Unless you are a cast member on The Real Housewives or some other reality show that favors table tossing and vitriolic takedowns, you, like most of us, have a filter that prevents you from totally going off on someone who has wronged you. Perhaps we’ve all had the experience of writing and then deleting an angry, no-holds-barred email or text — there’s something quite therapeutic about getting all of one’s emotions out there without actually hitting SEND. Most likely after writing such a missive, we’ve taken a deep breath and thought of a more constructive way to get our point across. We have a filter, and we use it.
By the time we get to “Scream Therapy,” Betty has lost her filter, as the series dives deep into one of the most memorable aspects of this tragic case. When people think of Betty Broderick, what they likely remember most are the vulgar, incessant, rage-filled messages she left on Dan Broderick’s answering machine. In a smartphone world where even having a landline is an antiquated thing of the past, it’s hard to remember a time when, if you left a message for someone, everyone within earshot of the machine could hear what you said. So when Betty is on the machine swearing, calling Linda a “whore,” screaming and sobbing, not only do Dan and Linda hear it but their children do as well.
Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story has done a terrific job of showing us how Betty got to this point, what led her to this moment when she felt that destroying property and leaving profanity-laced messages were her only recourse. But this is also the episode where Betty had a choice. She could have chosen to accept that Dan had left her for Linda, chosen to accept that her marriage was over, and chosen to accept that she needed to find a new path forward. Accepting the state of her life wouldn’t have made what Dan did right or fair or just. But it would have given her the foundation to start healing.
But as Betty tells her court-appointed therapist, she has no intention of moving on. “If I’m not angry, I’m not going to make it,” she says. The exchange comes after the therapist suggests that she should call Linda by her name instead of referring to her exclusively as “whore.”
Like her friends who are sympathetic but frustrated by Betty’s behavior, we feel our compassion for Betty is beginning to wane. While I think her anger is absolutely justified, what isn’t is constantly putting her children in the middle. In the episode’s most upsetting scene, she has a horrid conversation with her youngest son, who is begging his mother to stop her behavior. “How come you won’t shut your mouth so we can come over there?” he tearfully asks. Betty refuses to back down. “You mean the whore is there,” she asks him before adding, “He fucked your whole life and my whole life.”
Dan sends Betty flowers for Christmas, a patronizing gift if there ever was one. She responds by going over to his house and destroying all the Christmas presents. She punches holes in the walls. She breaks vases. She snaps the antenna off his car. “If you’ve never smashed anything before, when you finally do, it’s great,” she tells her friends. The vulgar messages are her therapy, her “primal scream.”
Betty chooses her anger, her rage, the fact that she has been wronged, over her children. She will not be ignored. What Dan has done to her isn’t fair, but what she is doing to her children isn’t either. It’s not fair for her children, the true victims of all of this, to come home to a house full of broken glass and destroyed presents. It’s not fair for her children to hear the answering-machine messages, which are beyond distressing. When they went to marriage therapy back in episode three, Betty said that Dan was the most important person in the whole world to her. We are seeing this play out now: Dan is more important to her than the children. She doesn’t want custody of them without a financial settlement that she deems fair and just. “I’m not going to be a single parent to four kids. He’ll die first,” she tells the therapist. She doesn’t want her children if she can’t take care of them the way she had planned. Betty’s inability to adjust to the new normal in her life is her downfall, and it forces yet another lawyer to quit in frustration.
Dan, for his part, continues to be truly horrid, showing no compassion for Betty or responsibility for the situation he created. Moving Linda into his house is one thing. Taking her on the family Christmas trip and to all the big society events is another. But having Linda be the voice on the answering machine that says “Hi, you’ve reached the Brodericks” is next-level cruelty. Just hearing Linda’s voice on the machine makes Betty unhinged.
Dan also fines Betty for every infraction — $100 per offensive word on the answering machine, $500 for trespassing, $1,000 for trying to see her sons without his permission. One month, he’s fined Betty so much that instead of her $9,000 monthly alimony, she owes him $1,315.32. It’s a cruel move. If he truly wanted all of this to end, he could stop upping the ante and doing things he knows will infuriate her, but he chooses not to. Even the judge is appalled by the pettiness of their divorce.
There’s also the heartbreaking scene where Betty thinks she’s getting her sons for Easter and is going to pick up her kids from school (in bunny ears no less) only to find that Dan changed his mind and is taking the kids for the holiday. Despite that, we don’t get the sense that Dan is a devoted father. The childcare is predominantly outsourced to babysitters and maids and her children are often sick. Betty learns she didn’t even know about it when one of them had lice. Dan seems to want custody of the children only to hurt Betty. Everything he does seems to be to hurt her.
And then the episode ends with Dan proposing to Linda at a bar. With all that’s going on in their lives, you would think a private proposal would have been better, but Betty is right that Dan Broderick only cares about Dan Broderick. The true tragedy is that no one seems to care about the children.
Thoughts for Your ’80s Mixtape:
• We really do need a mixtape of this show. Once again, Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” is the perfect choice for this episode.
• We are getting a better sense of these characters’ extreme wealth. Betty estimates a quarter of Dan’s monthly income is $28,000. That puts his annual income over a million dollars, which is a lot of money in 2020 and even more money in 1987.
• Amanda Peet’s performance is so nuanced. Betty talks with her mouth full often in “Primal Scream,” which is a subtle way of showing how Betty is losing her sense of self-control and decorum.
• What of Linda? We still know nothing about her except she loves Dan so much that she is willing to put up with Betty’s behavior.