Dead to Me spoilers follow – including season two's ending.
Series writer Liz Feldman has made no bones about the fact that Dead to Me is a mirror for how she – as a comedian – approaches some of life's heavier subjects, including grief and loss.
"Inevitably, there's something funny in almost every dark thing. If you can find a way to laugh at it, we all know that that helps. It's my coping mechanism," she told Thrillist back around the time of the show's debut on Netflix.
This is something that ebbs from the screen, as Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) each feel their way through traumas of their own, while their lives become ever more entangled and their bond of friendship deepens.
While Dead to Me's twists and turns are, of course, wildly far-fetched, it's the complexities and nuances of the character's interactions that make the series so relatable.
This is perfectly illustrated in the show's portrayal of an abusive relationship. This theme was explored through Judy and Steve and – crucially – continued to unfold into season two, despite Steve's death.
In season one, breadcrumbs hinting at their toxicity were scattered throughout the episodes, but it wasn't until the finale when (big twist alert) it was revealed to have been Steve's aggressive influence over Judy that saw Ted abandoned on the road that viewers finally saw the full picture. Those that have experienced such relationships will tell you that the very worst moments often happen behind closed doors, with those on the periphery (just like the show's viewers) largely being kept in the dark.
The subtleties in which the abuse was depicted wasn't in itself a problem – in fact, it made it all the more realistic. But season one's final cliffhanger completely overshadowed what should have been a hugely weighty revelation, leaving us with some criticism about the show's handling of it.
But post-season two, we're prepared to eat our words.
This particular storyline was given ample breathing room this time around and, as a result, viewers saw the lasting effects of Judy's trauma play out. And this was where the new episodes really excelled.
Yes, her abuser was gone. She was no longer directly being tormented, manipulated or mistreated by him, but that did not mean that she wasn't grieving. It was rather brave and brutally honest of the series to show her weeping for Steve, recalling all of the things that she loved about him.
"He was very thoughtful. And sweet. He used to always do these little things for me to make me feel special," Judy told Jen, in the makeshift memorial they had in the bar after burying his body.
"I know who he was. I get it. But I loved him," she continued.
This conversation highlights the real-world effects of trauma bonding. When a relationship goes through a cycle of abuse (with someone receiving positive or loving behaviour from a partner, but then having that being interspersed with bad or abusive behaviour), a deep and emotional connection is built. This bond is difficult to break down or change. It's a process, and this is what Judy seemed to be going through in season two.
Just like in season one's flashback to the accident, season two lifted the veil on Steve and Judy's relationship once again when she was asked to play her voicemail messages back to Detective Ana Perez. With each one, Steve got angrier and more verbally aggressive, ultimately leading the police detective to question whether Judy feared for her own safety. This would have forced her to look at her own relationship through the lens of an outsider.
Judy's character arc came to a head in one particularly poignant scene with Jen towards the end of episode nine.
With the bombshell that Jen had killed Steve in rage – not self-defence – finally out in the open, the two women let out everything that had been bubbling under the surface.
"You love anyone who just gives you a morsel of f**king attention, even if it's abusive," Jen yelled at Judy. "It's like you get off on it or something. It's why you loved Steve and why you love your shitty, f**king asshole mother. You'll just stick around for anybody."
Judy eventually let out a massive scream, and cried into Jen's shoulder.
Throughout Dead to Me, we'd watched as Judy repeatedly channelled all of her anger inwards on herself, rather than calling out the people in her life – a learned behaviour that, by the end of season two, she had finally gone some way towards unpicking.
In a meeting with her mother in prison (someone else that had emotionally abused her throughout her life), she told her exactly where to go and that she would not be used, or manipulated, into helping her get out.
Dead to Me might be outlandish and ridiculous (and we love it for that), but its heartfelt way of spotlighting abuse and trauma can – and should – also be commended.
Dead to Me is available on Netflix.
Organisations including Women's Aid can provide further support and information on coercive control or coercive behaviour.
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