Spoilers ahead for Dead to Me seasons one and two.
Dead to Me ended its first season with the murder of Steve Wood (James Marsden) and has returned in season two with a whole new slew of problems for Steve’s ex Judy (Linda Cardellini) and her best friend Jen (Christina Applegate) to contend with over its ten episodes. (No. 1 on the list: What to do with Steve’s body?) It also has given us a new character, Ben Wood, Steve’s semi-identical twin brother (also played by Marsden), and a ton of new cliffhanger endings, including a doozy in the season finale.
Liz Feldman, Dead to Me’s creator and showrunner, recently jumped on the phone with Vulture to discuss the second season, why Ben was created, the origins of Judy’s relationship with Natalie Morales’s Michelle, and, of course, that shocker of an ending. “I want people to read into it what they want. I want you to have your own feeling about why that happened,” she said. “I don’t want to tell you that you’re wrong, because you’re not.”
How much of season two was in your head before you even got back in the writers’ room?
I did have some idea of where I wanted to take the second season. When I pitched the show initially to Netflix, the second season was part of the thing I sold them on. However, the first season ended on a note that I had not initially planned on — that was based off of a pitch in the writers’ room that Steve meet his demise in that way. Obviously, that final moment catapulted us into a very different set of circumstances. So coming out of season one, and I don’t think he minds me telling you this, I got the most incredibly sweet email from James Marsden, who I just loved working with and I thought did such an incredible job playing Steve. He was saying sort of jokingly, sort of not jokingly, “Hey, what’s the possibility that Steve could survive a traumatic brain injury and drowning? Because it would be so great to keep working together.” Obviously, I’m not going to go back on the fact that this character is dead. It’s a show that takes place somewhat in reality.
When I stepped away from that, I did immediately think: twin. Now that’s not a completely original idea. I know it’s a trope and that’s why it made me laugh so much when I initially thought about it. Then I sat down with one of my best friends, Kelly Hutchinson, who’s also a writer on the show, and I told her about James’s email. At the same exact time, we just looked at each other and we were both like: twins? The fact that she thought of it too, we were just laughing so hard. I was like, “Oh God, we can’t do that.” But the more I thought about it, the more I could see it informing the story that I wanted to tell. And the more I realized, okay, sure, it might be something we’ve seen before, but let’s show it in a way that really grounds it and makes it feel like it could actually exist in this world, while also being a fun and ridiculous turn of events. So I came into the writers’ room pretty sure I wanted to do that and I couldn’t believe that the writers were like, “Oh my God, I love that idea.” That’s what I knew going into season two.
In the first season, every episode ended on a cliffhanger. Season two does that even more so. Is that something that you think about when you’re writing the episodes?
In general, I never base an entire episode off of a twisty ending. We really try to develop the story in a way that the characters drive us to that twist because of the actions that are taken, because of the things that they want, because of the pressure they’re under, so that the twist at the end feels organic and justifiable. There were a few cliffhangers that I had come up with going into the season, but I wasn’t necessarily sure where they would be placed. I just knew that there were moments I really wanted to see and then it was up to the writers and I to earn that moment. But obviously, look, it’s a Netflix show. It’s meant to be binge-y, so we do quite purposely try to build to something that will make you want to watch the next episode.
I want to talk about the relationship between Judy and Michelle. I don’t remember in the first season if there were any hints that Judy was romantically interested in women as well as men. I thought it was really interesting that when she says that she’s interested in Michelle, nobody makes a thing of it.
No, I don’t think we ever made any references to it. The way that we chose to tell the story between Judy and Michelle was very conscious and deliberate. I, as a gay woman, have had, very gratefully, the opportunity to tell the coming-out story. Those stories are incredibly important, but that’s just not the story I wanted to tell here. I’m a married woman. I have a wife. My life is very normal to me. I just had this desire to normalize this relationship so much so that it didn’t need to be talked about, that it didn’t need to be labeled, that it didn’t need to be a sit-down conversation with Jen.
I found that refreshing. It also made sense to me because Judy has so much love to give, why would she put any boundaries around it?
She’s basically like a heart with arms and legs. She is pure love.
Later on in the season, Jen decides to confess to the hit-and-run but Detective Perez ultimately decides not to charge her. What kind of conversations did you have about that in the writers’ room? Did you ever imagine that going differently?
