A woman sits alone at a table in a courtroom. Over the course of a divorce proceeding—and for years before that—she’s had her worth, her intelligence, her moral code, her abilities as a mother and her ability to love called into question. Above all, it’s her sanity that’s been prodded at; not even she believed herself sane for a while there, as her instincts warred with everything her loving husband assured her to be true. Now she sits alone, and across the small aisle, a high-powered lawyer delivers the killing blow. She shouldn’t have access to his assets—he made all the money, she just spent it—ånd she shouldn’t have her kids, either. Giving her what she wants would just encourage her to sit around and do nothing. She’s stonefaced, and then he delivers the unkindest cut, though she does not know it. The lawyer says Betty Broderick can do anything she sets her mind to, as her performance during the trial demonstrates. He weaponizes her own competence against her, but Betty doesn’t take that part in. No, she looks at the high-powered lawyer and smiles a small, grateful smile. Someone has seen her, if only for a moment. For that moment, she exists.
My hope is that the paragraph above tips you off to one simple thing: “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story,” the second installment of USA’s anthology series, is not cheery viewing. It’s very good, but it’s not a fun, zany ride—well, except for the costuming, which will blow the minds of anyone who was or had a mom in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some watch or listen to true crime or stories of the based-on-a-true variety because they’re a sort of macabre comfort food, but that’s not what this season of “Dirty John” aims to do. There’s no suspense with regard to what happened, who did it, or why; even without its judicious use of flash-forwards, this story would clearly and inexorably march toward its bloody end. It’s far more interested in the why than the when, how, or who—and in two whys, really. There’s the why of Betty Broderick’s story, an answer that could include jealousy, gaslighting, mental illness, emotional abuse, and what you might call ‘patriarchal bullshit,’ depending on the scene, the episode, and your own perspective. And there’s the why for the series itself. That one has a concrete answer, and it is Amanda Peet.
In a career-best performance, Peet plays Betty Broderick, who as of this writing remains in a women’s correctional facility in California. (Like the first season of “Dirty John,” this season is based on actual events, though a disclaimer after each episode reminds viewers that some elements are fictionalized.) The story steps back and forth in time throughout Betty’s marriage to Dan Broderick (Christian Slater; Tiera Skovbye and Chris Mason play Betty and Dan in their younger years), the gradual dissolution of their marriage, and the aftermath. This means we see Betty, fearful of when her job will find out about her first pregnancy and fire her, and Betty, furious over yet another manipulation, driving her car straight into her ex-husband’s front door. Their life changes dramatically—no kids to four, no money to loads, a small apartment in New York to a sprawling home in California, med school to a legal practice—but one constant remains: the whole time, it’s infuriating.
Creator Alexandra Cunningham isn’t out to bestow sainthood on Betty Broderick. Nor is this a story about a poor, helpless woman driven out of her mind by a big bad man (though rest assured, anyone looking for an outlet for a little rage will be able to vent some of that rage right at Christan Slater’s smug face.) Like the timeline, Cunningham’s perspective is ever-shifting, and she takes full advantage of every flicker that races across Peet’s face. Cunningham asks the viewer to consider many facets of Betty’s circumstances, choices, and inner life; both the story and its central figure are riddled with fascinating contradictions. That would be true in the hands of many an accomplished performer—Cunningham and her writers are too deliberate in their choices for it to be otherwise—but it’s difficult to imagine the showrunner finding a better collaborator for this story than Peet.
It’s too easy to say something like ‘the layers have layers,’ but there’s perhaps no better way of describing what Peet and Cunningham jointly accomplish here. Take the inciting indecent for the moment when Betty drives her car straight into that front door. Her lawyer calls to share some “bad news,” and she chirpily responds, “Well, that’s not the kind I like!” It’s a performance Betty is putting on, the affable, charming, approachable mom telling mom jokes and chatting casually with the divorce lawyer she never wanted to hire. Then she hears the news and the performance falls away, and fear, confusion, and rage do battle with each other for possession of her face. Then that ends, and Betty wears another costume: the everything’s-fine lady, the I’ll-be-right-back-don’t-worry-about-it lady. And once she’s at the house, there are performances of a different kind—but there the mask slips, and while Betty’s performance gets much less convincing, Peet’s just keeps getting better and better. There is not a moment wasted, not a single line or non-verbal reaction not fully explored for all its potential. It is, and in this case this is a compliment, utterly exhausting to watch.
The same isn’t necessarily true of the other characters. Betty’s well-to-do friends, played by every blonde mom-like character actress you can think of, actually fare a bit better than her family, as we perceive both her social standing, her decency and kindness, and her mental state through the eyes of this friends. The kids, on the other hand, are virtually interchangeable, and while Slater and Rachel Keller (who plays Dan Broderick’s new love interest) get a bit more to do, they’re also tasked with playing both the characters and the characters as perceived by Betty, the latter of which requires them to use a very broad brush. It’s an interesting approach from a storytelling perspective but reduces characters that already suffer by comparison that much further.
Yes, this is true crime, but it’s also a searing and sometimes defiantly unsubtle look at a marriage that, in some ways, is like countless others. Good girls follow the good girl path: you get married, you have babies, you support your husband in any way he desires or requires so that he can provide for the family. If that means you have as many kids as he wants while you pay the bills so that he can go to school, great; if that means you shut up and go quietly when he wants to move on to someone younger, so be it. The rules fail Betty Broderick—nearly everyone and everything does, save a couple patient lawyers and the terrifying ease with which she buys a gun. But Peet and Cunningham do not.
Whole series screened for review.