By “Perception Is Reality,” the final installment of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, our sympathy for Betty is gone. Dan may have set off the horrible sequence of events, but she carried the tragedy all the way into the end zone. For years, she thought of no one’s pain but her own. Despite her repeated claims of being the perfect mother, she certainly never thought of the anguish she was causing her children. She blamed all their pain on Dan, too. “Her hate became her life, and she is still filled with it,” the prosecuting attorney (Melinda Page Hamilton) tells the jury. And it’s true: Hate is her sustaining force. Her perception is that she was the victim, and that became her reality from the moment Dan left her until the moment she killed him. In her mind, she was totally justified. “Being scorned just means other people think you’re worthless — doesn’t mean you are,” Betty tells another inmate. Betty became her own self-fulfilling prophecy.
The show’s sympathy for Betty is gone also, using this final hour to home in on Betty’s responsibility for what happened to her. She may have been right that Dan egregiously wronged her, but none of her behavior — from the vulgar phone messages, to the destruction of property, to the double homicide — was justified. That is a distinction Betty never understood.
Betty was tried twice for the murders, as the jury for the first trial is unable to come to a decision. During the first trial, Betty becomes somewhat of a folk hero to wronged women everywhere. They send her letters and care packages. One sends her a needlepoint that says “Free Betty Broderick so she can kill another lawyer.” Maybe that would have been funny if, you know, two people hadn’t been murdered.
The final chapter truly reveals what a selfish and self-centered person Betty has morphed into. She totally believes her own hype, dismissing her lawyer’s concerns about a second trial. She crank calls people from jail, loudly cackling. She delights in giving coy interviews to People magazine. Maybe she doesn’t understand the severity of her situation, or maybe she just doesn’t care. “No one out there has any idea what I was forced to endure,” she writes to one of her “fans.”
When her two traumatized sons, whom she basically orphaned, visit her in jail, Betty can’t even seem to grasp why they are reluctant to talk to her. Through it all, Betty shows no remorse. No remorse for taking two lives. No remorse for killing the father of her children. No remorse or responsibility for anything she has done. She confesses that killing Dan and Linda is the only thing that brought her peace.
As we’ve discussed before, she cannot let go of her anger. She clings to it. Her anger defines her. Most of her friends, even the most loyal ones, turn on her in the trial, talking about how obsessed she was with money and material possessions and how terrible it was to hear her talk with such venom in front of her children. The only two friends who speak up on her behalf are her friend who is a widow and the HALT leader Tonia (Sprague Grayden), who realizes just how mentally ill Betty is. She believes Betty needs a hospital, not a jail cell. “I don’t know if she can get well. I think she just needs to get old,” Betty’s lawyer tells Tonia.
The crux of the trial is whether Betty’s actions were premeditated. Did she break into Dan and Linda’s house with the intent to murder them, or was it, as Betty sort of attempts to explain, a crime of passion, something that just happened in the heat of the moment? In her fuzzy, constantly changing story, she claims she was planning on killing herself that night and that the gun accidentally went off multiple times. She reminds me a little of a child who gets caught doing something wrong — she’s not sorry she killed them, but she is sorry she’s on trial for it. She claims that she never aimed her gun at either Dan or Linda, even though they were both shot multiple times. She also ripped the phone from the wall so even if they were alive, they wouldn’t have been able to call for any help. In the second trial, she is convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 32 years to life. Some jurors mistakenly thought her sentence would be more lenient since she was convicted of second, not first degree.
Before reaching their verdict, the jurors listen to the tape of the awful conversation she had with her son back in “Scream Therapy.” But it’s the final moments of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story that are the most haunting yet. As the series comes to a close, it revisits some key moments in Betty and Dan’s lives in which they each could have made different choices. When Dan sold their house in Coral Reef, she could have chosen to accept it instead of driving her car into his house. Betty definitely could have decided not to abandon her children outside Dan’s house, thus paving the way for him to get primary custody of their four children. She could have introduced herself to Linda, so Linda would have known the woman whose life she was wrecking (although who knows if that would have made a difference). And, most important, when Betty asked Dan if he was sleeping with Linda, he could have answered honestly instead of lying to her for over a year. Wistful and melancholy, it’s an extremely effective storytelling device — a reminder that our choices define us, that we can’t control other people but we can control how we react to other people.
In the end, alone in her jail cell, Betty only has her memories of a young, smitten Dan, full of promise and ego, and an older Dan, in love with his new wife, Linda. Dirty John did a great job of being honest about Dan’s behavior and not forgiving him from his transgressions, but also making it clear that his actions in no way justified how his life ended. And although Betty’s story has been told many times, Amanda Peet’s take on the character was extraordinarily innovative. We truly understood Betty’s perspective. We know that society didn’t treat her or women like her fairly. That was Betty’s primal scream — and one that we needed to hear.
Thoughts for your ’80s mixtape:
• The song Betty sings at the end is Johnny Mathis’s “The Twelfth of Never,” which was also the title of the show’s sixth episode.
• It’s very easy to Google your way down the Betty Broderick rabbit hole. Betty Broderick, now 72 years old, is next up for parole in 2032, having been denied parole two times already. It appears that, to this day, she shows little remorse for her actions.
• The Broderick children, whom I worried about constantly during the series, seem to be doing okay as adults and seem to stay out of the publicity fray.
• It’s been great talking about the show with all of you. Thanks for reading every week.