c/o Netflix

c/o Netflix

This article contains spoilers for seasons one through three of “Dead to Me” 

Content warning: mention of murder, suicide, and loss.

I remember the trailer so vividly. It opened with a shot of a disgusting-looking casserole dish in the hands of a grieving widow.

“It’s my take on Mexican lasagna,” well-meaning neighbor Karen (Suzy Nakamura) says. “Jeff and I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

“Well, it’s like if Jeff got hit by a car and died suddenly and violently,” widow Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) bluntly responds. “Like that.”

I was hooked. I showed the trailer to my whole family, and once the show came out, my mother and I set little binge dates where we kicked the rest of the family off the TV and sat down to watch “Dead to Me.” It quickly became one of our strongest common interests. We couldn’t get enough of the show’s intensely macabre comedy, the intricate twists and turns, and the hilariously chaotic chemistry between Christina Applegate and her co-star Linda Cardellini.

So, here’s a quick refresher if you haven’t seen seasons one or two. This will be very rapid-fire and I won’t get to every plot point, so I encourage you to watch the show to truly experience it. Also, I feel I would be remiss in writing this article without mentioning that Applegate was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during the filming of the final season and still pushed through days of exhausting shooting just to get the story finished. It’s insane, and she’s absolutely amazing.

So without further ado, let’s get this party started. Jen’s husband Ted is killed in a hit-and-run by an unknown driver after Jen kicks him out of the house during an argument. She befriends a woman named Judy Hale at a grief support group but then the audience learns that (insert suspenseful music) Judy is the driver that killed Ted! She doesn’t tell Jen and becomes her best friend, but then eventually does tell Jen and they have a bit of a falling out.

All the while, Judy has been navigating her twisted on-again, restraining-order-again relationship with Steve Wood (James Marsden), a shady guy who’s deeply involved in the Greek mafia and pressured her to abandon Ted after the hit-and-run. This all culminates in the season one finale, in which Steve shows up at Jen’s house (where Judy had been living) looking for Judy, Jen gets angry and defensive and pulls a gun on him, Judy (elsewhere) tries to kill herself, and eventually, the two women stand over Steve’s lifeless body, which floats in a cloud of blood in Jen’s pool. It’s a fun show, I promise.

Anyways, season two is all about the dynamic duo reuniting and trying to cover up Steve’s death, only to be shocked when someone who they believe to be Steve is alive, well, and strolling around. Except it’s not Steve. It’s his twin brother Ben (also Marsden)…because, of course. Jen and Judy dispose of Steve’s body in Angeles National Forest and think that they’re in the clear. Naturally, they’re not. Jen’s teen son Charlie (Sam McCarthy) discovers Steve’s car in the family storage unit, Judy engages in a fling with chef Michelle (Natalie Morales) who turns out to be the ex-girlfriend of Laguna Beach Police Detective Ana Perez (Diana-Maria Riva), Jen sleeps with Ben, Charlie finds Steve’s burner phone, and the tangled web only gets more tangled.

To make a long story even shorter, everything kinda implodes in the season two finale. Jen writes goodbye notes to her family and tells Perez that she killed Steve (but Perez sympathizes with her), Judy smashes a bunch of paintings she had Steve sell only to learn that they’re all filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash, Ben learns that Steve’s body has been found, Charlie discovers Jen’s goodbye notes, and Jen and Judy decide to use some of Judy’s newfound money to buy Charlie a new car. For about five minutes, the show seems peaceful, pleasant. Then Ben hits Jen and Judy in a hit-and-run. The irony is not lost.

Now imagine you’re me. It’s 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is raging, you need stuff to watch more than ever, and your bonding show with your mom ends on that cliff hanger. And then Netflix doesn’t set a date for season three. I was pissed. What would happen to the belovedly toxic besties Jen and Judy? Why was this family so stricken by hit-and-runs? Does interesting stuff actually happen in Laguna Beach, California?

These questions, dear reader, proved to all be answered in good time. On Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, Netflix released all 10 episodes of the final season of “Dead to Me,” and my mother and I binged the entire run over Thanksgiving weekend.

The last chapter of Jen and Judy’s lives was just as hectic as the two that preceded it, if not more so. We learned more about each character’s familial and personal past, what led them to this point, and what they’re afraid of. Judy, more than ever, is portrayed as a giver who never thinks of herself, to an extreme fault. When she is diagnosed with stage-four cervical cancer she refuses to tell anyone—even Jen—the truth. She doesn’t want to be a burden.

“I have…to go with Michelle to Sonoma for three months,” Judy lies, instead of telling Jen she needs chemotherapy.

Feeding into this is Jen’s fear that she will have to relive the experiences she had in her childhood of caring for her mother while she succumbed to cancer, eventually wasting away. Though fiercely protective of Judy in every way, Jen sometimes let the wrong thing slip at the wrong time, making Judy feel like she had to hide her diagnosis even longer. Eventually, she tells Jen and gets a round of chemo with her best friend at her side.

As if these two weren’t keeping enough secrets, Jen also learns that she’s pregnant with Ben’s child, and decides to hide it from him for a long while. Ben, at the same time, hides the fact that he was the one who struck Jen and Judy in the hit-and-run from them for a long while. These two are meant for each other, truly.

