(Warning: Explicit Spoilers For The Final Season Of Dead to Me.)
After two-and-a-half years, Netflix’s Dead To Me has finally returned…and, my god, I wish it hadn’t.
Dead to Me‘s final season doesn’t immediately pick up where we left off; on the contrary, it starts in a dream sequence, with our favorite crime moms Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) on a beach in Mexico. Jen is watching Judy get pulled out to sea on a boat, and she’s terrified of losing her closest friend – rightfully so, considering everything the two women have been through since coming into each other’s lives. The worst for Jen, though, is that she’s unable to save Judy.
Because I went into Dead to Me‘s final season with no expectations and was just happy for the show to be back, the opening immediately set off alarms. This season was not going to be fun like the first two, and it wasn’t going to have the same kind of dark humor that made us love the show in the first place. I’m sorry to report that my fears have been confirmed: Dead to Me Season 3 is full of trauma porn and overwrought and disjointed plot points, and does a complete and utter disservice to not only its fans, but Applegate and Cardellini as well.
At the end of Season 2, Jen and Judy are in a hit-and-run. The driver who hit them is none other than a drunk Ben (James Marsden), the identical twin of Judy’s late ex-fiance Steve, who Jen killed at the end of Season 1 when he tried to attack them both. The first thing we see in Season 3 after the dream sequence is Jen being rushed into the hospital on a stretcher in a neck brace with Judy right at her side, where she’s meant to be. We quickly learn that Jen is has no serious injuries other than a few bruised ribs – but Judy, who came out of the accident mostly unscathed, has CAT scans showing shadows in her abdomen. After going through her mother’s death and her own double-mastectomy, Jen’s biggest fear has been her cancer returning, so it’s especially jarring for Jen to accidentally get Judy‘s news when the doctor confuses the two of them.
Dead to Me has always been about keeping secrets, and that includes Jen and Judy’s inability to keep things from one another for too long. Jen keeps Judy’s cancer a secret from her friend for a few days, until Judy finds informational pamphlets in her purse and she spills the beans. Of course, it turns out Judy’s also been keeping a secret about her health from Jen: she knew there was a possibility that she could have cancer because of an abnormal pap smear a year earlier (one that, in typical avoidant Judy fashion, she never followed up on). So when Judy goes to the oncologist and finds out a) she has stage four cervical cancer and b) it’s reached her liver, she, in typical avoidant Judy fashion, keeps the news from Jen for a few days. (Unless it was a few weeks? The timeline for Dead to Me‘s final season is unclear and incredibly difficult to follow – we’ll discuss that in a bit.)
Now, Judy’s diagnosis is the other shoe dropping for both women. The core of her story has been wanting desperately to start a family of her own and being unable to do so. The tragic events that lead her to Jen do gain Judy a found family: a friend who loves and protects her and sons who don’t just see her as their mother’s best friend, but as their mother, too. Those same tragic events have also helped Jen learn to be a little softer and a little more loving.
There’s always been a real need to suspend your disbelief when watching Dead To Me. In no real-world setting would a newly widowed mother who just found out the identity of the woman who killed her husband in a hit-and-run allow that woman to stay in her home, even she did kill the woman’s manipulative and emotionally abusive ex in return. And it’s not like that’s the craziest thing to happen on the show, either. Jen kills Steve in Season 1; in Season 2, we’re introduced to Steve’s identical twin Ben. Still, I was fine suspending my disbelief here, because doing so made the stakes for Season 2 so much higher. Ben’s presence was a constant reminder of what Jen and Judy had done. It also brought us Francis Conroy as the twins’ mother, and hey, who can complain about that?
But the issue with suspending your disbelief for too long is that the suspension snaps when something is just too far-fetched to believe. And this happens several times in the Dead to Me final season. The most notable instance is when we find out that the night Judy and Steve accidentally killed Ted, they were driving a drunken Ben home, having taken his keys from him so that he wouldn’t drive while under the influence.
