Dead to Me's Season Finale Made the Show Dead to Me

Why interesting TV shows should stop defaulting to murder cover-ups.
  • Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate star in Dead to Me (Netflix)
    Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate star in Dead to Me (Netflix)

    Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from the first season of Dead to Me, including the season finale.

    The new Netflix series Dead to Me played like a breath of fresh air for its first nine episodes. Grieving widow Jen (Christina Applegate) met a rare like-minded ally in Judy (Linda Cardellini) at their support group, and their sometimes strange friendship helped them both heal from loss. The twist, revealed at the end of episode 1, was that Judy was the woman responsible for the hit-and-run that killed Jen's husband, and befriending her and helping her through her grief is her (however misguided) attempt at atonement. And while Dead to Me was far from the first TV series to be predicated on a protagonist trying to keep a terrible secret under wraps, the focus on Jen and Judy's impossible friendship was unique.

    Until episode 10.

    In the season finale, Judy comes clean to Jen about her role in her husband's death and then skips town with the ill-gotten contents of her semi-estranged husband Steve's (James Marsden) bank account. But before she can, Steve shows up at Jen's place, inadvertently reveals that he was in the car with Judy when they killed Jen's husband, and then gets all aggro about it. And before you know it, Jen is reaching out to Judy, and the two of them are reunited, staring into Jen's pool at Steve's dead body, practically daring Netflix to even think about cancelling the series before we get to a season 2.

    But while cliffhangers are a great tool to get your Season 1 audience to come back around for Season 2, the introduction of the second cover-up story of the season might be reason enough to  keep me away from Season 2, despite the fact that Applegate and Cardellini created one of my favorite TV relationships of 2019. That is how tired I've become of the "Oops, we killed somebody; better bury the body and then spend the rest of the season in sweaty paranoia about it" plotline. It is, unfortunately, not a rare one in modern television history. And, to be fair, some shows accommodate it better than others. They buried many a body on The Sopranos (some they also dismembered), and that show was never worse off for it. And obviously a show like Dexter was pretty much all about its protagonist staying one step ahead of the bodies he buried. What's bad is when the mechanics of a murder-coverup plot — the near-misses, the escalation of violence, the necessity of dozens of incredibly stupid decisions by characters we're supposed to like and be rooting for — overwhelm things like smart characterization and good acting. The second season of Fargo featured top-notch performances from Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, and it was all in service of a murder cover-up so spectacularly dumb it felt like an insult. And that's on a show like Fargo, which is ABOUT dumb criminals.

    Poor Jesse Plemons wasn't even a stranger to the idiot machinations of the murder cover-up, having seen Friday Night Lights nearly implode during the poorly-received-doesn't-even-begin-to-describe-it second season plot where Landry (Plemons) and Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) killed a guy.

    The root of the murder cover-up problem is that it presumes the stakes don't matter unless they're life-and-death stakes. Whether it's teenage romance or the unlikely friendship of two grieving women, the idea that the audience won't care unless the threat of death or a lengthy prison sentence looms is frankly insulting. And even when a show like Dead to Me manages to thread that needle, giving Judy the dire stakes of keeping her hit-and-run a secret while still investing primarily in her friendship with Judy as the driving force of the series, adding a second murder to cover up in Season 2 feels like overkill at best and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what maskes the show good.

    This is also why a second season of Big Little Lies feels so dicey. The first season of BLL was the best thing on television that year, and it stuck the landing about as well as any series has done in recent memory. You can understand why HBO and the principal actresses wanted more of a good thing. But now that perfect finale, which at the time seemed so open-ended and satisfyingly ambiguous will now logically lead to a season 2 that is all about, what? The cover-up to a murder. You can already see the scenes play out in your head, right? The furtive, conspiratorial conversations. The removal of damning evidence. Zoe Kravitz looking haunted and guilty and ultimately like a loose end that the other women will have to consider cutting loose. Season 1 revolved around a  murder mystery too, but the way it was framed, the questions surrounding What Happened That Night were so ephemeral that the crime of it all was a Macguffin in order to draw us into the lives and rivalries and petty catastrophies that made the show such a tonally unique kick. The chances that we lose that spark in Season 2 are high, even with Meryl Streep.

    That crime and murder are at the heart of the bulk of American TV dramas is probably not going away any time soon. But the more expansive the TV landscape gets, the fewer excuses there are for not allowing a diverse array of dramatic stakes. And the less patience I will have for shows that decide they need to shoehorn in more dire stakes after the fact. In other words, if Mrs. Maisel or any of the women of GLOW ever hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk in the dead of night, I don't want to hear about it.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Dead to Me, Netflix, Big Little Lies, Friday Night Lights