Dead to Me was a love story all along

Spoiler alert: this article discusses major plot points from the series finale Dead to me

Black comedy can be a merciless art, eliciting laughter from the pain of characters who can’t stop compounding their own mistakes. Originally on Netflix Dead to me it seemed a particularly brutal example of the form. Christina Applegate’s Jen Harding, a Laguna Beach real estate agent and mother of two boys, is reeling from the aftermath of her husband Ted’s death when she meets Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), caring bohemian type, in a grief support group. Already prone to temper tantrums, Jen lashes out when the group’s conversation turns to forgiveness. “How do you forgive someone who hit your husband with their car and then drove off, leaving him to bleed to death on the side of the road?” she demands. “How is this forgiven?”

She’s about to find out because Judy and her ex-fiancé Steve (James Marsden) – who Judy said died to join the grief group – were in the car that killed Ted. By the time Jen learns this terrible secret, the women have become inseparable and Judy has moved into Jen’s guest house. The revelation blows up their friendship, of course. But then Jen shoots the real, obnoxious Steve; he dies in her pool; and Judy is back in the picture. From there, the plot becomes cyclical, spinning through the many crimes and cover-ups, lies and confessions of these flawed but well-intentioned women. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine where creator Liz Feldman’s 100-car pile of irony might lead. But in its third and final season, Dead to me turns into something much more optimistic than it initially appeared. It’s still a show that giggles in the face of murder and deceit. More than that, though, it’s a love story.

I’m not talking about romance in the traditional sense, although the final scene of the series paints a picture of Jen and her children living happily ever after – or at least happily until the next devastating revelation – with Steve’s kind, corny, self-destructively grieving twin brother, Ben ( also played by Marsden). The main relationship is the one that grows, in fits and starts, violent breakdowns and tearful reconciliations between Jen and Judy. Each woman has a long list of good reasons to hate the other. Instead, everything they’ve learned about each other finally fosters some kind of radical, mutual acceptance. Jen knows that Judy has done terrible things and vice versa, but they have also come to trust their motives. Which is crucial because it provides a peace of mind that no character gets from a romantic partner or parental figure.

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Christina Applegate, left, and Linda Cardellini, inside Dead to me

Saeed Adyani—Netflix

To become a warmer version of yourself, Dead to me was meant to be a tragedy—one that contrasted the sudden, grisly ends of Ted and the cruel Steve’s deception with poor Judy’s slow, painful death from cancer. He navigates this transition carefully, putting the writing on the wall by referencing sad pop-culture elements from Beaches to “Seasons of the Sun” to the classic book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and his inspiration, Sadako Sasaki. Even Love story, that quintessential lament about young love and untimely death. All of this helped set the stage for an ending that resonated as more than just another crazy twist.

The finale finds Jen and Judy driving to the late Steve’s beach in Mexico. Judy runs away, sort of, after selflessly confessing to the murder Jen committed. Fortunately, their problems with the cops, the FBI, the Greek Mafia, and more are resolved quickly and largely off-screen. The work of the criminal justice system has never been Dead to mestrong point or primary concern, and investigator characters don’t interfere much with dispatch. In fact, you could say the same for most of the supporting cast, from Jen’s often exasperated older son, Charlie (Sam McCarthy), to Judy’s one-time love interest, Michelle (Natalie Morales), who returns for a brief arc in Season 3. The show’s limited interest in anyone besides Jen, Judy, and possibly Ben can be a little disappointing. But the empathy and authenticity he brings to the final weeks of his two lead roles makes it hard to complain much about the trade-off.

That Jen has become a forgiving person becomes clear when she and Judy unexpectedly find the car that killed Ted in the garage of Steve’s vacation home. “It’s okay to hate it,” Judy says, offering her friend a golf club to “beat the crap out of” the vehicle if she wants. “How can I hate him?” Jen replies. “That’s what brought me to you.” They hug, and it’s the kind of soft moment the women might have teased together in Season 1. There’s a lot of hugging and sobbing going on in this finale. None of this is unpleasant, though, in part because Applegate and Cardellini have such wonderful buddy chemistry, in part because the characters have been through so much together — and also in part because right up until the very end, their banter remains as salty as it is sweet. Listing her regrets on the trip to Mexico, Judy wonders aloud, “Why didn’t I have sex with everyone all the time?” “Herpes,” Jen mutters under her breath.

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Christina Applegate, left, and Linda Cardellini, inside Dead to me


Midway through the season, Judy tells Francine, the woman giving her chemotherapy, that she can’t have children. “I wasn’t chosen,” she sighs. “Maybe they chose you for something else,” says Francine. She is right. Judy was chosen, at least by Feldman, to do the same thing she set out to do in befriending the widow of the man she accidentally helped kill: make a positive difference in Jen’s life. As she disappears into the sea after assuring Jen that “You will not leave me; I’m staying,” Judy didn’t just make Jen a gentler, less angry person. She also accidentally sets Jen up with Ben, who turns out to be the father of Jen’s future daughter. One of her final acts is to encourage Jen to tell Ben — in jail at the time for the hit-and-run that closed Season 2 — about the baby and make sure she grows up knowing her father.

These are all moving things. (The fact that Applegate was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while filming the season, along with the close bond she and Cardellini have built over the years of working together, further heightens the story’s poignancy.) Whatever the future holds for Jen, it will be shaped by Judy’s optimism. But Dead to me it wouldn’t be Dead to me if it doesn’t also leave us with bracing notes of cynicism and uncertainty. “Why didn’t you name her Judy?” a dull grieving group regularly requests, months after Judy’s death, when she meets baby Joey. “Because that would be weird, Linda,” Jen said. Then there’s the final, picture-perfect scene. Jen and Ben lounge by the pool while the baby naps and her brothers splash around in the water. One huge loose end remains untied: Ben still doesn’t know that the woman he loves killed his brother. “Ben,” Jen says with a hint of fear in her voice. “I have to tell you something.”

This is the finish line of the show. I didn’t foresee it, but as soon as the words left Applegate’s mouth and the credits started rolling, it became obvious that this was the only possible ending. We had to go back to the refrain that rocked so many relationships over three seasons. Just as Jen’s braggadocio and Judy’s joy balanced each other, the combination of sweetness and heart did Dead to me such twisted delight.

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