What makes this so far-fetched and overwrought is the fact that Ben didn’t originally exist. It’s well known that he came to life only after James Marsden e-mailed Dead to Me creator Liz Feldman, expressing his congratulations at the success of Season 1 and lamenting how he couldn’t return for Season 2 thanks to to his original character’s (well-deserved) death. And honestly, I can’t blame him for wanting to come back; I, too, would grovel to work with Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini for as long as possible. Feldman took Marsden’s eagerness and ran with it, creating Ben.
With the creation of Ben came the development of his romantic relationship with Jen. It’s one thing for her to have to see the face of the man she killed every day. But for her to actively choose to sleep with him, even though he’s a trigger for her own trauma and Judy’s? That’s a little insane. And yes, Jen is also a little insane – she is raising her sons with the woman who killed their father, after all – but Dead to Me never drew a line for maximum insanity. Ben becomes the series’ biggest supporting character in Seasons 2 and 3, his subplots taking up almost as much time as those of the two leads. In Season 2, his arc is all about finding out what happened to Steve – and it makes sense, because of course someone would come looking for Steve after he went gone missing. The issue lies with his Season 3 story. Ben is an interesting character, but he’s not interesting enough for us to care about him as actively as we do Jen and Judy. The show asking us to care the same way contributes to the disconnect between its two seasons and the story the Dead to Me final season wants to tell.
I’m also sure people are going to blame Applegate’s MS diagnosis as to why the final season is the way it is. Aside from the show changing its blocking to make her more comfortable during filming, though, there’s no reason Applegate’s diagnosis would have affected the story. On the contrary – you might think that a lead actresses who’s already a breast cancer survivor and who’s been diagnosed with a disease that pretty much guarantees this will be her final role would make the production want to protect her as much as possible, even if that means scrapping part of the planned story. (It’s not like Dead to Me hadn’t already been delayed because of the pandemic.)
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. With Judy’s cancer diagnosis comes the reckoning that Jen will have to sit through another loved one going through devastating illness – which is the entire reason Judy wanted to keep it a secret from Jen to begin with. What Judy doesn’t realize, though, is that Jen would go to the ends of the earth for her. When Judy calls herself a burden, Jen chastises her, telling her “You’re not a burden, you are my fucking heart.” It’s absolutely fucking devastating to hear that, because it’s just further confirmation that things are not going to end well for them.
And it doesn’t.
Judy’s first round of chemo does nothing to shrink the tumors. She’s terminal. While she accepts her fate, Jen, understandably, does not. She begs Judy to consider a clinical trial; but Judy, who just wants to spend her remaining time with their family without being made sick from chemo, declines. It’s completely understandable, but that doesn’t make her decision any less awful. And Jen, unwilling to accept Judy’s decision, finds a connection to get her into the clinical trial. But Judy still declines. Instead, she turns herself into the police and confesses to everything. Because it’s better she go to prison than Jen – she’s going to die, anyway.
Then, in a further strain on credulity, Jen asks the police to wait three weeks before arresting Judy, under the pretense that she’ll undergo clinical trial and have a better chance of surviving. But what Judy and Jen really do for those three weeks is go on the lam together in Mexico.
“We’ve Reached The End,” Dead to Me‘s series finale, is reminiscent of E.R.‘s “On The Beach.” In that episode, Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) and Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston) go to Hawaii so that Mark, who has terminal brain cancer, can live out his final days with his family. However, where E.R.‘s episode is absolutely gut-wrenching because it’s the goodbye Mark deserved, Dead To Me‘s is not. What it wants to be is a love-letter to the friendship formed by the series’ leads. But instead of making us feel grateful for the bond we’ve watched form for three seasons, it just leaves us feeling sick to our stomachs over the loss the series is about to endure.
