How Netflix’s ‘Dead to Me’ brings empathy into murder mysteries

Illustration of the main characters of "Dead to Me" standing next to a pool
Sarah Pi/Staff

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In a usual whodunnit, the audience expects to root for the sleuth, the one who’s solving the crime. Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” in its second whirlwind of a season, asks instead what drives people to murder and whether those people should be forgiven.

From its first episode, “Dead to Me” promised to challenge the boundaries of dramatic television. Though it initially seems like a soapy drama about the newly widowed Jen (Christina Applegate) finding friendship during a time of grief, it quickly spirals into a murder mystery, with the reveal that Judy (Linda Cardellini), at first a saccharine character incapable of hurting a fly, was the driver in the hit-and-run that killed Jen’s husband. 

This revelation comes after the show spent most of the first season building the relationship between Jen and Judy, with Judy depicted as a friend who was caring to a fault. In a different show, this might be a moment of betrayal that bears new insight into Judy’s character, perhaps showing a darker side of Judy that had been lurking beneath the surface. 

But “Dead to Me” isn’t interested in clear-cut lines. Despite Judy’s role in the accident, it’s difficult to see her as anything but the smiling and compassionate woman she’s been for the entire show. Even Jen, who is dealing with anger management herself and burns everything Judy left at her house, comes around to the idea that Judy can be both a good person and someone who played a part in her husband’s death. 

After the emotional rollercoaster that was the first season, “Dead to Me” held back no punches in its sophomore run. The previous season finale closed with the implication that Jen had shot Judy’s ex-fiance Steve, who was also in the car when Jen’s husband was hit, when he came to her house late at night in search of Judy. 

Initially, Jen tells Judy that she killed Steve in self-defense and that the only reason she couldn’t go to the police was because of the risk it might pose to her children. Yet, as the women go to increasingly extreme lengths to hide Steve’s remains and Judy’s grief grows more palpable, Jen struggles with guilt and the truth comes to light: She didn’t kill Steve in self-defense. He insinuated that her husband had in fact jumped in front of the car to run from their marriage, and in a moment of rage, Jen bashed Steve’s head in with a toy. 

As it stands, Jen has murdered a man and Judy was the driver in a hit-and-run involving a fatality. From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that these women are the villains, guilty beyond forgiveness, and in a different show, the finale would be the two of them behind bars.

Jen and Judy are flawed, undoubtedly. Jen is a woman who is quick to anger and slow to forgive, and she has a long road ahead to begin to reckon with her pain and to learn how to stop hurting the people around her. Judy seems to be a magnet for unhealthy people, and she does little when the people around her prove to be destructive; often, this makes her at best an accomplice, at worst a criminal. Yet, these women are presented as more than what they have done in their past. They are also friends, daughters, caregivers and human beings. They are flawed and they might make wrong decisions, but they also go to great lengths to do the right thing. Judy without a doubt made a huge mistake when she left Jen’s husband on the road that night. Jen should have let Steve walk away, regardless of what he said to her. These are not the actions of the typical “good guys” in television shows, but it doesn’t mean the characters are not good.

This is the genius of “Dead to Me.” It is a show about more than just the things that people do when the right decision is clear. It begs the question, what drives people to make the wrong decision and what does it take for us to forgive them?

Ultimately, the law enforcement within the show feels that the women’s circumstances are enough of a punishment, but the possibility that it all could change in a moment hangs heavy over the finale. Jen and Judy are not innocent, but they also do not bear all of the blame. When push comes to shove, however, the difference between Jen and Judy and a standard television murderer is that the audience is given an opportunity to know them, from their best moments to their worst. At its core, “Dead to Me” isn’t just a show about friendship or solving a murder; it’s about empathy and how knowing a person can impact the capacity to forgive them.

Contact Paige Prudhon at [email protected].