There’s that famous Maya Angelou-by-way-of-Oprah quote that states “when people show you who they are, believe them.” We learn in the second installment of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story that Dan showed Betty who he really was many, many times.
“The Turtle and the Alligator” flashes back to show the couple’s first meeting, their youthful courtship, and their financial struggles during their early years of marriage. Dan first meets Betty at a bar in South Bend, Indiana where he exudes a cock-of-the-walk confidence and tells Betty he’s an MDA, which stands for “Medical Doctor, Almost.” He is late to one of their early dates, leaving Betty stranded in front of the movie theater. On the first morning of their honeymoon, he cancels housekeeping because Betty can make the bed, of course. While Betty and the kids are dressing in hand-me-downs, Dan orders three custom-made doctor’s coats because image is everything and Betty will take such good care of the coats “they’ll last for years.” After finally getting his medical degree he tells Betty he’s suffocating and the career isn’t what he thought it would be. But does he get another job? No, he goes to Harvard Law School. Once there, he runs for student government, which precludes him from getting a part-time or work-study job.
Through all of this Betty is having children—lots of them. She’s the one caring for them, lugging them from place to place, all while making sure Dan has a hot dinner every night. Pregnancy is hard on her body. She has constant nausea and lots of problems with her veins. She miscarries. She delivers a baby who dies shortly after birth. The early years of raising a child are challenging. Growing multiple human beings with your body is exhausting. They don’t use contraception. Dan won’t let her have an abortion. When she tells him he wants to have her tubes tied, he can barely be bothered to look up and join the conversation. Also it’s her body but she needs his permission to get her tubes tied.
The early days of their relationship are juxtaposed against Betty’s murder trial. The detective tells of the five bullets Betty shot that fateful night—including the one found in Linda’s body. Her friends testify that after Betty shot Dan and Linda she called them. One friend didn’t call 911 because she didn’t believe Betty. One remembers that Betty told her that after she shot Dan, he sat up and said, “You shot me. I’m dead.”
Framing the episode with the beginning and very tragic end of their relationship is an inspired decision. In many other takes of this story, Betty’s perspective isn’t given the consideration it deserves. We only know the unhinged Betty, not the together Betty who was a school teacher, the perfect hostess and school fundraiser guru. Dirty John introduces us to the Betty who sacrificed so much so Dan could have his success.
Betty was also a victim of her generation, women raised in a time when getting your period was considered shameful and a premium was put on being a “good girl.” When boys start to call Betty at her house, her father says, “We can’t help once people think you’re a slut.” Just getting phone calls from the opposite sex has her father calling her a slut. It’s certainly implied that Betty and Dan didn’t sleep together before they were married, and you can’t help but wonder if Dan pushed so incessantly for them to get married so that he and Betty could have sex. Like many women of her generation, Betty believed that her role in the marriage was to support her husband even at the cost of her personal happiness. In the premiere episode Betty says, “The rule book only works if your husband follows it too” and now we get to see exactly the rule book Betty was talking about.
Even with the inherent inequalities in their marriage, the couple’s shared history of early struggles gives us more needed context for what happened later in their marriage. They laugh about their early poverty while a pregnant Betty goes from her first job to her second job. When they finally move to California and their life begins to change, Betty is so happy. She encourages Dan to leave his firm to start his own medical malpractice firm. It’s the culmination of what they’ve both been working for.
Like Hulu’s recent Little Fires Everywhere, Dirty John cast younger actors to play Betty and Dan in their teens and early 20s. In general, this is a much better choice than trying to de-age Amanda Peet and Christian Slater (The Irishman was a lesson for us all). And the casting is fantastic. There are few actors who have as distinct a speaking voice as Slater, a nasally combination that conveys a lackadaisical charm. Chris Mason, who plays the young Dan, sounds so much like Slater that part of me wondered if Slater had recorded the dialogue and Mason was just lip-synching. Learning that Mason is British makes the fact that he nailed Slater’s cadence and sound that much more impressive.
But all I could think about as the episode ended was, what if Betty had just walked away when Dan was late for the movies? Could all of this been avoided?
Thoughts for Your ’80s Mixtape:
• Women still have a long way to go, but at least we no longer have to use a sanitary pad with pins and clips on a monthly basis.
• The title of the episode refers to a game Dan would play where he pretended to be a turtle on his back on the ground struggling to get up, only to quickly shift to being an alligator on the attack. The metaphor is a good one.
• In a way I wouldn’t have predicted, Dirty John is a good fit with the recent Mrs. America. At one point in the episode, Dan sneers “Are you a feminist now?” and I just had this vision of Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinem and Margo Martindale’s Bella Abzug giving Dan a strongly worded response to that question.