And then, after looming over the entire season, Judy’s death takes place…off-screen. During her final days in Mexico with Jen, Judy lets Jen know she’s going to leave. Just completely disappear. And she does. Early in the episode, they share a devastating goodbye, with Judy reassures Jen that no matter where she is, she’ll always be with her. It’s nonetheless a disservice to the character for Judy to not have a goodbye with Jen’s sons, who’ve accepted Judy as their second mother and given her children she can consider her own after struggling for so long to become a biological mother.
On the contrary, what we do get is Judy’s goodbye to her estranged mother, Eleanor (Katey Sagal) in Episode 9. And I get it it. They wanted to bring Sagal back for the Dead to Me final season and give her the chance to share the screen with her former on-screen daughter Applegate one more time. But realizing Judy was keeping something from her and just showing up at the house? They could have found a better way to bring the character back than that. It’s frustrating to see Dead to Me spend its own final moments this way when it would have been better used on the boys’ reactions to losing Judy.
In the end, we don’t get to see anyone grieve her at all. After Jen returns from Mexico alone, we’re met with a time jump of several days (weeks? again, who the hell knows how much time actually passed). Jen walks into the church where her son’s choir performs – Holy Harmonies, you will always be famous – greeted by the thousands of paper cranes Judy made as decorations for them while she was going through chemo. It’s a beautiful reminder that Judy will indeed always be with Jen. And don’t get me wrong – I sobbed through this scene. And then I stopped when all of its emotional impact disappeared a moment later with Ben’s arrival out of nowhere when he quite literally sidles up next to Jen in a church pew, preparing for the fact that he’s there to replace Judy.
Frankly, it’s fucking infuriating to watch Dead to Me close out with a montage featuring moments like Jen returning to grief circle where she met Judy to talk about losing her (and to introduce the group to her daughter, Joey, because she thinks naming her after Judy would’ve been “fucking weird,” something that’s…a choice for her to say, considering it absolutely would’ve made sense for her to name her daughter after her literal soulmate, but pop off, I guess, Liz Feldman) and her boys frolicking in the pool with Ben, perfectly content and not at all missing Judy.
Judy never wanted anything more than to have a family. The disservice of giving her one, taking it from her through death, and giving us essentially no reaction from the people who loved her is a death blow to the series a whole. This terrible final overarching plot taints all three seasons of Dead to Me – how can anyone ever rewatch the first two seasons without thinking “Well, damn, all of this just for Judy to be forgotten at the end?”
It’s made worse by how poorly the rest of the series’ storylines are tied up. Michelle (Natalie Morales), Judy’s lover from Season 2, returns for a brief moment and is a complete one-eighty from her original character. Where the original Michelle would’ve embraced Judy upon hearing that she has cancer, Season 3’s Michelle pretends to be asleep to avoid the conversation. Where a season ago she would’ve been understanding when Judy’s mother manipulates her into taking her out of the old care home for some fresh air, New Michelle instead chews Judy out for falling for her mother’s antics.
The FBI gets involved in Steve’s case by sending Agent Moranis (Garett Dillahunt) to look into things. Upon learning of this, Judy mentions that she’s actually worked with Moranis before! Except that this is literally the first time he’s ever mentioned in the series and at this point we know most of Judy’s deviant past. As Moranis gets closer to discovering what really happened to Steve, Jen considers murdering him, only for the agent to wind up dead (convenient) while she and Judy are in Mexico (double convenient) and for his death to remain unexplained before Dead to Me ends (the rare triple convenience!). The ladies faced prison time with Moranis still in the mix, but his death isn’t all satisfying because the mystery of his killer is completely unearned. The dissolution of this arc in particular is what makes Dead to Me Season 3 so disjointed; it’s as though Feldman and company were tired of researching on how FBI murder cases take place. And I get it, it’s fiction, it’s not all supposed to be accurate – but this was just lazy writing and a waste of Dillahunt’s talent.
The only good thing about the final season is, of course, the scenes between Applegate and Cardellini. Their real-life friendship and love for one another shines through their characters, the lone beacons amid this wreck of a final season.