For the first two seasons of creator Liz Feldman’s droll, incisive series “Dead to Me,” Laguna Beach besties Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) have been surrounded by death and lies. In fact, their tight-knit friendship is forged by them: each of them is either directly or indirectly responsible for the death of their loved one—Jen’s husband in Season One, Judy’s fiancee Steve (James Marsden) in Season Two—and the pair have grown closer with every new layer of deception and self-delusion they’ve built. It’s not exactly a healthy friendship, but one that brings them joy and meaning nonetheless. (Even if a good portion of it is motivated by the overriding need to keep each other’s secrets.)
When the show focuses on this sense of entropy, the inevitable feeling that everything we’ve seen up to this point is about to finally blow up in their face, “Dead to Me” recaptures some of the magic it had in its strong first season. But in its desire to wrap up all of its loose ends along the way, Feldman and the writers stuff too many ideas into the mix, almost as if speedrunning a three-season arc into the one final turn at bat that Netflix would actually shell out for.
Season Three cuts in almost immediately after Season Two’s finale, which ended with Steve’s twin brother Ben (also Marsden) relapsing and getting into a hit-and-run with Jen and Judy after learning the cops have found his twin brother’s body. The two emerge relatively unscathed, but a chance miscommunication at the hospital gives Jen yet another secret she can’t bring herself to tell Judy. Suddenly, all the death they’ve been evading over the course of their friendship is finally knocking on their door.
It’s a solid angle for the series to go in its final act, especially as these new sets of secrets and lies compound on the ones they’ve already accumulated. But the sheer weight of all those deceptions, whether towards themselves or others, tends to bog down the season throughout its five-hour runtime. There’s an endless parade of circular secrets and vestigial character beats that seem included out of apparent obligation. Judy’s ex, Michelle (Natalie Morales), drops in with little to do; Jen’s kids, Charlie (Sam McCarthy) and Henry (Luke Roessler), mostly hang around to respectively challenge and encourage the strange family unit Jen and Judy have built for themselves. And don’t forget those subplots about stolen paintings and the Greek mafia!
And then there’s Ben, who elevates himself to third-lead status this season. Ever the charmer, Marsden sometimes steals scenes right out from under Applegate and Cardellini by sheer dopey gumption. His journey, at least for most of the season, is interesting, his transgressions throwing him into the same cycle of guilt Jen and Judy started with. And it’s great to see such an unassuming, sweet guy succumb much more readily to these demons than our stalwart wine-mom BFFs—a testament less to Ben’s weakness than the idea that Jen and Judy have a particular gift for self-delusion that informs their particular neuroses.
Still, the show's core remains Applegate and Cardellini, who are innately watchable even when the story starts doing somersaults around itself. Throw the two of them in a car, a hospital room, or Jen’s pristinely-furnished kitchen (she is a realtor, after all), give them some wine or—particularly fun this season—magic mushrooms, and they bounce off each other like the most expertly deadpan double act.
(Sidenote: Applegate’s tremendous performance here is even more remarkable considering her behind-the-scenes struggles with MS, with which she was diagnosed while filming the season. Even when conscious of the unspoken limitations she had to work under—e.g. mobility issues that required more scenes seated or standing with assistance—she puts forth commendable work.)
It’s almost a shame that “Dead to Me” occasionally remembers it has a plot to power through; the endless swirl of discovery surrounding them is arguably the show’s weakest link. The show dedicates copious screentime to folks like, say, Perez’s dogged partner Nick (Brandon Scott), who wants to continue the investigation into Steve’s death, or an incisive FBI agent (Garret Dillahunt, hiding wily suspicion behind a Midwestern-nice facade) hot on their trail. But given that Jen and Judy have gotten away with it up to now, it’s hard to buy that the fates just won’t keep swinging in their direction.
But “Dead to Me” ends about as well as it could—not necessarily with the promise of another shoe falling, but of the most bittersweet of goodbyes for its endearing main characters. They’ve spent three seasons cheating death together, and the show (like their friendship) chooses to end on its own messed-up terms. Season Three takes an exceedingly shaky road to get to its tearjerking finale, one that feels like a natural endpoint for these characters’ innately morbid codependency.
All of season three screened for review. "Dead to Me: Season Three" premieres on Netflix on November 18th.