The curious thing about the finale of Dirty John is that the title character didn’t seem to have any lines. He’s there forebodingly digging a grave in the middle of the desert, following Debra’s assistant to figure out where she lives, silently lurking behind the wheel of his car outside of Veronica’s apartment, and fixing the brake lights of his car, but he doesn’t really say anything. The series spent seven episodes building up this boogeyman to hunt down the female characters, and then he’s essentially neutered.
There isn’t really a sense of dread or immediate danger, which seems to have all dissipated after the last episode. Yes, Debra talks about how she’s worried he’s getting angrier, and Veronica trolls his online dating accounts to try to keep track of them, but they’re also laughing on the couch ordering pizza. They don’t seem too pressed.
I’m not trying to fault the real people behind these characters, but there’s something about the plotting and execution of this episode that seems slack, unlike anything else that came before it. In most of these recaps I never addressed the similarities and differences between the show and the podcast because I think they should stand on their own as two separate pieces of work. Also, the series was doing such a great job keeping up the plot of the podcast while giving us deeper character beats that revealed why each of these people might have behaved the ways they did, in ways that can’t be done with just words alone on a podcast.
However, when it comes to this final episode, and Terra’s attack in the parking lot specifically, I think that the series is a bit of a letdown when compared with the podcast. Chris Gofford, the LA Times reporter, who we see Debra speaking to at the very end of the episode, goes into great detail about everything that happened that day in the parking lot of Terra’s building. We find out about the concert she was going to, why she was dressed in galoshes and why that mattered to her survival, why she had her dog with her, her love of The Walking Dead, and her mindset on that final day. There’s so much description surrounding the attack and examining every minute detail about it, from what the girl who came to her aid was doing that day to the disposition of Terra’s dog, that it seems to have some weight behind it. It seems like this huge event, the climax of this story of the destruction of a family by a malignant grifter.
The attack in this series, well, it doesn’t feel like any of that. Thirty seconds and some great knife-in-the-eye special effects later, it’s all over. John is dead, Terra is a mess, and everyone is free from his control. Maybe it’s just the way that a visual medium makes all of the description of a podcast unnecessary, but there’s something light about the attack here. It’s really the pivotal moment of the whole series, and it seems almost like an aside.
There’s more suspense when Veronica and the cute Uber driver Max catch John in front of her house than when John finally attacks and dies. Maybe that’s because we finally got to see Ronnie have to be nice to someone she treated like crap because suddenly she needs him. In fact, my favorite scene of the whole episode is when she finally has to start flirting with the dude and agreeing to listen to some of his “chillwave” music just so she can get him to hang around with her and make sure Terra is safe. Is that Veronica melting, or is that just manipulating someone to get what she wants once again? Maybe it’s both!
(Of course the writers can’t resist one final twist of the knife when it comes to Veronica, showing her telling Terra to beware a black four-door sedan, with broken bake lights, while we see John getting out of a blue two-door sedan with brake lights that work.)
Even after the attack, there’s still half of the episode left, and while I wished for a bit more impact from that act, watching all of these women deal with the aftermath of John’s crusade against them turns out to be the main attraction. It’s crazy when Debra meets John’s sister Denise in the hallway outside of his room, and they’re just like, “Oh, hey girl. How you doing? Should we go to SoulCycle and then get a boba?” These two women both just experienced an intense trauma, and suddenly it’s like a Victims of John Meehan MeetUp Group in the hospital corridor.
However, Terra’s reaction to meeting Denise is fantastic. “He had daughters, he was someone’s father, and I took him away from all of you,” she cries. (Julia Garner, who plays Terra, has been an underrated gem during this whole season.) Denise replies that John was the most alone person she ever knew and that he drove all of these people out of his life, and that Terra was worrying more about those people than about herself being attacked speaks volumes about her character.
That’s what’s fascinating about John: everyone he leaves behind is a woman. It’s not just his sister, his ex-wife, and his daughters — it’s also Debra, her two daughters, and her mother. In the end, this wasn’t really a show about victims, but a show about survivors, about how these women pick up the pieces after this awful agent of the patriarchy has set their lives on fire and then pissed on the embers.
Denise deals with it by letting go and making peace that John got what he deserved based on the choices he made. Terra deals with it by trying to go back to being her sweet self but knowing that she has what it takes to kill a man if necessary. Ronnie deals with it through cruelty, laughing that even after they kept John alive to harvest his organs even those were too polluted by drugs to serve any purpose. She has that and her purses, I guess. (Man, I hate Ronnie so much but I also love her and want to take her for a SoulCycle and a boba and just make fun of everyone we see.)
The one with the most to deal with, though, is Debra. The police bring her to the trailer where John was living and the detective tells her that everything in the trailer is hers now as the next-of-kin. “Lucky me,” Debra hilariously whispers in response, in a tone that can only be described as two packets of Splenda in a beaker full of acid. There she finds the picture of their wedding and asks, “Doesn’t he look happy?”
She is still conflicted over the whole thing. As she’s watching his body get cremated, she’s thinking of the good times, when they were falling in love, and she was oblivious of all the machinations and manipulations he used to get here there. Later we see her at her mother’s house with the whole family and her mother sits her down and says, “You’re already forgiven.” Well, I would sure hope so! I mean, Debra’s mom forgave the guy who shot her daughter in the face, she better forgive Debra when she didn’t really do anything.
Still Debra is thinking about what John did to her, what he did to all of them. She’s thinking about how he tricked her, how he used her need for love and her innate desire to please the man in her life for his own vicious gain. She thinks about how this could have destroyed her whole family, how it caused them all unspeakable trauma. Then we see Debra do the bravest thing she’s done all season: call up the LA Times. “I think I would like to get this out there so people can know what he did,” she tells reporter Chris Gofford’s voicemail. “I know it won’t make me look very good, but I hope it will help some women avoid this happening to them.”
She’s right, it didn’t make her look very good — but, in the end, she is the real hero of the story.