An article in The Washington Post a few weeks ago sparked outrage among women everywhere. It told the tale of how, faced with the realities of working from home with her three-year-old underfoot, a woman shuddered her tech company because her unemployed husband couldn’t handle watching their son by himself while his wife worked. He threw in the towel after three days.
Now, there’s no way a few paragraphs in a larger story on the sacrifices mothers are being forced to make in a COVID world could sum up the intricacies of a marriage. But the article struck a nerve because women have been making heartbreaking decisions like this forever. Even in the most egalitarian of marriages, women are often the ones doing the brunt of the domestic work and child rearing. Go to your local PTO meeting and you’ll find doctors and lawyers and investment bankers—but you’ll be hard pressed to find a man.
If this is how it is in 2020, imagine what it was like in the 1980s. It’s against this backdrop that the second season of Dirty John is set. Based on a true story, Betty Broderick (Amanda Peet) married Daniel Broderick (Christian Slater) when she was 19 years old. She had four children, suffered a still birth and a miscarriage, and worked multiple jobs to put him through medical school and law school. When Dan finally found success as a medical malpractice lawyer, he left Betty for Linda Kolkena (Rachel Keller), a much younger woman who worked as a receptionist in his office. He did this cruelly. First by denying for years that anything was going on between him and Linda. Then by moving Betty into a new house under the ruse that they were all going to live their together. Dan was president of the San Diego Bar Association and used his legal connections to make it hard for Betty to find a lawyer. He sent her to jail and put her in a psychiatric hold. When Linda moved in with him, before they were married, it was her voice Betty had to hear on the answering machine.
But this isn’t what people remember about the story. They may remember the 1992 made-for-TV movie staring Meredith Baxter. They may have listened to the L.A. Times podcast. They may recall the incessant vulgar messages Betty left on his answering machine and that she drove her car into his house. And they definitely remember that in November of 1989 Betty broke into Dan’s new home and killed Dan and Linda in their sleep.
The success of this USA series (whose first anthology season curiously aired on Bravo) hinges on Peet’s fantastic portrayal. Betty collapses right before our eyes, becoming more and more unhinged. Her tenuous grasp on reality gets looser and looser until she’s barely hanging on. “Daddy’s divorced. I’m still married,” she tells her son. The only place for her despair at being unceremoniously dumped and having the life she loved taken away from her is uncontrollable rage and violent acts. There are so many moments Betty could have chosen a different path and stubbornly refused to. It would be easy to write Betty off as a “crazy bitch”—that’s often society’s go-to move—but Peet doesn’t allow that to happen. She brings a depth of humanity to everything Betty does. We cannot not excuse Betty’s behavior. We may not even be able to fully understand it. But Dirty John and Peet provide viewers with context. We feel for Betty even as we are frustrated and appalled by her behavior.
The series also wouldn’t work without Slater, who is typically cool and detached, a style that totally works for Dan Broderick. Dan isn’t a monster, and Slater doesn’t let him become one, but he’s clearly prioritized his own happiness above all others. Betty, no longer the 19-year-old she once was, is a constant reminder of his past struggles. But this isn’t Dan’s story much in the way the first season wasn’t John’s story.
Nothing excuses a double homicide. But the eight-part series begins to unravel what lead Betty to this violent act and sheds light on the long-term effects of clinging to your anger and rage. Although Betty did herself no favors by ignoring court orders, the legal system was still stacked against her. The series is a poster child for using therapy to work through your emotions. Betty declined to do that, telling one therapist she could not let go of her anger because anger is all she had left. With no one to adequately express her fury to, the vile messages left on Dan and Linda’s answering machine were her “therapy,” her “primal scream.” But she exasperated her young children, who were confused and traumatized by their mother’s behavior. “How come you won’t shut your mouth so we can come over,” her son begs her at one point. She repeatedly called Linda a “whore”—that’s how she referred to her on the answering machine messages, to her court appointed therapist, to her friends. Betty’s rage exhausted everyone around her. Friends didn’t want to see her anymore. Her rage consumed her. Even after she murdered the couple, she never let go of her anger.
The series is aided by having younger actors play Betty and Dan at the beginning of their marriage. Tiera Skovbye (Riverdale) is great as the young Betty, but Chris Mason is downright eerie in his channeling of Slater perfectly mimicking Slater’s distinct cadence and nasally voice. Seeing them as a young couple helps us better understand Betty’s deep pain and anguish.
Showrunner Alexandra Cunningham never forgets whose story she is telling, and Dirty John is the TV equivalent of a compelling page turner. From the Dynasty-esque outfits and hair to the fabulous 80s laden soundtrack (Quarterflash’s “Take Me to Heart” is a distinct reminder of the era), Cunningham peppers the series with wonderful ‘80s touches. There’s a certain camp to the series. Betty could have definitely been on The Real Housewives of San Diego if the series existed at the time. But the camp never distracts from the series’ central theme: That far too often our society casts a woman aside in favor of the man.
And that’s the dirty truth.
The first two episodes of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story premiere Tuesday, June 2 on USA.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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