The midsection of the second season of Dead to Me is humming along, confidently balancing character work and the show’s soap opera elements. It’s increasingly remarkable to watch Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini ground their leading ladies in believable emotions while the narrative around them spins into something that wouldn’t be out of place on Days of Our Lives. After finding common ground through burying Steve and stealing booze from a wedding party, Jen and Judy split this episode, spending time with new friends who could also be potential significant others: Ben and Michelle, respectively. Michelle is clearly being set up as more than just a new friend for Judy, whereas the Ben/Jen dynamic seems to be something like forced friends this episode, but look at how Marsden plays some of their awkward scenes and imagine if Jen ends up with the mirror image of the man she killed. There’s not enough therapy in the world.
The episode starts by getting rid of one of the last reminders of the murder and associated cover-up: the freezer. Jen gives it to Slade, the burly exterminator with seven kids. And it seems like everything might actually turn out fine. But as they shop for groceries and discuss documentaries about women who make their own maxi pads, Jen and Judy have no idea that Charlie is joyriding in the car of a dead man. More urgently, Jen’s credit card doesn’t work at the grocery store, which leads to some cashier harassment and a smashed bottle of wine. Poor Tyler. He’s just doing his job.
It turns out that Jen’s credit card debt is skyrocketing. Her stress rises again looking at bills that she has to pay and wondering how that’s even possible, and she realizes that Judy isn’t helping, pushing her away. Then an interesting thing happens: almost instantly, Judy makes a mistake. It’s almost as if Jen keeps her from destroying everything, her cynicism balancing Judy’s naïveté. After learning that TKG Arts is being turned into an Arby’s, Judy reveals to Ben that Steve knew Jen and she was angry after a real estate deal fell through. Ben seizes on it immediately, but Judy tries to backtrack. Does it work?
The following scene may be the best of the year so far. Judy goes into the bathroom and abuses herself, emotionally and physically. Cardellini is heartbreaking in the way she captures Judy’s fragility and willingness to repeat things to herself that abusive people like Steve have said in the past, and it’s a daring choice to do it direct-to-camera. She’s pointing and yelling at us, making it feel even more immediate and tragic.
Michelle to the rescue! Maybe other viewers saw this earlier, but it’s clear after this episode that Michelle is more than just a new friend for Judy—she hopes to be a new partner. The two share a smoke in the car and end up at a cute restaurant that it turns out is owned by Michelle. The flirtation really goes into overdrive when Judy asks Michelle her specialty and the chef says, “Making you happy.” Judy gets to relax, finally, and talk about things that Jen just doesn’t care about at all, like astrology and gemstones. Michelle even ends up giving Judy a moonstone and mentions an ex-girlfriend who’s still in the picture. That feels like it could end up being important. Exes on Dead to Me often are.
Meanwhile, a less defined but interesting relationship starts to form between Ben and Jen after he comes to her office. He’s looking for information about the last time Jen saw Steve, but it becomes something else when he sees the back problems Jen is having. He ends up back at her house, where Karen busts in with a bottle of orange wine and a major moment unfolds as Jen’s neighbor thinks she saw Ben a few nights ago. Ben is suspicious at first but then seems to get over it (a little too easily) and buys Jen’s story that it was someone else. Later, Ben (who’s a chiropractor, remember) helps adjust Jen’s back. Each twist and turn releases a moment from the most devastating night of Jen’s life (other than the one when her husband died). It’s a great beat from the writers and Applegate alike, revealing how tension and trauma have physically affected Jen’s body.
Later, after some more orange wine, Ben reveals that he’s had seven surgeries for a heart defect before he busts some killer dance moves from his time in elementary school. Ben jokes about dropping dead and talks about the struggle his mom is going through, and it almost feels like roles have shifted from season one: Jen is the new Judy and Ben is the new Jen. It’s the same dynamic, with Jen keeping a deadly secret about an open investigation from Ben, as the one between Judy and Jen last year.
Before they can get hammered on cheap wine, Jen gets a call from Charlie, and immediately calls Judy. Charlie ran out of gas in Steve’s car, which may have actually been a lucky break. He didn’t get pulled over by a cop who ran his plate, or park the car of a dead man in the driveway and walk in wearing Steve’s sunglasses. Jen has flashbacks and then pours the gas she brought on the Benz, and lights it on fire. She’s lucky Charlie didn’t run out of gas on Rodeo Drive.
• Charlie getting hot and heavy in the car of the man his mother killed is a wonderfully dark beat, and it’s amplified by the cop who knocks on the window and then just buys the story that a 16-year-old owns a six-figure Benz and lets Charlie go. Dead to Me has dabbled in ideas about privilege before, and this is another great example of it. Rich kids in Laguna Beach apparently don’t even get their plates run through the system.
• Of course Judy is a Pisces. I’m not even sure exactly what that means but it sounds right. And Jen is a Scorpio. Duh.
• “Say Go to Stop Signs” is a wonderful little touch in a season that’s been full of funny details.
• Another detail — I love the way that Jen adds “-y” to words to describe people. She called Judy “confessy” in the premiere and “co-dependy” in this one. Keep that up.