As a Bloodline watcher, I can’t help but constantly expect Linda Cardellini’s Dead to Me character to say, Rayburn-style, “we’re not bad people, we just did a bad thing.” Because, essentially, that same sentiment is at the center of Liz Feldman’s diverting dark comedy series. Two women forge a friendship through grief, and then discover that their relationship is really built on lies—and neither is as innocent as they seem. And yet, neither is really fully guilty. Further, the men in their lives are not that great, but also, not exactly awful enough to justify what happens to them.
Such is the muddled moral message of Dead to Me, which in its second season inverts the relationship dynamic between Judy (Cardellini) and Jen (Christina Applegate). In Season 1, Judy is hiding the fact that she was involved in the hit and run that killed Jen’s husband. In Season 2, Judy knows that Jen killed her ex-fiancé Steve, although there is ultimately more to that story. There always is! It’s part of what makes the show such a good binge watch, even if every episode’s cliffhanger ending is resolved within the first minutes of the next installment. But by then, as Netflix knows, you’re already hooked and invested in what comes next.
There are copious twists and spoilers in this new season to navigate around, but what I can say is that the show is still at its best when focused on the complicated friendship between Judy and Jen. There aren’t many series that really explore such a realistic dynamic of female friendship. “You break up a lot,” Jen’s younger son opines after she declares that Judy will not be in their lives anymore, only to invite her back over the next day. The early episodes of the new season do a lot to solidify the bond between them, including the idea that they are both each other’s “person.” Romantic relationships may come and go, but Judy and Jen continue to fight for one another (and often with one another). “It’s getting a little co-dependy,” Jen says at one point, but who can stay mad at Judy when faced with Cardellini, the Queen of Sad Smiles?
Like Bloodline, Dead to Me is getting to the point in Season 2 of needing its characters to pay for their very real crimes, no matter how lovingly we feel about them. And yet, we do want them to escape. What does that say about us? The show addresses this quandary late in the season while offering up a new twist for another potential run of episodes, but nothing about the plotting (much of which meanders in the middle and takes some obvious turns) is as satisfying as the relationships between the series’ women. Crucially, the dialogue between Jen and Judy is emotional without being saccharine. “You need to forgive yourself,” Judy counsels her friend. “Ew,” Jen immediately replies. “I know, it’s gross,” Judy acknowledges. A similar exchanges takes place moments later, when Jen tells her friend to start saying “no” more, while admitting “I know, it’s disgusting.”
The series also gives meaningful (though brief) storylines to both of Jen’s sons—Charlie (Sam McCarthy) and Henry (Luke Roessler)—which is a rarity in shows not specifically about kids. But it also ties back into Dead to Me’s many explorations of womanhood and femininity, including its strong ties to motherhood of all kinds. Having said that, the show isn’t as respectful of the real person and pain behind Jen’s nosy neighbor Karen (of course, played by Suzy Nakamura) as it should be, given that almost every other women on Dead to Me gets a moment of redemption. (And yet, we all know a Karen).
What continues to anchor the series, and makes it endlessly compelling, are the performances from Cardellini and Applegate. They have a natural rapport that makes their onscreen friendship believable beyond the point of Wine Mom Energy. They are family. With Oscar and Felix personalities, they drive each other crazy but being apart is not an option. It’s hard to make lifelong friends as you age, people you can really trust and want to spend all of your time with. Jen and Judy’s relationship—and their actions—are heightened for drama of course, but there is a very real truth at the center that creates a certain ache for the kind of best friend many of us haven’t had since school. Not just a friend who you are the closest to by default, but someone you would want with you in a crisis. It’s a rare and beautiful thing—despite, again, the origins and continued ups and downs of this particular relationship.
Dead to Me keeps its world small and coincidences high, but that’s also what helps us really get to know these characters on a level that makes their emotional beats land in the moment. If the show was released weekly, its cliffhanger endings might carry more weight and anticipation, but as it is the series remains a breezy binge watch with sometimes surprising emotional gut punches—even though the new season doesn’t quite have the same spark as its first (and begins to fade as soon as it ends). Still, Dead to Me is a worthy exploration of grief and guilt, and what holding on to those things through a veil of lies can do to a person. And while it may be scattered when it comes to its moral universe, it’s overarching message is clear: No matter what you’re going through, what you really need is a friend.
Dead to Me Season 2 premieres Friday, May 8th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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