Being a woman who bases her identity solely on her roles as wife and mother can be dangerous. Television has issued this warning on more than one occasion this year, in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, in FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America, and now even more blatantly in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, on the USA network.
The first season of Dirty John, which aired on Bravo in 2018 and 2019 before showing up on Netflix, told the based-on-a-true-story of serial con artist John Meehan and his toxic relationship with interior designer Debra Newell. In the second season of the anthology series, series creator Alexandra Cunningham shifts the focus to the well-known case of Betty and Dan Broderick, a couple that seemingly “had it all,” until their tumultuous divorce led to the murders of Dan and his second wife, Linda, by Betty, in 1989.
Unlike the more recent Meehan case, the Broderick case has been covered in the media over multiple decades: in the news, in books, and even in a two-part CBS TV movie back in 1992 that starred Meredith Baxter as Betty Broderick. The events in that fractious marriage have been well-documented, and a complicated view of Betty — scorned, out-of-control woman or spouse driven to the brink by an emotionally abusive husband? — wove its way into the public consciousness more than three decades ago. For these reasons, The Betty Broderick Story may not be quite as suspenseful as the first Dirty John. From the very first of the eight episodes, we know the story is going to end in a double murder; those familiar with the Brodericks also may be pretty well-versed on their backstory as college sweethearts who met at Notre Dame, had four children together, built a nice life in La Jolla, California, then turned on each other.
But what this scripted true-crime story may lack in surprise, it makes up for in its nuance, especially in the latter half of the season, as well as in its go-for-beyond-broke performance by Amanda Peet as Betty. Peet channels so much energy into the role of this simultaneously gutsy, broken, and naïve woman, it’s amazing that she still had the capacity to walk off the set every day when filming was complete. Her Betty is exhausting and, as her ordeal continues, exhausted. After being arrested for killing her ex-husband and his new wife, the first thing she does upon arriving in her cell is lie down on the wafer-thin prison mattress and exhale, as if she’s finally found peace for the first time in years.
The Betty Broderick Story jumps around chronologically, following the testimony presented at both of Broderick’s murder trials (spoiler: one ended in a mistrial), Betty’s early life as the child of chilly parents and, later, the loving wife of Dan (Christian Slater), whom she supports through medical school as well as law school when he decides to seek a second degree at Harvard. By the time Dan has established himself as a lawyer, the couple has four kids and an idyllic life that starts to get disrupted when Dan hires a new assistant, Linda Kolkena (Rachel Keller of Legion), whom Betty worries he is having an affair with, something Dan denies.
That time-skipping approach, along with the fragmented imagery and hazy memories that sometimes seep into scenes, puts the audience into Betty’s headspace, where her fixation on rekindling the past often prevents her from more firmly grasping the circumstances of her present. There are times, too, when the show is deliberately vague about whether something we’re seeing really happened as it’s portrayed, or if we’re seeing events from Betty’s viewpoint. If Betty Broderick was a gaslit wife — and the series makes a pretty sound argument that she was — then part of The Betty Broderick Story’s goal, it seems, is to make us feel like we’re being gaslighted, too. Which: Mission accomplished.
During the 1980s, when the series first introduces Betty, she does seem erratic, depressed, and often unhinged, especially once she and Dan are separated and he takes custody of their kids. But it’s also instantly apparent that Dan is manipulative and often cruel, to a degree that is revealed even further as the scope of the narrative widens and Betty emerges as a more empathetic figure. To the credit of Cunningham and the rest of the creative team, neither she nor Dan are portrayed as total monsters or total victims. That said, it is clear that the system, both judicial and societal, benefits Dan and is rigged against Betty, a woman who, like many of her generation, was encouraged to devote her life to her husband and children, then finds herself with nothing when all of that is largely stripped away from her.
Ever since he starred in Heathers, a movie released the same year that Dan Broderick was killed, Slater has often played characters that walk a very thin line between appealing and despicable. As Dan, he hopscotches across that line, making it understandable that Betty could be alternately besotted with and disgusted by him. Together, he and Peet, who consistently sports shoulder pads inflated enough to carry her all the way to the moon, are the Kodak-ready image of the perfect ’80s couple, from the outside anyway.
There are some off notes here and there in this second season of Dirty John. Linda, the newer model Mrs. Dan Broderick, is much more thinly drawn than the other characters, coming across as the stereotypically vapid, unlikable Other Woman, though that could be because the series chooses to lean toward Betty’s perception of her. While some of the songs that appear on the soundtrack are wonderfully deep ’80s cuts — see: Cyndi Lauper’s “When You Were Mine” and Quarterflash’s “Take Me to Heart” — others are used in ways that are laughably on the nose. Betty expresses her rage toward Dan and Linda in one scene to the pounding sound of “Self-Control” by Laura Branigan. In another, Linda starts to show interest in Dan while Howard Jones sings “Like to Get to Know You Well,” as if Jones has to sonically explain what we’re observing. This kind of story can tip into Lifetime movie territory very easily, and there are times when The Betty Broderick Story gets perilously close to doing that.
The series saves itself by effectively capturing how it feels to be powerless, abandoned, and misunderstood, and how those feelings can understandably metastasize into blind rage. “Humans are like any animal,” a juror at Betty’s first trial tells a reporter. “You push them hard enough, they’re going to bite back.” The Betty Broderick Story explains what drove Betty to bare her teeth. It may also make you reflect on what it would take for you to do the same thing.