That could establish a compelling premise for a TV show, but “Dead to Me” hinges on a big secret that Judy is hiding — one that is revealed incrementally over the course of 10 episodes.
There’s addictive tension in how, and when, “Dead to Me” plots its biggest twists. And there are many other reasons to like the dark comedy, from the complex friendship at the heart of the series — buoyed by stellar performances by Applegate and Cardellini — to the way it explores infertility, abuse and other issues that can affect women’s lives. The show’s emotional cocktail has led some (including its lead stars) to dub it a “traumedy.”
Let’s break down Judy’s big secret and the other twists we didn’t see coming.
In some ways, the free-spirited Judy seems an unlikely friend for Jen, who is cynical and blunt to the point that it can be off-putting for some (like the well-meaning neighbor who puts raisins in her so-called Mexican lasagna). But not for Judy, whose quirky sweetness wins Jen over.
The pair’s fast friendship is threatened when Jen, a real estate agent in Orange County, Calif., unravels the first of Judy’s lies. Upon making an unannounced trip to Judy’s Newport Beach mansion, Jen discovers that Judy doesn’t live there anymore.
Steve (James Marsden), however, does — because he is very much alive.
Jen forgives Judy after she explains that, despite her deception, she is mourning a loss — several, in fact. Judy’s relationship with Steve ended following a series of miscarriages. Jen has already shared so much with Judy that discovering the truth about her relationship with Steve only intensifies their connection. So, it’s just short of believable when Jen invites Judy to live in her guesthouse, a cozy nook that used to serve as Ted’s recording studio.
Of course, there are other discoveries. The first episode cleverly builds up to the show’s primary twist, foreshadowed when Jen tells Judy that she regularly searches for cars bearing suspicious, person-sized dents.
As it turns out, Judy is in possession of one such car, stowed away in a storage facility. She was behind the wheel of the car that killed Ted. What we don’t yet know is that Judy wasn’t the only one in the car.
Steve’s dark side
The second episode upends what we think we know about Judy’s ex-fiance. He’s not the harassed former partner he claims to be, and Marsden plays the role to disarming perfection.
Steve tells Jen that “chaos tends to follow” Judy wherever she goes. That characterization seems legit when Judy shows up unannounced at his home and office, prompting him to get a restraining order against her — until we find out why Judy is so intent on getting in touch with him: Steve was in the passenger seat of the car when it rammed into Ted.
“Dead to Me” subtly hints that Steve has a sinister side. In the third episode, Steve shows up to Judy’s work to let her know he’s lifted the restraining order. It’s the first scene in which we see Judy and Steve interacting in present-day, and she tells him that Jen is “the wife of the guy we hit.”
“We hit a deer,” Steve replies through gritted teeth. “Well, the deer has a wife,” Judy says, adding that she has befriended Jen in hopes of somehow helping her. “Oh my God. You are nuts,” Steve tells her, leading to an exchange that will become all-too-familiar in the episodes leading up to the finale:
Judy: “Don’t do that.”
Steve: “I’m sorry”
Judy: “It’s okay.”
It’s an abusive cycle that repeats, less than a minute later, when Steve explodes over Judy’s reaction to him selling their house. “Don’t yell at me,” she says. “I’m sorry,” he says. Again, she tells him “it’s okay.”
Steve’s attacks are primarily emotional, calling Judy stupid or crazy or talking down to her in other ways. But he occasionally grabs her too forcefully. Each time Steve crosses a boundary, Judy calls him out for his behavior, he apologizes, and Judy forgives all.
Jen’s strained marriage
Aside from a few shadowy family pictures and a grisly crime-scene photo, we never actually see Ted.
“Dead to Me” initially paints him as a loving and dedicated husband and father, whose loss is deeply felt by his wife and two sons, Charlie (Sam McCarthy) and Henry (Luke Roessler). Things get a bit more complicated, a few episodes in, when Jen agrees to play an online game with Charlie and gets an unexpectedly graphic message from someone with the screen name “Bambi88.”
Jen’s logical conclusion — that Ted was having an affair — is confirmed when she arranges, under the guise of Ted’s screen name, to meet Bambi at the restaurant where she works. Judy accompanies her. With a few, not-so-subtle questions, Jen learns that the affair was serious and long-term, prompting her to leave the restaurant. Judy pretends to be Ted’s wife and discovers that Bambi was led to believe that Ted was a widower, whose wife died of breast cancer.
Ted’s betrayal is rendered even more heartless when Jen opens up to Judy about the preemptive double mastectomy she had after losing her mother to the disease. Jen explains that Ted struggled with intimacy after the procedure, which Applegate had amid her own breast cancer battle a decade ago. (“I think it about it every day,” the actress recently told USA Today.)
We eventually learn that Jen may have suspected Ted’s infidelity. He hadn’t been wearing running shoes the night he left, ostensibly for a run, and never came back. And, as Jen tearfully confesses to Judy, their lack of intimacy had put a strain on their marriage, leading up to an explosive fight the night that he died. “I hit him,” Jen confesses of her last encounter with her husband.
Which prompts another (long-awaited) confession: Judy’s.
That shocking end
After Judy tells Jen that she was the one who hit Ted, their friendship, predictably, implodes. “You can die,” Jen tells Judy when she asks if there is anything she can do.
Judy spends the subsequent episode tying up loose ends. She says goodbye to Henry and unsuccessfully tries to make amends with Jen. Having already tipped off the police to Steve’s shady business situation (no surprise that he’s a money launderer), she cleans out their joint bank account.
An increasingly desperate Steve shows up to Jen’s house in hopes of finding his ex. He discovers that Judy has confessed to Jen and affirms his narcissism, telling Jen that the accident “was honestly one of the worst moments” of his life. He erupts after Jen presses him for details: why he didn’t go back and what, exactly, he said to Judy after the car hit Ted.
A flashback confirms what Jen has already figured out. We see Judy panicking immediately after the accident. Steve says they have to get away from the scene. “Drive the car, stupid!” he screams.
Back in the present, Steve tells Jen he won’t leave until she tells him where Judy is. Jen, aware (thanks to her raisin-loving neighbor) that she’s within her rights to shoot anyone who refuses to leave her property, trains her late husband’s handgun on Steve.
The show switches its perspective to Judy, precariously wandering the bend in the road where Ted was killed. After narrowly avoiding a similar fate, her phone rings. “Judy,” Jen says, “I need you to come home.”
The next scene reveals the what, but not the how. Steve is floating in Jen’s pool. It’s reasonable to think that Jen — peering anxiously at his body alongside Judy — has shot him in an act of self-defense.
But in a show that pulls off so many surprises, we’re kind of expecting a twist.