We came up with Jen going to confess to Perez fairly early on. How Perez digested and acted off of that information, we did definitely explore many variations. Ultimately, my goal with the character this season was to three-dimensionalize her, humanize her, and deliver her from just being the straight-talking cop character. I wanted to think about what made Perez the way she was. What brought her to this point in her life. Like, why did she become a cop?
I think we answer some of those questions in those scenes with Jen. Most importantly, you know, they share the common bond — full-on spoilers here! — but they share the common bond of having lost their mothers. In very different ways, that loss has determined the paths for both of these women. We tried to build a dynamic and create a situation where Perez could make the decision that she makes, which is to not rip this woman away from her children for making a mistake.
I found that credible, especially because they hadn’t found any physical evidence, at least not yet. Plus, it seems like it’s more of a priority to try to get the chief to be investigated than anything else.
Speaking of moms, I wanted to ask you about casting Katey Sagal as Judy’s mother. It’s such a funny choice considering that she was Christina Applegate’s mom on Married … With Children. Did you have other people in mind for the role?
We wanted to find a woman that you definitely believe could be Judy’s mom, but somebody that could really ride that line between comic charm and despicable grit. So when Katey was pitched, there’s this delightful aspect to it that was hard to resist. But also you’re like, oh yeah, she could actually very believably be. I mean, she looks more like Linda than she looks like Christina, even though she so iconically played Christina’s mother. It fell into place, in a way. And obviously Christina was thrilled at the possibility of possibly working with her in the future.
Here’s the mental gymnastics that I did when I saw her for the first time. I was like, “Wait, what if Jen’s mom never died and maybe she and Judy are secretly sisters?” Then I quickly went, “No, that’s not right.”
That’s great. I love that it took you down this whole other weird, dark hole.
This is an inside-baseball question, but on a show like this, do you write alts? It is a comedy, but I don’t know if you approach it in that traditional comedy way.
We do alts in a loose fashion. What we do more is improvise. A lot of times if there’s a particular punch-line kind of joke, you run in and give them another version that we had thought of in the room. But more often than that, I’ll identify dialogue in the scene that I feel like they could jump off of and let them know, “When you get to this line, say some stuff about this or that, and then come back to the scene.” They’re so incredibly locked into those characters and connected to each other that they improvise the show brilliantly. Some of the best, funniest moments were improvised.
Was that whole riff this season about Sugar Ray improvised?
Yes, it was.
I can’t let you go without asking about the end of the season. I was so shocked when Ben’s car hit Jen’s and Judy’s car. Were you always intending for that to be the ending?
As soon as we came up with the character of Ben, I knew he was going to have something to do with however the season ended. Pretty early on in the room for season two, one of the writers pitched this out-of-nowhere slam. When that was pitched, I remember talking on the phone to one of my writers and he was like, “Oh, well, you know who’s behind the wheel.” I liked so much what it says about the consequences of bad choices and the karmic wheel that these characters seem to be on together.
Does it also say something about Steve’s and Ben’s family? They seem to have grown up pretty privileged, and their instinct in similar situations is get the hell out of there.
We’ve spent a season introducing this new character who couldn’t be more different than Steve. But again, when faced with some really terrible consequences, he ultimately makes the selfish choice — or maybe what you would say is the survivalist choice. I don’t want to say too much about it because I want people to read into it what they want. I want you to have your own feeling about why that happened. I don’t want to tell you that you’re wrong because you’re not. It’s very cool that you’ve made that connection in your head. For us, it’s about the allegorical notion of: Can a good person do a bad thing and still deserve to live a good life?
By the way, where is Steve and Ben’s dad?
[Laughs.] You might just have to wait to find out.
So the fact that he’s not present in season two is purposeful?
Yes, it’s purposeful.
Do you have a sense of where season three might go?
I do. I had a version of an end for season three that I’m rethinking, actually, because I think it’s important to pay attention to where we are collectively as a human race and to be sensitive to the fact that our audience is living through this incredibly difficult moment in history. This experience is going to color what we end up exploring in season three. We’re all going through a traumatic moment and this show is very much about trauma and grief and loss. It’s also a show that I like to keep evergreen, so we’re not commenting on a specific time or place. I have some ideas about what I want to do with season three, but I like things to feel organic and authentic, not just to what the characters are going through, but to what my audience can handle.
It’s so hard to predict what that’s going to be.
Exactly. I’m not going to start season three and they both have COVID, you know. I don’t think anybody really wants to see that.
You’ll have to get rid of your murder hornets story line. That’s not going to fly with anybody.
I know! Anybody that tells me things on this show are far-fetched, I just have two words for them: murder hornets.