Dead to Me (2019-2022)

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini at the bottom of a pool, holding two glasses of wine, which are dispersing into the water like blood.

Content Warnings: Murder; attempted sexual assault; blood and gore; cancer; alcoholism; drug use; child loss; verbal domestic abuse

Genre: Comedy/Crime/Drama

“A series about a powerful friendship that blossoms between a tightly wound widow and a free spirit with a shocking secret.”

IMDb blurb

Created by Liz Feldman.

RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain

9/10 dead violets.

This review contains spoilers.

This heartbreaking/heartwarming story about an uptight, borderline alcoholic real estate agent Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and tender-hearted artist Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), who are brought together by grief and (forced) circumstance, had me hooked from the very first episode. The complicated and intense relationship that these characters form is a rare bird (and I don’t mean the one Jen Harding uses to murder Judy’s ex, Steve Wood [James Marsden]). Media that centers fierce, unwavering female friendship is hard to come by, and the beautiful friendship-partnership that emerges from Jen and Judy’s tragic intertwining is one that I’ll forever pine after in every other piece of media I consume hereafter because it is so pure, so beautiful, so loyal, so devout.

And they kill each other’s spouses before they even realize these men “deserve” it (to a certain extent), for fucks sake.

This series is so hilariously honest. I treasure this series for its candor about the grieving process. I value it for its championship of queer and created families, especially those that are created out of compassion for those whose families desert them. I also adore it for how it unflinchingly embraces Judy’s sexuality–her relationship with Michelle Gutierrez (Natalie Morales) is embraced as openly and unquestioningly as Jen’s with Ben Wood. It’s not even a conversation between Jen and Judy because, frankly, it doesn’t matter. And it shouldn’t. What does matter, however, is the extremely positive representation afforded by Judy and Michelle’s romance, and how it ends on really positive, non-toxic terms.

Let’s cut right to the chase–namely why Dead to Me‘s third and final season is so painful–and unnecessarily cruel to Judy.

It was announced in early November 2022 that Dead to Me would end after three seasons due to Christina Applegate’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis, so showrunners had time to plan its conclusion. We expected Jen and Judy to face the consequences by series’ end for all their crimes and cover-ups, but the route showrunners took was surprising. A hit-and-run sends Jen and Judy to the hospital, and their scans lead to Judy’s stage 4 cervical cancer diagnosis, which has metastasized to her liver. Judy’s cancer puts a clock on the remaining action of the series, and it compels her to confess to Steve’s death, a crime that Jen is guilty for. As if the guilt of killing Jen’s husband, a dead (and abusive) fiancé, multiple miscarriages, a dead nursing home companion, cancer, an absent/manipulative/jailed mother, and another failed romance isn’t enough for Judy to bear, 47-year-old Jen finds herself miraculously pregnant mid-season by Steve’s twin brother, and Judy must force herself to be happy for Jen, whom she truly loves and is happy for, but it’s yet another nail in Judy’s cramped coffin.

Some sapphics (myself included) are known for their love of a healthy dose of pain with their love, but even this is just too much for the most masochistic of our kind (me).

Judy had already suffered enough before the main action of Dead to Me both with her multiple miscarriages and her arguably abusive partner. All of this torture feels incredibly unnecessary, especially because of how sweet and well-meaning Judy is, even if she wasn’t exactly innocent. While it is in Judy’s nature to want to take the blame for Steve’s death to enact her own karmic justice, showrunners didn’t have to kill Judy, too. Couldn’t a bad bout with cancer suffice for her punishment? Did she really have to suffer through months of chemotherapy just to die anyway in the end? Although I’m not sure a life sentence in prison would’ve been much better, I do know that I wouldn’t be as distraught about it as I am her death. I haven’t hurt this deeply from a character death since (spoiler alert) Poussey Washington in Orange Is the New Black, which is saying something. It took Orange showrunners fifty-two hours of us getting to know and love this beloved character to create such an impactful death, whereas we only got fifteen hours with Judy Hale and it hurt just as badly. (I was so moved at the time that I wrote an elegy for Poussey. If you stalk me real hard, you’ll be able to find it. I’m too dead inside to do the same for Judy, quite honestly.)

Oh, and it’s total bullshit that Jen didn’t name her baby after Judy. They could’ve at least given us–her–that.

As angry as I am at the showrunners for killing Judy and for saddling her with so much pain and suffering, I can’t think of another series that I have loved and enjoyed as much as this one. I know the best way to pack an emotional punch is to kill the kindest, most beautiful characters, but I was already invested. I didn’t need more of a reason to be forever changed by this show. Why did it have to end with more grief? Why couldn’t the message have been about healing and happiness on the other end of grief? Why are we brought back into the circle of grief after all? Was Judy just a means to Jen’s new life–a new partner and baby? A plot device? A lesson to be learned? While I don’t think Judy’s death sentence is necessarily rooted in her queerness, it certainly does not feel good to know that suffered and suffered, and then suffered some more. For a show that championed the equal partnership between Jen and Judy in raising Jen’s two sons, the justice doled out to Judy seems far harsher than to Jen (though Jen does have to figure out how to live without Judy after all…).

There’s a reason why queers inherently distrust any media that includes queer characters because they like to burden us with all the pain and consequence and more pain and more consequence. I wish I could say I didn’t see this coming for Judy, but of course it had to be this way. When is it never not painful to be queer?


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