Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the third and final season of Dead to Me.
It’s rare that a show finally hits its stride when it’s on its way out, but that’s exactly what Dead To Me does in its third and last season. The Netflix series made by Liz Feldman has always been enjoyable enough; it’s darkly funny, and though it often beggars belief, its more ridiculous plot points are held together by the rock-solid foundation of its two lead performances. This time, though, Dead To Me drops the “enough” and is just plain enjoyable, with a lovely, bittersweet sendoff that ties up its myriad loose ends.
When we last saw suburban widows Judy (Linda Cardellini) and Jen (Christina Applegate), the pair had just been involved in a car accident that echoed the series premiere – something even they point out is a little on the nose. In a plot that sounds like something straight out of a soap opera, Jen’s lover Ben (James Marsden), the twin brother of Judy’s husband, who she killed after he and Judy accidentally killed her husband, ran into the two women while drunk driving, then sped off. If these plot points were on a corkboard, the threads would be hopelessly tangled, but the new season cuts through the knots with two life-changing plot points that simplify Judy and Jen’s priorities.
At its worst, Dead To Me can feel like a series of confessions strung together by quips and heart-to-hearts. Everyone is constantly on the verge of speaking up about something to a friend or an FBI agent or a family member or a stranger. By the end of season two, this preoccupation with coming clean begins to wear on the viewer, but season three manages to streamline and tidy up its murderers-try-to-get-away-with-it plots. More importantly, it features some massive twists early on that allow the women to strive towards emotional clean slates, if not legal and moral ones.
To spoil these major surprises would be to reveal too much of the heart of Dead To Me’s final season, but suffice it to say that the pair’s trip to the hospital in the wake of their car accident has an unexpected impact on both of them. The latest season also picks up its cliffhangers where they left off, as detective Perez (Diana-Maria Riva) attempts to keep the women out of trouble after Steve’s body is discovered, Charlie (Sam McCarthy) finds an incriminating letter Jen left for him, and the murder weapon that was once a gift for Henry (Luke Roessler) just won’t stay put.
Murder plots aside, Cardellini and Applegate have always been the best part of the show, and this season their bond has gone from fragile to unbreakable. Shows about female friendship between middle-aged women are few and far between, and even fewer of those shows portray the honest fears and desires of those women – including and especially those that have little to do with aging. Dead To Me has always been anchored by its frank lead relationship, and this season, the two excellent actresses put in some of their best work yet.
The show also surprises and delights in other ways. Judy and Jen’s friendship has always taken the shape of their circumstances and has often felt queer despite their individual love interests. The new season doesn’t include any eleventh-hour surprises in terms of the nature of their relationship, but it does continue a natural progression that still feels unique and nearly boundariless. They’re co-parents one minute, Thelma and Louise the next, and their care for one another is the most real-feeling part of the sometimes unbelievable show.
There’s also something to be said about Judy’s character in particular. True, radical empathy is tough to put on screen without it seeming quaint or oversimplified, but Feldman and Cardellini pull it off with a character whose whole thing is simply that she’s nice. Dead To Me has never featured particularly stand-out directing, but the camera treats Judy with a warmth that matches Cardellini’s performance. The series doesn’t let the walking, talking ball of sunshine that is Judy off the hook but instead writes new challenges for her, ones that both shake and strengthen her optimism.
Unlike many shows, Dead To Me ultimately doesn’t overstay its welcome, pulling off an ending that’s true to the series through lines of friendship, grief, and going all-in on something that may or may not be a terrible idea. There’s a moment in the series finale when the pair banter about Doritos and their criminal nicknames, and it’s one that it would be easy for us to stay in forever, but it’s over a few seconds later. It’s a testament to Feldman’s vision – and a gift to the viewers – that a series that has enough comedy and chemistry to spin its wheels forever chooses, instead, to end on a high note.
Dead to Me is currently available to stream on Netflix. Watch the season 3 trailer here.