Black humor is often a cruel art, based on the misery of characters who keep making things worse for themselves.
Dead to Me, a Netflix original, first appeared to be a particularly gruesome version of the genre.
Laguna Beach, real estate agent and mother of two boys Jen Harding (Christina Applegate), is devastated by the death of her husband, Ted, and attends a grief support group where she meets Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), a kind and compassionate hippie.
When the topic of forgiving someone comes up, Jen, who is now prone to outbursts of anger, lashes out.
She questions how one could possibly forgive the person who ran over her husband with a car and then left him to bleed to death on the roadside. “How can you put up with that?”
Because Judy and her ex-boyfriend Steve (James Marsden), who Judy claimed was dead so she could join the mourning group, were in the car that ran over Ted, she is about to find out the truth.
The women had become inseparable by the time Jen discovered this dreadful secret, with Judy even moving into Jen’s guest house. Naturally, the bombshell destroys their friendship.
When the actual, annoying Steve shows up, Jen shoots him; he drowns in her pool, and Judy reappears.
From there, the plot becomes repetitive, cycling through the numerous wrongdoings, attempts at a coverup, falsehoods, and eventual admissions of these flawed but well-intentioned female protagonists.
It has been challenging to predict where Liz Feldman’s 100-car pileup of ironies will end up. The third and final season of Dead to Me, however, reveals a far more upbeat conclusion.
Even now, the show laughs off murder and deceit. Even more than that, though, it’s a tale of undying love.
I don’t mean love in the conventional sense. However, the series finale suggests that Jen and the kids will soon be moving in with Steve’s sweet but naive and destructively mourning twin brother Ben (also played by Marsden).
The most important friendship is the one that develops between Jen and Judy, despite their many rocky moments together. Both women have numerous grounds for their mutual loathing.
Instead, the more they discover about one another, their acceptance becomes more radical and mutual. Both Jen and Judy are aware of the terrible things the other has done, but they have also learned to trust one another’s intentions.
Moreover, it gives both characters a sense of security they aren’t getting from their romantic partners or parents, making it a significant plot point.
Dead to Me had to become a tragedy in order to become a more approachable version of itself, one that contrasts the quick, grotesque deaths of swindler Ted and bully Steve with the agonizing decline of protagonist Judy’s health as she succumbs to cancer.
It handled the change gracefully, foreshadowing its arrival with allusions to melancholy pop culture, such as “Seasons in the Sun,” “Beaches,” and the classic book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which was inspired by Sadako Sasaki.
Even the classic tearjerker Love Story, which deals with young love and untimely demise. The sum of these elements laid the groundwork for an unexpected conclusion that was more than just a wacky twist.
In the final act, Jen and Judy take a road trip to Steve’s Mexican beach house. As a result of her unselfish confession, Judy is on the run from the law. Jen was the victim.
We are relieved to report that their legal issues with the police, the FBI, the Greek mafia, and others are swiftly and mostly off-screen settled.
Dead to Me never really focused on the inner workings of the criminal court system, and the investigator characters don’t get much of a resolution.
It’s fair to say that about most of the guest stars, from Jen’s irritable older son Charlie (Sam McCarthy) to Judy’s on-and-off girlfriend Michelle (Natalie Morales), who makes a brief return appearance in the third season.
Some viewers may be dissatisfied with the show because of its narrow focus on Jen, Judy, and Ben.
The trade-off may not be ideal, but the compassion and realism it provides for its two stars in their final weeks together more than makes up for it.
Jennifer and Judy’s discovery of the car that killed Ted in Steve’s vacation home garage demonstrates how far she has come as a person capable of forgiveness.
Judy tells her companion, “It’s OK to detest it,” before handing her a golf club to “smash the sh-t” out of the car. Indeed I can’t dislike it, right? Reply from Jen.
“It’s what led me to you.” It’s the kind of sentimental moment the women might have laughed at in season 1 when they saw them embrace. There are a lot of emotional embraces and tears at this climax.
The fact that Applegate and Cardellini have such excellent friend chemistry, that the characters have been through so much together, and that their banter is as salty as it is sweet right up until the very end means that none of this irritates.
While on the road to Mexico, Judy reflects on her life and choices, asking aloud, “Why didn’t I have sex with everybody constantly?” Jen says “Herpes” under her breath.
By the season’s midpoint, Judy has broken the news to Francine, the chemo nurse who has been caring for her. She sighs and says, “I wasn’t picked.”
It’s possible that you were picked for something different, as Francine suggests. Indeed, she is correct.
Judy was selected, at least according to Feldman, to do the exact thing she set out to do when she befriended Jen, the widow of the guy she mistakenly helped kill.
By the time Judy disappears into the ocean after telling Jen, “You’re not leaving me; I’m staying,” Jen has become more than just a kinder, less resentful person.
She has also brought Jen and Ben together by chance; Ben is the father of Jen’s mature daughter-to-be.
In one of her final acts, she implores Jen to inform Ben (who was incarcerated at the time, having committed a hit-and-run at the end of Season 2) about the baby so that the child can grow up knowing her father.
All of this is moving equipment.
(The fact that Applegate was diagnosed with MS while filming the season adds poignancy to the story, as does the deep friendship she and Cardellini built over the course of their years together on set.)
Regardless of what happens in the future, Jen can count on Judy’s positivity to have an impact.
Of all, Dead to Me wouldn’t be Dead to Me if it didn’t also leave us with some jarring overtones of pessimism and uncertainty.
After months have passed since Judy’s passing, a frank member of the grief support group demands, “Why didn’t you name her Judy?” when she meets newborn Joey.
Why? “because that would be weird, Linda,” Jen deadpans. Then there’s the final, beautiful tableau.
While the baby sleeps and her brothers play in the water, Jen and Ben relax by the pool. There is still a central plot hole: Ben has no idea that the lady he loves is responsible for the death of his brother.
Jen says, “Ben,” a touch of dread in her voice. “There’s something I need to share with you.” That was the last line of the show.
Though I didn’t foresee it, the moment Applegate’s final line was spoken and the credits rolled, I knew that this was the best and only ending.
We were forced to circle back to the lyric that had disrupted so many friendships and romances over the period of three seasons.
Dead to Me was an ominous treat because of the way its sweetness and wit counterbalanced each other, much like Jen’s boasting and Judy’s cheer.