It’s been an incredibly long two and a half years since Netflix aired new episodes of Emmy-nominated dramedy hit Dead to Me. Delays due to the pandemic and star Christina Applegate’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis impacted the timing of a final season that now feels just so very far away from when the show last had a cultural impact. Will viewers be willing to return to this world of betrayals, secrets, and regular cliffhangers? Or will they be surprised to see Dead to Me resurrected?
The writers certainly hope that fans have good memories, dropping us right into the third season with nary a recap and picking up almost immediately after the season-two cliffhanger as if no time has passed. There’s something of a recap mid-episode courtesy of a flashback sequence, but what are the key things to remember before diving in? The big one is that a drunk Ben (James Marsden) pulled a hit-and-run on Jen (Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini), but that’s not the only spinning plate still airborne. Don’t forget that Detective Perez (Diana Maria Riva) now knows about Jen’s involvement in Steve’s death and seems willing to keep her secret — but for how long is a looming question, given that the body was found at the end of last season. Also worth remembering: Charlie (Sam McCarthy) found the notes that Jen wrote to her kids and Judy, and so may be more in the loop on all the homicidal chaos in his world.
The truth is that remembering all of the details is not as important as you might think. It’s not like this is a multi-season murder mystery with clues that need to be tracked. It’s how the secrets of Judy Hale and Jen Harding spill out that matters, more than the actual secrets themselves. For a show that thrives on what its characters withhold, that’s what makes this show entertaining. And the writers of season three are willing to just keep adding more to their characters’ plates, almost daring them not to break under the pressure. Right from the beginning of the season, it feels like a year that’s really going to center the friendship between Jen and Judy — they know everything about what happened to Steve and Ted at this point, and so are finally on the same page. Can they navigate their final challenges as a team?
The very first scene centers their friendship and possibly even provides a window to the show’s ending as Jen dreams of a beach on a beautiful day. As “In My Baby’s Arms,” by the California Honeydrops, plays, Jen and Judy drink piña coladas and get checked out by a jogging dude. Judy is smoking weed and they’re coming up with fake names while they talk about Ben’s “Ben-is.” Could this be a vision of the future? Could they really get away with everything? And then Judy turns into Jen’s mom, which almost feels like a legit psychic vision given what comes later in the episode. If that part of the dream is prophetic, could the happy stuff be too?
Back to reality. Jen is in a brace on a stretcher after the accident. They don’t know it was Ben, so we have another hit-and-run mystery, an echo that’s commented on in a meta line that’s a nice little dig at the writers: “Is the universe really that uncreative?” No one has called Charlie yet, and it turns out that it’s the boy’s birthday — remember, Jen and Judy were driving a car that was to be his birthday present.
Charlie is having a weird day of his own, reading the note from Jen that’s just vague enough to keep him wondering what’s really going on. It has enough open-to-interpretation lines about “paying the price” that Charlie doesn’t completely put it together. And then Ben shows up on his doorstep, drunk and “bleed-y.” While Judy is telling a truly dark story about being forced to fake seizures to feed her mom’s drug habit, Charlie is caring for Ben, the reason that his mom is now in the hospital — although Charlie doesn’t know that yet. Ben doesn’t remember what he hit, just getting the call about Steve and diving into a bottle of booze. Charlie warns him that three DUIs gets him 25 years behind bars and Ben asks him to keep it all a secret. Will that be a dynamic this season, Charlie putting all the pieces together? He wants to take Ben to the hospital, but promises to keep the secret for now.
Back with Judy and Jen, the doc wants to run a CT scan on both of them, but Jen is worried they will find something else, scared of the cancer that runs in her family and took her mom. “I can’t take any more bad news,” she says, and it’s one of the lines this season that might play differently without Applegate’s MS diagnosis. She’s been very open about her condition and how it’s impacted her life, and already it feels like it’s going to imbue her performance with a new sense of gravity.
Cut to Nick (Brandon Scott) and Detective Perez over Steve’s body. Uh-oh. Perez is panicking already, trying to sell Nick on the idea that the Greeks were responsible for all of this. After all, the area is a dumping ground for organized crime. Although most professional killers don’t carve a heart in a tree nearby. As Perez keeps trying to dissuade Nick from his investigation, she calls Jen to fill her in. She’s now really part of the cover-up. Is this nervous, uncertain Perez going to be a major player this season? It doesn’t help that there was a witness who saw Perez at the scene with a blonde lady. Her unconvincing response: “I don’t know any blonde ladies.”
In one of those Dead to Me coincidences that keep the show afloat, Ben is in the same hospital as Jen and Judy when he hears there’s a hit-and-run victim there. He pukes. It’s going to be a rough season for Ben. It gets more intense when he runs into Judy in the hall, right after Ms. Hale pulled a little scam to get some drugs. As Ben’s memory is starting to fill in, Jen is having an intense flashback sequence of her own in the CT scan, providing a recap of sorts to help viewers still a little unclear on everything that happened so long ago.
The scan on Jen doesn’t find anything broken, but in true Dead to Me fashion, the season premiere saves a heartbreaking twist for its final scenes. At first, it feels like Jen’s cancer fears were founded, as the doctor tells her that they found some “shadows” on the scan and they need to follow up with a specialist immediately. But the doctor thought he was talking to Judy! Jen got back in the wrong bed! When she returns, Jen doesn’t tell Judy immediately; there’s been enough bad news for today. And so the episode ends with a real version of the dream sequence that opened it, with Jen and Judy talking about having each other’s back. That’s a good sign. At least I hope it is.
• The episode is dedicated to the legendary Ed Asner, who was so wonderful in the first season. The TV icon passed away in August 2021.
• My favorite line of the episode may be Cardellini’s delivery of “Can you please get the fucking doctor?” She totally gets Judy’s desire to still be sweet and kind even as she’s demanding what she needs.
• It doesn’t seem like they’re going to introduce any new characters into the final season, at least at the start, which is a good thing. Let’s ride out this final stretch with the people we already know and love.
• The beginning of the episode and its complete lack of recap is a little startling, but I found it pretty easy to jump back into the show’s rhythms, which don’t feel all that different than they did in May 2020. At least not yet.