“I love you too,” Jen whispers into a dead phone line. “And I’m pregnant. And I killed your brother.”

While all these secrets—the cancer, the pregnancy, the hit-and-run—eventually come to light, Jen’s attempts to cover up Steve’s murder remain a core point of tension throughout the season. I will say, though this show’s strong suit was initially its high-paced suspense around whether Jen and Judy would get caught for their crimes, this season’s investigative plotline felt a bit weaker than in the past. It relied even more heavily on coincidence and illegal law enforcement searches than before and felt manufactured at times.

Maybe my least favorite part of the season was how the murder investigation got wrapped up. All season long, there was a ton of suspense around FBI Agent Glenn Moranis (Garret Dillahunt) hopping on the case and, seemingly, catching onto Judy and Jen’s trail. They seemed cornered with no way out. Then all of a sudden, through no action of the protagonists, the Greek mafia—sorry, the Greek syndicate—kills Moranis and gets blamed for Steve’s murder. And also somehow Jen and Judy get away with shooting out the tires of some Greek hitmen’s car and holding them at gunpoint. Not a consequence in sight.

Whereas before the show felt very thoughtful about all the payoffs that came from even the smallest, most unnoticeable setups, the last few episodes of season three felt rushed. I understand they had to get to the end quickly, but after two seasons of seeing Jen and Judy try to escape Steve’s murder, to have it so easily wrapped up with “We accidentally framed the Greeks” feels dishonest.

This rush was not without good reason, though. The writers likely needed to clear up room for Jen and Judy to have their heartbreaking journey through the series finale. In the final episode, entitled “We’ve Reached the End,” we only see what’s happening to Jen and Judy after they’ve fled to Mexico. There are no cutaways to Laguna Beach; it’s just the dynamic duo.

The gut-wrenching episode is the culmination of Judy’s season-long battle with cancer. She tells Jen that she’s going to stay in Mexico and pass away, peacefully and alone. After multiple episodes of battling to get Judy into a clinical trial and refusing to even entertain the thought that Judy is a terminal case, to say that Jen is resistant to this proclamation is an understatement. After enjoying a few weeks of paradise and bliss, Judy admits to Jen that she’s been in a lot of pain and has been hiding it. Jen is finally willing to let Judy go, and the two sob in each other’s arms.

“I’ve had the best time with you,” Judy weeps to Jen.

When Jen awakes the next morning, Judy is gone. She’s taken a rowboat and let herself go out to sea, metaphorically and literally. Jen returns to Laguna Beach sobbing as she drives, arriving just in time to watch her younger son Henry (Luke Roessler) perform in a church choir. As the choir performs a rendition of the upbeat song “Get Happy,” Ben arrives and asks Jen if Judy is there. She looks up at paper cranes hanging on the ceiling, a crane that Judy had folded while undergoing chemo.

“I think so,” Jen whispers, her voice cracking.

The show then flashes forward to show Jen, along with her newborn baby Joey, attending the same grief circle from all the way back in season one. One of the group members asks why Jen didn’t name the baby Judy after her dear friend.

“Because that would be weird,” Jen says. “This isn’t a Hallmark movie, Linda.” 

We see Jen’s life with Ben, who still doesn’t know that she murdered his brother. As he relaxes after playing with Charlie and Henry in the pool, peaceful and content, we get one last “Dead to Me” cliffhanger.

“Ben,” Jen says, hesitantly. “I have to tell you something.”

And with that, the show ends.

My mother and I were left emotionally wrecked, both of us sobbing at various times that night and hugging each other a little tighter. But through all the sadness—sadness at Judy’s death, at Jen’s relived pain, at our show ending—I found some comfort. It ties back into a speech that the grief support group facilitator Pastor Wayne (Keong Sim) gave in the penultimate scene.

“We call this a grief circle for a reason,” Wayne explains. “One of them is that we’re literally sitting in a circle. But the other is that grief is a continuum. It goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on…. But it’s also important to remember that with loss comes new beginnings.”

That, my friends, is the central message of the show. Through all the loss, heartbreak, and pain that Jen has suffered in the past year of her life, she had many new beginnings. The loss of her husband was followed by the beginning of her friendship with Judy. The loss of Judy was followed by the beginning of her life with Ben. A few episodes before the finale, Judy shares with Jen an adage her mother always used to say.

“There’s always an exit somewhere. You just have to find it,” Judy says.

While this is literally about the two of them trying to escape detection for Steve’s murder, it plays into the show’s theme too. Your grief is not indomitable. Your pain is not your prison. There’s always an exit, whether it’s a new friend, an old face, or the person who killed your husband. Grief is nothing in the face of human connection and love, and Jen and Judy have proven that time and time again.

“Dead to Me” will always have an incredibly special place in my heart. My mom and I would eagerly await every new announcement about when a season might drop, plan our whole week accordingly, and sit together to watch these two batshit crazy women do batshit crazy things. We’ll have to find a new show, but frankly, I don’t know what can fill the void. “Dead to Me” was raucously funny, heartbreakingly profound, agonizingly suspenseful, and ridiculously stupid all at once.

Sam Hilton can be reached at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

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