Dead to Me
“Sometimes justice just works itself out.” — Detective Perez
Is that the theme of Dead to Me? It’s certainly one of them. Judy Hale shouldn’t have tortured herself or had her own grief denied because of the actions of the awful Steve Wood, who ended up getting a form of justice of his own, right? And has justice now worked out for the death of Steve because it led to the downfall of the corrupt Chief Hastings? It would appear that question remains unanswered, as a couple of scenes near the end of this season make it look like the death of Steve Wood (and therefore the death of Ted Harding) isn’t going to go away narratively. Justice has some more working out to do.
To start, Jen wants to confess, but Perez is in an emotional state because Michelle moved out. Jen finally blurts out that she’s the one who killed Steve Wood while Judy Hale wakes up and reads about Jen’s plan in a letter. There’s one each for Charlie and Henry, too. Burn that letter, Judy. While Judy squeezes oranges and makes chocolate chip pancakes — she’s a great mom already! — Jen and Perez are walking through the Angeles National Forest trying to find Steve’s body. They run into someone while they’re there — which feels like it could matter next season if the writers choose, given that there’s a witness who spotted what will become a suspect and a detective near the body — but Jen is not giving Perez the whole story. She’s leaving Judy out of the picture.
Meanwhile, Charlie gives the case from Steve’s car to Judy, and it turns everything upside down. There’s the burner phone in there that ties Steve to the Greek Mafia and to Hastings. She takes it to Nick, and the two of them have a nice moment for the first time in a long time before Nick realizes that this is going to take down a much bigger fish than Steve. Remember, they don’t really care about Steve Wood — they even told his family that they’d protect him if he just turned himself in. They need to burn bigger criminals like Hastings. Now that they can, will the Steve case close in a different way?
Later, Jen and Perez bond over their dead moms in a scene that illustrates another common thread running through this show. Jen’s mom died of cancer. Perez’s died protecting her from an abusive stepdad. Judy’s is behind bars. Relationships with mothers are a minefield for the writers of Dead to Me, something that ties its characters together in ways that allow emotion to overcome reason sometimes. And now is one of those times — Perez tells Jen to go home. “We were never here,” she says. But they were.
Just as Judy is about to spill to Charlie and Henry about where their mom is — “No matter what happens, you guys are gonna be okay.” — Jen comes home, and Charlie gives her a truly moving hug. In relatively limited screen time, the Harding boys have become even more likable this season. The sweetness of that reunion is amplified with some closure between Jen and Judy. They forgive each other. They hug and joke and tell each other I love you. And it’s kind of wonderful.
The second season ends where the first began, at the oceanside grief group run by Pastor Wayne. Jen reveals that she never really grieved the death of her mother. She needs to forgive herself for how she acted and how she felt. And Judy goes to see her mom again, but it doesn’t go nearly as well. Mom pushes a little too far and Judy takes Jen’s advice. After all, “A baby can’t make you a drug addict.” Mom is trying to use Judy again. She wanted money and now she wants a letter for the parole board. She’s awful. And she could be the biggest problem in season three, especially on an emotional level for Judy. Could finally telling someone “no” come back to hurt her?
While a dog digs up the body of Steve Wood, Judy finally gets her paintings back. Hastings is going to Federal Prison and Judy is smashing her art — and oh, what’s this? Remember all that money that Steve was laundering for the Greek Mafia? It was in the frames of Judy’s paintings. Judy and Jen give Lorna the dirty money to buy out the house and they even give Lorna the Wood estate listing. They’re doing a remarkable job of closing loops from the first two seasons, while also leaving just enough open for the future, including, well, Steve’s body — Ben gets the call he’s been dreading about his brother.
And speaking of loose ends, Judy didn’t burn that letter. When Charlie goes looking for weed under Judy’s bed, he discovers the letter to Judy from his mom in the box. The last we see of him is the poor boy reading about something he probably suspected and now knows for sure. It will be interesting to see how that plays into next year.
The final moments of this season may not be as deadly as those of season one, but they certainly have some impact (pun slightly intended). Judy and Jen are driving home with a new, slightly more sensible car for Charlie when they that Laguna Beach actually put in the stop sign Jen’s been fighting to get! She’s practically a hero. Just one more victory for them to celebrate …
… until they get broadsided by a car as they’re pulling through the intersection. Cut to Jen slumped over behind the wheel as the camera cuts to the driver that hit them — Ben Wood! And he has an empty bottle of cheap whiskey beside him. He drives away. No one knows how to drive in Laguna Beach.
• It’s not read in the voiceover but you can see that the letter that Jen wrote to Judy contains the amazing line, “I love you more than wine.” Put that on a Dead to Me poster.
• So where exactly did we leave off? Charlie knows some version of the truth — it’s hard to say exactly how explicit the letter is in terms of details about what happened to Steve (or even Ted). He at least knows mom was going to turn herself in for something. Ben knows he committed a hit and run, not unlike his twin brother. Does he know who he hit? Did Judy see who it was when she woke up as he was driving away? And what about Steve’s body and the witness who saw Perez and Jen in the woods? Finally, have we seen the last of new supporters Hastings and Eileen? We almost certainly haven’t seen the last of Judy’s mom.
• So what was season two about? It worked so well because it amplified the major themes of the first, about how grief and guilt mingle with friendship and connection. The grieving process wasn’t as central as in one, but guilt came to the forefront more. Jen couldn’t keep her secret for long, really. Her body even started to betray her, and the universe seemed to push against her, like rats chewing through a freezer, until a confession was inevitable.
• Mostly, season two was a showcase for ensemble work and writing that was even sharper than the first year. Like a lot of comedies, it feels like the writers and cast know these characters better in year two and were granted the confidence that comes with a successful freshman outing. A good show became a great one this year.
• Who’s your MVP? It was Applegate in year one and she’s arguably even better here, but Cardellini gets it for me. Her emotional, physical outbursts were devastating. She moved Judy from “quirky” to traumatized and made her more three-dimensional and heartbreaking. And the whole supporting cast was even better this year. I’ll miss them until 2021.