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“Sometimes people need a friend more than they need the truth.” That’s the idea behind Netflix’s Dead to Me, created by Liz Feldman; at least, that’s what the main characters tell themselves to live with the decisions they’ve made.
Dead to Me Season 2 follows Jen Harding (Christina Applegate), a widow dealing with the shocking death of her husband in a violent hit-and-run. At a grief support group, she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), and they immediately bond. As the series progresses, dark secrets are slowly revealed as the truth is distorted by a web of lies.
I’d describe Dead to Me as a cross between After Life (read my review here) and Breaking Bad. It’s a show that I didn’t know anything about before I watched it. The second season dropped on Netflix on May 8th, so the other day I started the series from the beginning. I was immediately hooked from the first episode, and I binged it in three days. I won’t reveal anything that happens in the series, even from that first episode, because the experience of watching the show is so much better without knowing a thing about it.
The writing is phenomenal. The overarching storylines, connecting all of the different characters involved, is brilliantly constructed. Even more brilliant is how these storylines are revealed. The show gradually leads you along, feeding you tiny bits of information from which you are slowly able to construct the larger picture. The plotting of the seasons is excellent, and enough credit can’t be given to the showrunner and the writers for how they compose the structure of the seasons. They make sure to end every episode with a shocking final reveal that makes it impossible to walk away.
At this series’ core, however, is the relationship between Jen and Judy. Their connection, through both the good and the bad, is what anchors the series. Their undying love, their devotion, and their commitment to each other, even when they hate each other, is the heartbeat that keeps this series moving forward. That relationship would not work if it wasn’t for the mesmerizing, raw, multidimensional performances from Applegate and Cardellini.
These characters are so rich; you can tell Applegate and Cardellini are relishing in the ability to explore their emotional capacities on screen. Everything from what they’ve experienced to what they choose to do on screen brings so many layers to these characters, and the performers never lose sight of those dimensions with scenes of fun and levity quickly turning into heartbreak and tragedy. Applegate and Cardellini inhabit these characters so organically, and their chemistry on-screen is incredibly palpable. The series only works because of how ridiculously good they are in it.
I’ve been a fan of Linda Cardellini ever since Freaks and Geeks, and Dead to Me has to be the best work I’ve seen from her. Never have I seen her so emotionally vulnerable and authentic, and at the same time charming and lovable. Her “positive energy” is nicely contrasted by Applegate’s stern and aggressive demeanor, concealing her poignant self-loathing. The two have the kind of opposite personalities that allow the characters to work together as well as they do. Applegate and Cardellini are nothing short of wonderful in these roles.
The ideological conflict between the two characters adds to the weight the series carries. Judy looks at the world through the lens of good and bad energy, and that Karmatic forces are at work to punish her for her mistakes. Jen sees the world more as a natural cause-and-effect, where the decisions she makes have direct consequences. Judy looks for atonement to cleanse herself and change her luck; Jen looks to punish herself for her mistakes and deprive herself of happiness. It’s rather interesting to see the two different approaches these characters have in dealing with the pain and sadness they carry within.
One of the great things about this show is that all of the directors and most of the writers are women. I think a lot of the feeling of authenticity that this series has stems from this fact. The women depicted in this show are simultaneously strong and vulnerable. Often, male writers believe that female characters need to sacrifice their maternity to show strength, or that if they’re too emotional they are painted as weak. Many male writers merely write their female characters as they would their male characters.
With the predominance of women behind the camera, the nuances of these characters are preserved and genuinely conveyed. Actors have to put a level of trust into their directors and, especially for a television show, their writers; it allows for the actors to be more open and to go to more difficult places when they know that those guiding them understand the perspective they’re channeling. When the actors have that level of trust and understanding with the writers and directors, it comes across on screen, and you certainly see that in Applegate and Cardellini’s performances.
Dead to Me pulls together elements of comedy, drama, romance, and thriller to craft this truly gripping series. The performances are spectacular, as are the characters Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini bring to life. The writing for this show is razor-sharp, and holds your interest for every single second. It continuously finds ways to completely flip the script and change everything you thought you knew about what is going on. It subverts expectations over and over again, playing on what they know you think is going to happen.
For anyone looking for a new show to binge and get incredibly invested in, put Dead to Me at the top of your list; it’s twenty episodes, each thirty minutes long, and makes for outstanding television. A third season has yet to be confirmed, but considering the season two finale, I cannot wait to see where this series goes next.
Author: Nathanael Molnar, originally published [5/22/2020]
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