‘Dead to Me’ Shows Women Struggling to Weave Sanity From Broken Straw
How the Netflix series displays the best and worst of female friendships
Dark Comedy with Heart
During lockdown, my husband and I found a little binge-worthy gem.
Dead to Me is a dark comedy about two women who bond over Merlot, murder, and very hot messes. The beauty of the series is not in how deeply pledged that the two women are, but in how incredibly mismatched and non-trust-worthy each is to be the best friend of another.
With a largely female production crew and writer, Liz Feldman, the show is fresh and feminist without heavy-fisted hammering.
Free-spirited Judy, played by Linda Cardellini, embraces her crystals, karma, and a kindness ethos, even to strangers. She clashes with Jen, played by Christina Applegate. Jen is a cynical, distracted, and hard-driven professional woman trying to raise two boys in wealthy, Christian Centered Suburbia.
As a southern California realtor, Jen is already hard-wired for shiny, shallow pretension over substance. However, the sudden hit and run death of her husband in season one hits her like an on-coming SUV.
Realizing that her polished life is a crumbling façade, Jen meets Judy at a grief support group, and beyond all logic, the two spark a friendship based as much on need, as on convenience. Judy’s losses are just as real as Jen’s, but Judy’s miscarriages and train-wreck love life does not meet the societal standard of proper loss awarded to a seemingly, happy nuclear family.
Women watching the shows will immediately recognize the merry-go-round, just below the surface, nausea, that comes from being a victim of false confessions, half-truths, misleading loose ends, and players — often the men in their lives — who keep them spinning in doubt.
Lies and loveliness, webs and bewilderment
What is unique and refreshing about Dead To Me, is that the women, too, despite desperately needing emotional support, fall into entangled webs of deceptions against one another.
Any woman who has stumbled through a friendship where “I was just trying to spare your feelings,” is familiar with this backfiring relationship “saving” device.
Also familiar is, the class and comparison inevitability of one feeling inadequate in the success, and one feeling inadequate at being human, or attaining ideal motherhood.
At various times, the viewer is so aware of how much hotter the mess is going to get as the two women stumble clumsily through their competing struggles, that yelling “NO, don’t say it!” at the screen, I think was intended by the writers.
As the tangled web closes in all around the two friends, there is as much breaking up of the besties as there is bonding. What crystalizes is a friendship built of straw and sticks, but one that is always more stable and solid than standing alone in the cyclone.
A hit job-well-done
Dead To Me does an excellent, if an improbable job, of showing how women cope with gaslighting, mistrust, insecurity, and expectations of what a “good woman” should look like. It lays bare some of the more glaring inequalities about what is expected from men in power, such as the powerful, and controlling Steve (Judy’s fiancé’) and the police powers that be. The state powers which control the detectives investigating murders, missing persons, and multiple traffic-related mysteries, often hold all the cards, but very rarely, hold any answers.
In the end, the heroic police prove just as incompetent at their jobs as Judy and Jen. Everyone in this show one part fantastic, and two parts flawed as fallen angels.
Women who will appreciate Dead To Me do not have to worry that it is just a “chick flick.” The story offers up some awesome male characters, and action-thriller bits, too. The men, in lesser starring roles, display vulnerability, dorkiness, and even tenderness, as well as their more masculine traits of power and control, competition, and casual misogyny.
It is more balanced, in this way, than many other thriller, black comedy offerings.
Viewers, especially women, have experienced friendships fraught with uncertainty, guilt, and drama.
Our societal and human limitations
In our relationships with men and women, which feature confessional meetings that reveal even more uncertainty, we can see ourselves trapped in the limitations of our humanity, even if we are less likely to be involved with murder, arson, or cover-ups of this magnitude.
We can see in ourselves, in an unflattering, but uncontrollable need, to try to compare yourself in view of your perceived inadequacy, with women of other classes, identities, roles, gender norms, and more.
There are some lesbian undertones throughout the seasons, but these take a back seat to the cement of sorority love that evolves despite everything which would realistically drive these two to mutually assured destruction.
It is not the blackest, nor the most morbid of dark humor, but the real draw of Dead To Me is the inspiring hope that somehow, sisters are doing it for themselves.
Sisterhood is more than powerful; it is perplexing, provocative, passionate, and in the end, pleasingly piquant.