Dead to Me Was a Love Story All Along

Dead to Me: Black comedy is often a cruel art, based on the misery of characters who keep making things worse for themselves. Dead to Me, available on Netflix, first appeared to be a particularly brutal example of the genre. Laguna Beach real estate agent and mother of two boys Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) is still hurting from the hit-and-run death of her husband Ted when she meets Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), a loving bohemian type, at a grief support group.

When the topic of forgiving someone else comes up, Jen, who is prone to outbursts of anger these days, lashes out. She questions how anyone could forgive the person who ran over her husband with a car and then left him to bleed to death on the roadside. I’m at a loss to understand how you can forgive it.

Dead to Me

Soon, she’ll find out the truth: Judy and her ex-boyfriend Steve (James Marsden), whom Judy claimed had died so that she could join the mourning group, were in the car that ran over and killed Ted. The women had become inseparable by the time Jen discovers this dreadful secret, with Judy even moving into Jen’s guest house. Obviously, the bombshell destroys their friendship. But then the actual Steve comes along, is shot by Jen, drowns in her pool, and Judy returns.

From there, the plot of Dead to Me becomes repetitive, cycling through the various wrongdoings, attempts at cover-ups, falsehoods, and eventual admissions of these flawed but ultimately admirable female protagonists. It has been difficult to predict where Liz Feldman’s 100-car pileup of ironies will end up. Dead to Me’s third and final season, however, reveals a far more upbeat conclusion. Still, the show laughs off murder and dishonesty. But there’s also a love story, which makes it much better.

dead to me
dead to me

I don’t mean romance in the conventional sense, but the series finale suggests that Jen and the kids will eventually settle down with Steve’s sweet but naive and destructively lonely twin brother Ben (also played by Marsden). Most important is the friendship that develops between Jen and Judy, despite their many ups and downs, arguments, and attempts at making up.

They each have plenty of reasons to despise the other woman. Instead, the more they get to know one other, the more radical and mutual their acceptance becomes. Both Jen and Judy are well aware of the horrible things the other has done, but they have also developed a mutual faith in one another’s intentions. Because it gives them a sense of security they aren’t getting from a spouse or parent, this is a significant plot point.

For Dead to Me to become a more likeable version of itself, it has to be recast as a tragic tale, one that contrasts the quick, morbid deaths of swindler Ted and bully Steve with the painful decline of protagonist Judy’s health as she succumbs to cancer. It handled the change gracefully, predicting it with connections to other tragic works of popular culture like “Seasons in the Sun,” “Beaches,” and the classic children’s book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which was inspired by Sadako Sasaki.

Weepy classics like Love Story, about young love and premature death, were also acknowledged. Each of these elements worked together to set up an unexpected conclusion that was more than just a wild turn of events.

In the finale, Jen and Judy are driving to Steve’s beach house in Mexico. After making a selfless confession and blaming Jen for the murder, Judy has been forced to go on the run. Thankfully, their issues with law enforcement and other criminal organisations (such as the FBI and the Greek mafia) are settled rapidly and, for the most part, offscreen. Dead to Me’s focus was never on the inner workings of the criminal justice system, and the investigator characters are left hanging at the end.

The same is true of the rest of the supporting cast, from Jen’s irritable elder son Charlie (Sam McCarthy) to Judy’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Michelle (Natalie Morales), who makes a brief appearance in dead to me. The show’s lack of focus on any characters other than Jen, Judy, and (later) Ben can be frustrating. Its portrayal of the closing weeks of its two main characters’ relationship, with all its heartbreak and sincerity, makes it difficult to find much fault.

I didn’t see it coming, but once Applegate said some words and the credits rolled, there was no other conclusion that made sense. It seemed inevitable that we would circle back to the lyric that had disrupted so many friendships and romances over the course of three seasons. The combination of sweetness and sharpness is what made Dead to Me such a twisted thrill, much like how Jen’s bluster and Judy’s optimism counterbalanced each other.

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