Dead to Me
There’s nothing like a shared enemy to bring people together, and that’s exactly what the excellent season finale of Dead to Me gives Jen Harding and Judy Hale. The episode asks one key question that the show has hinted at but not explicitly brought to the forefront: Would Judy have stopped that night if Steve wasn’t in the car? And does this make Steve more responsible for Ted’s death than the driver of the car that hit him? It certainly makes him more dead, which is what he is at the end of “You Have to Go,” floating in Jen’s pool.
Let’s hold off on what this means for season two and first discuss the themes brought together in season one. Dead to Me is about a friendship forged through grief. Something people rarely talk about in real life, but which is arguably the most commonly explored theme in our fiction, is death and how we deal with it. How did Liz Feldman and her team handle it differently? They recognized that grief can impact our decisions in unpredictable, unexpected ways, and can unite personalities as different as Jen and Judy. Dead to Me could have gone wrong in so many ways — one can easily picture the network sitcom version that doesn’t take its emotions as seriously, with broader jokes and slapstick behavior. But Feldman and her team succeed by deftly balancing the themes of their show, presenting them within both a character piece and a mystery. Jen and Judy never seem like plot devices. They’re fully realized characters.
Of course, none of it would work without Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, two of those underrated actresses who are always at least pretty good, but may have never been better than they are here. Applegate finds just the right balance of cynicism and raw grief in Jen, someone who wants to kill the person who ruined her life, but also knows deep down that vengeance won’t solve all of her problems. Cardellini matches her with a truly difficult role. Think about how ridiculous some of Judy’s actions look on paper, but Cardellini somehow makes even her most extreme decisions feel genuine, especially when one considers what she’s been through, from the miscarriages to what was really an emotionally abusive relationship with Steve. When Judy says she just wanted to try to make Jen feel whole again, we believe it. She somehow makes us understand a stalker’s motivations.
Of course, nothing can bring Ted back to life, and Jen is unwilling to forgive Judy at the start of “You Have to Go.” Feldman and co-writer Abe Sylvia open the episode with a surprisingly deliberate pace. One might expect a season finale to a show like this one, especially coming after an episode in which our protagonist marched off with a gun, to be a fast-paced chapter, but we spend time at a baptism and an open house. It’s a reminder that while this show has teased out a mystery, it’s balanced that with character, and actually been stronger in the latter department than the former. And so we take the time to say goodbye to Abe and to catch up with Henry and Charlie before the closing-scene fireworks.
But the fireworks definitely come. It starts with Judy emptying her and Steve’s joint bank account of half a million dollars. Hold on one second. Would Steve really not see that coming? He has filed a restraining order but not protected his fortune? And don’t joint bank accounts with that much money in them require both people to sign off? Anyway, suspending that disbelief, it’s telling that Steve seems more upset about losing his money than anything else in his life. He marches over to Jen’s house, looking for Judy, but she’s not there. In fact, Jen has thoroughly secured her home to make sure Judy’s not there.
Where’s Judy? On the side of the road, working up the nerve to kill herself. While she’s contemplating that decision, Steve has his final conversation with Jen, or anyone for that matter. Brilliantly, the writers recognize that Steve is the kind of selfish tool who would make Ted’s death all about him. It’s the worst night of Steve’s life, of course. Not Ted’s, Jen’s, or Judy’s. Steve’s selfishness blinds him to what’s about to happen, even after Jen pulls a gun on him. And the season ends with Steve Wood floating in Jen Harding’s pool.
Where does Dead to Me go in season two? There are a lot of threads that could lead the police, including Nick, to Jen’s house. First, they’re even more likely to suspect Judy, especially given the dark past they share. But the Ted investigation probably isn’t over, either. If the Laguna PD is to be believed, they’re still coming after Judy for the hit-and-run murder of Ted Harding. So if they can prove she committed it, they’re likely to suspect that Steve’s disappearance (presuming they hide the body well) is related. And Nick is almost certain to connect those dots, especially as he thinks Judy is pretty crazy right about now. Unless he’s moved on entirely. He feels like a character who could be major in season two or we could have seen the last of him. Who knows?
There are plenty of places for Dead to Me to go in season two narratively, but what about thematically? If the first season was about how grief connects people, season two could be about how a shared secret defines a relationship. Will Jen be able to forgive Judy now that she’s taken a life too? And think about who she killed. Technically, both Jen and Judy murdered each other’s partners.
The regret tore Judy apart in season one. What will it do to Jen in season two? Where it once looked like Dead to Me had written itself into a corner, Liz Feldman and company found a way to end the season in a manner that feels satisfying and provides fascinating directions for the program to go in season two. It’s a show that feels very much alive.
• Who’s your MVP? Let’s say Applegate and Cardellini are both nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy and you have one vote. Who does it go to? It’s a close call for me, but I’m going Applegate.
• Was it a bit too on the nose to have the Holy Harmonies kids sing “Every Breath You Take” in a show about a stalker? And then to have Judy show up during the performance? It’s right on the verge of too self aware.
• It was nice to see the Mexican Lasagna come full circle, although it still sounds disgusting.
• There’s a similar bookending to the season in that it opens and closes with happy songs: “Get Happy” in the premiere and “It’s a Good Day” in the finale. From Judy Garland to Peggy Lee.
• Did the season end in a way that worked for you? And what do you want from season two?