In the second season of Dead to Me, which drops in full today on Netflix, Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) find themselves under even more stress than they did in season one. For starters, they’ve got a dead body to deal with; as established Dead to Me viewers no doubt recall, the first season ended with the sight of Judy’s former fiancé, Steve (James Marsden), face down in Jen’s swimming pool, having been killed by Jen under murky circumstances.
Season two picks up right where season one left off, as the two unlikely best friends, brought together by the fact that Judy accidentally killed Jen’s husband in a hit-and-run, try to decide what to do next. Their initial plan is to stow Steve’s corpse in a massive freezer in Jen’s garage, which is why, in episode two, they have a panicked conversation in that garage while both nursing a glass of white wine. They discuss Steve’s “peripheral” connections to the Greek mafia, and Judy says they need to stay focused on the positive in order to get through this. Then she informs Jen that she just put a cherry pie, Jen’s favorite, in the oven.
“I’m on a diet,” Jen says. “I gained ten pounds over the summer.”
“You look beautiful,” Judy protests. As she leaves the garage, she adds, with the utmost sincerity: “I wish you would love yourself more.”
This is the essence of Dead to Me, a show in which a pair of middle-aged suburban women commit major crimes and dig themselves into increasingly complicated holes that may implicate them. It’s also a show in which those same middle-aged suburban women simultaneously parent children (Jen has two boys), do their respective jobs as real-estate agent and assisted-living staffer, down endless gallons of Chardonnay, and act as each other’s emotional support animals. At its heart, Dead to Me remains, as it was in season one, a female buddy dramedy. It’s also correct to call it a crime show and a thriller and an incredibly bingeable work of television. As in the first season, each of the ten episodes in season two ends on some sort of major reveal or cliffhanger, making it just so easy to surrender to Netflix and allow the next episode to play. This is a warning and a promise: If you start watching the new Dead to Me episodes today, there’s a strong chance you will finish them before Saturday.
It’s difficult to delve into many plot specifics about season two, partly because I don’t want to ruin surprises for anyone and partly because Netflix doesn’t want me to ruin surprises for anyone, either — the platform has asked that critics not reveal certain elements, including some that are very relevant to the new season’s major story lines. I can tell you that Jen’s annoying neighbor Karen (Suzy Nakamura) continues to try to worm her way into Jen’s social circle. (In the first episode, she offers Jen orange wine, which she learned about “on a Reddit subthread about menopause.”) Marsden is still part of the series, even though Steve is dead. I also can tell you that season two gets even more wild with its plot twists. The end of the finale, in particular, is a real “Oh no, you did not!” moment.
Suffice to say that creator Liz Feldman and her fellow writers crank up the soap-opera-style drama this season, but they manage to keep Dead to Me from sailing off into the atmosphere of stupid television, thanks to the show’s sharp sense of humor and the grounded emotional moments that make what’s happening feel almost real. A lot of credit for obeying the laws of TV gravity also goes to the two leads. Applegate continues to do the best work of her career as Jen, a role that enables her to explore moments of deep grief and fear while also playing to her strengths as a comedic actor who creates her best art in the medium of sarcasm. Cardellini is great, too, forever the naïve optimist and New Age flake who can elicit giggles and empathy every time she breaks down in tears.
Both of them are playing women who have made completely freaking out their default setting, but they freak out in distinct ways. Judy is inclined to suddenly sob or, worse, punch herself in the head repeatedly to punish herself, where Jen is more like a stretched-out rubber band that’s always one latex strand away from completely snapping. She’s the type of person who assures her teenage son Charlie (Sam McCarthy) that she’s “chill” two seconds before screaming, “Hey, slow down, fuck-stick!” at a neighbor speeding through a stop sign. She is always a half-breath away from going completely ballistic.
Maybe that’s why I am inclined to forgive Dead to Me for some of its more illogical, overly coincidental swings and give myself over to its unpredictability and portrait of women on the verge. Right now, at times, it feels like we’re all a half-breath away from going completely ballistic. Watching Dead to Me affirms the idea that any new horrible obstacle could present itself at any moment. I mean, can you really criticize Dead to Me for being too much when the world just gave us murder hornets? At the same time, the series’ outlandish scenarios may make some people pretty grateful for their current reality. Sure, there’s a pandemic and we’re all stuck at home and we don’t know when it’s going to end. But, hey, at least you don’t have a dead guy in your garage (hopefully).