The writing in the eighth episode of Dead to Me is frustrating in how much it hinges on an expected twist — Judy dumping Nick — but the performances and setup for where the season is likely to go from here keep it from falling apart. Ultimately, it’s about how Judy’s emotional unpredictability is going to impact the investigation into Ted’s death. Her addiction to Steve and blind hope that she could still have a family with him has pushed Nick away and into the window of TKG Arts, where he’s going to start putting together a crazy truth: His now-ex-girlfriend is the criminal he’s looking for. Well, unless Judy can figure out how to frame Steve, which is also starting to feel more and more likely.
Let’s start there for a change. As good as James Marsden has been, Steve has functioned mostly as a plot catalyst, a way to spin Judy off into mistakes that will impact the overall narrative of her relationship with the widow of the man she killed. The writers have developed Steve as someone just interesting enough for us to see why Judy keeps going back to him, but also just awful enough to make him the true villain of the season. Whether or not you want Judy to pay for her crime is up for debate, but likely no one would feel bad seeing Steve taken away from Wood, Wood, & Wood in handcuffs. This episode, that perspective gets some major fuel with one line: “Maybe put yourself out of your misery now.” It may be the coldest line uttered on TV this year, and that’s before taking into account Steve introducing his new girlfriend to the woman he just told to get an abortion before she miscarries.
While Judy is compounding the bad decision to sleep with Steve again by breaking up with Nick, Jen is investigating Ted’s murder on her own. The journey to find someone with a ’66 Mustang with a broken headlight leads her to the home of Andrew Peters, someone who lives four blocks from the crime scene and has two DUIs. This is an interesting scene in the way it conveys menace and dread even though we know that Andrew isn’t Ted’s killer. That doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Still, think about the contrast. Judy, the nicest person in the world, is the murderer; Andrew, a gross human being, is innocent (at least in this specific case). Jen, however, doesn’t know that, making the sequence before she clocks Andrew in the face all the more harrowing — and her breakdown after even more believable and powerful.
Jen’s investigation this episode really takes a backseat to Judy’s journey, which begins when she hears that something called TKG Arts is on the list of ’66 Mustang owners. Clearly that’s the car that Judy and Steve owned, and the one that killed Ted. How will Judy keep Nick and Jen away from the truth? It looks like she can’t, especially while she’s distracted by the idea that she might be pregnant. The baby has to be Steve’s because when she started showing symptoms of pregnancy, she hadn’t yet slept with Nick. (Remember, he wanted to take it slow? Apparently, real slow.) While her boyfriend detective is getting closer to proving she’s a murderer, Judy tries desperately to hold on to something she wanted years earlier.
Let’s talk about Judy’s mindset here. She knows that Steve is a “Secret Dick.” She knows that she’s had five miscarriages and that Steve calls her nuts to strangers selling the house he never let her decorate. But the unplanned pregnancy allows her to do what Steve calls “brightsiding,” believing she can still find the happiness that’s eluded her. Something to consider: Would Judy make the mistake of breaking up with Nick and trying to put together an irreparable life with Steve if she wasn’t concerned she was going to jail tomorrow? Stress can lead to bad decision-making.
Judy learns after breaking up with Nick that she’s not pregnant. In fact, her estrogen levels are so low that she couldn’t possibly be. The symptoms? They may be early menopause. This is devastating to Judy, and an interesting turn for the show to take this late in the season. Does it feel cruel to give Judy a glimpse of the happy life she so desperately wanted one more time, only to rip it away? Is it perhaps the writers trying to engender more sympathy for Judy? She’s just been told, after five miscarriages, that she will likely never be pregnant again. Does that impact how much you want to see her arrested for killing Ted?
It’s another wave of grief for Judy, underscoring once again that this is at heart a show about how grief impacts decision-making. It will be interesting to see how Judy’s knowledge that she will never have the child she dreamed of having will affect her actions in the final two episodes. One almost wonders if she might just throw it all away and confess to Jen? That is, if Nick doesn’t figure it out first.
• Remember Lilith Fair? Jen and Judy reminisce about it, and if you’re too young to know what they’re talking about, congratulations. Here’s a good piece on what it was: a female-driven music tour of artists like Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, and the Indigo Girls in the ’90s. I think I went to at least one.
• The first person that Jen encounters in her hunt went on something called a Star Trek Cruise, and I had to know if this was a real thing. Apparently it is. Discuss among yourselves how terrifying or awesome it would be.
• Two episodes to go and the main strength of the show remains the gray area surrounding Judy. It feels more than ever like Steve is going to take a fall, especially after that awful “misery” line, but can the writers of Dead to Me satisfactorily allow Judy to get away with it, or find a way to make her pay that feels right? Have they written themselves into a corner?
• About that last question — is this a one-season wonder? They can’t drag out too many of the mysteries surrounding Ted’s death. Or can they? We’ll know in less than an hour.