly around a torturous, claustrophobic fear of getting caught. Certainly, Jen is sorry for the pain she’s caused Judy (welling up and nearly confessing countless times before finally coming clean) and for the pain a future imprisonment might cause her already bereaved children. Applegate does a fine job of selling Jen’s remorse and guilt-induced self-loathing, particularly when she breaks down at the smitten Ben’s (James Marsden, Westworld) effusive compliments about how wonderful she is. Yet overall, Jen’s redemptive arc feels a little unearned and unsatisfying, especially because it’s ultimately delivered by a deus ex machina change of character on the part of hard-ass detective Perez (Diana-Maria Riva, Sunnyside), who has been aggressively pursuing Jen and Judy since season one. 

After Jen confesses (granting Judy custody and leaving goodbye letters for her two boys) and takes Perez on a fruitless search for Steve’s forest grave, the two weepily bond over the losses of their own mothers at a young age and Jen’s sorrow for putting her own boys in the same position. While the characterization of Perez certainly evolved beyond single-minded super cop this season to show her sadness, insecurities, and longing for family and Riva and Applegate both bring real emotional gravitas to the scene, it still feels unlikely that Perez would suddenly be willing to condone a murder and help obstruct an investigation based solely on a moment of shared sadness. 

In addition to serving as an unlikely vehicle for Jen’s being let off the hook for Steve’s murder, Perez also plays a key role in one of the season’s more unlikely, convoluted plot twists when we learn that she’s the live-in ex-girlfriend of Judy’s new love interest, Michelle (Natalie Morales, Parks & Rec). It’s an eye-roll inducing contrivance that serves to further enmesh the Judy / Jen / Perez subplot in a way that feels lazy and utterly unbelievable (at this point, the social circle of Dead to Me’s Laguna Beach feels smaller than that of Bayside High). Perez’s defunct relationship with Michelle merely serves to create more acrimony between Judy and Perez and to set up Perez’s sadness about losing her own mother – there’s nothing in the characterization of either Michelle or Detective Perez that makes their relationship seem plausible beyond serving as a plot catalyst. 

That said, I do like Michelle and Judy as a couple (perhaps due to the fact that Cardellini and Morales have a palpable sexual chemistry between them and, honestly, it’s hard not to crush on either of them) but their burgeoning romantic relationship ultimately feels like a diversion from the Jen / Judy friendship that served as the heart of season one. The Judy / Michelle scenes are fine, but feel ripped from a benignly pleasant Hallmark Channel movie – two attractive women bonding over beautifully-plated food in a variety of photogenic, white-walled rooms or sun-bleached Californian vistas, like a curated Instagram feed sprung to life. It’s gorgeous, it’s sweet, it’s escapist, and ultimately feels like a water-treading diversion from the layered, gritty Jen / Judy dynamic that defined season one. 

Jen’s romantic interlude with Steve’s grieving brother, Ben, is similarly unsatisfying. I think James Marsden is so charming as Ben (giving Marsden a chance to flex his goofy muscles, as opposed to his devastatingly handsome muscles) but there’s truly no reason for him to be utterly enchanted with Jen other than the fact that he’s clearly meant to serve as the other side of the inverse to the Judy / Steve dynamic. Similarly, the fact that Ben and Steve’s mother (Frances Conroy! I’ve loved her since her turn as Ruth on Six Feet Under and am always delighted to see her on my screen) is quickly taken with Jen upon a single meeting feels totally arbitrary and just provides an avenue for Jen to get the listing on her multimillion dollar mansion which will eventually help provide financial and professional freedom from her smug mother-in-law . 

Jen’s ability to buy her mother-in-law out of her house doesn’t come solely through the potential sale of Steve and Ben’s family mansion. Jen is ultimately most helped by the financial windfall inadvertently heaped on Judy when Perez begrudgingly returns her sad, lost children portraits. To learn that Judy sought those paintings not because of their sentimental value but for the heaping fistfuls of cash hidden beneath their canvases was a fun twist (one that puts her sadness about Jen burning two of her paintings in a whole new light and one that made me laugh out loud when reconsidering Judy’s earlier assertions that her very sub-Bob Ross paintings were worth a lot of money in the art community) and also one that serves to bring Jen and Judy back together, now as co-owners, co-inhabitants, and co-parents in Jen’s lovely Californian mansion. 

Dead to Me season two could thus end on a high note but instead, we get Judy and Jen happily driving home Charlie’s new Kia only to be sidestruck at the very stop sign Jen petitioned to create by a grieving, off-the-wagon Ben (shout out to Frances Conroy again because the scene of their car getting suddenly T-boned brought me right back to the first episode of Six Feet Under). Thankfully, we don’t end on a cliffhanger here – we know Jen has survived and we clearly see what happened as drunken Ben drives away from the scene of the accident. Rather than end on a who-dunnit (or, more accurately, a how-dunnit) like season one, Dead to Me’s second season instead ends on a butterfly effect-like ripple, illustrating how Jen and Judy’s actions have derailed the life of another innocent in their web. It’s certainly a more philosophical cliffhanger than the clear-cut, moral conundrum of season one but I’m unsure if Dead to Me will satisfyingly address these questions in season three or just give us more Hallmark-movie fan service. 

Dead to Me Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.


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