Note: The following article discusses the entirety of “Dead to Me” Season 3 and contains spoilers.
In the third and final season of Netflix’s dark comedy “Dead to Me” — amid outrunning the FBI, obscuring past illegal activity and erasing any pesky leftover incriminating footage — Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) find themselves navigating unforeseen medical circumstances: The former finds out she’s pregnant with Ben’s (James Marsden) child, while the latter receives a terminal cervical cancer diagnosis. It’s a heartbreaking end, a cruel twist of fate so universal it seems ripped from real life — and it turns out it is.
“The conversations really revolved around ‘How do we heal these women? How do we bring them closure, and how do we help them move through the traumas that brought them together in the first place?’” creator Liz Feldman told TheWrap in an interview.
The executive producer notified Cardellini of Judy’s storyline in the middle of Season 2, drawing partly from the experience of losing a 38-year-old friend to an illness that went unchecked and caught up with her. “That stuff happens, we lose people way too soon,” the writer said.
As for Jen’s unexpected pregnancy, Feldman has been open about her own infertility struggles, which informed the show’s genesis and its thematic elements of loss, grief and healing. “Dead to Me” Season 3 seems chock-full of both bitter ironies and happy miracles, and watching Judy — who has always wanted children — hear her loved one relay the news is like an excruciating exercise in the pains of joy.
“Literally the scene where Jen has to tell Judy the news about her pregnancy is ripped from a moment in my life where my best friend had to tell me that she was expecting and I in the moment was like, ‘I’m so happy for you, that’s amazing,’” Feldman recalled. “I didn’t hesitate to be happy for her, to love her, to congratulate her and about two minutes later, I left, went to the bathroom and cried and never told her that that was my reaction until we wrote that scene and I thought, ‘Well, she’s gonna see it on TV, so I should probably tell her.’”
For Cardellini, the season demanded some of the show’s most fraught performances, where Judy’s signature optimism crumbles away like burnt cupcakes to make room for cynicism — at her diagnosis and perceived helplessness.
“Judy is always trying to be honest, but she’s also trying, at any moment, to caretake everybody around her’s feelings, so she always puts her’s last,” the actress said, “and so there are these moments where her feelings are breaking through, but she’s also always trying to love the person she’s near. And I think that that comes from her background, where she didn’t feel totally loved, and I think she’s going around in life desperate for this love that she never felt she received and wanting nobody to have to go through what she ever went through. She’s always trying to get this love, and I think that she finds that in the friendship with [Jen].”
The culmination point of the duo’s friendship is in one of the final scenes in Episode 10, where the two women — together, odds and circumstances be damned — are discussing their time with each other. It’s a moment so raw and beautiful, it almost seems too intimate to watch if it weren’t actually the genuine reflection of the actress’ real-life friendship.
“You know that is just a gift, and when things work out well, it’s always like lightning in a bottle,” Cardellini explained. “My favorite line in the whole show that I got to deliver this year was ‘I’ve had the best time,’ and it really does sum that up for me; I couldn’t make it through that line in the read-through, and I couldn’t make it through that line in the show, and it’s true for Linda and it’s true for Judy as well.”
While Feldman shepherds the cast’s improvisation, Cardellini relayed that the closing scene between the two co-stars was largely performed as written.
“It was scripted so beautifully, because it was really exactly how we felt, and I think that’s what speaks so much to the writing and the crafting of the show and the stories,” she said. “We always do what’s on the page because we’d be crazy not to, it’s so good.”
The Emmy nominee described the final days on set as a “celebration” that was nonetheless tinged with sadness: “[Liz] scheduled the shooting of the last scene to be the scene that’s between Christina and I, we’re just sitting in bed, watching TV, which is one of our most heartfelt scenes. It was heartfelt both as Jen and Judy, and also very heartfelt as Linda and Christina. There were times where we were saying goodbye in our own ways, and it was really us saying goodbye in our own ways. There were a lot of tears and a lot of laughs.”
As for the lingering cliffhanger, where Jen seems to begin taking Judy’s advice to be truthful to Ben about the circumstances of his brother’s murder, Feldman and Marsden are coy about where that might take the couple (and new parents).
“It was a lot of what do you show the audience and what do you not show the audience, what does Ben know and what does he not know, so you gotta really watch your step, because we shoot out of sequence, too,” Marsden said, joking at another point that he believes Ben might laugh off Jen’s confession never to revisit it again. “It’s an emotional roller coaster for Ben, he’s grappling with a lot of his demons from the past and looking in the rearview mirror and trying to reconcile with that and be a better human being. Jen is his North Star, she’s just the person who makes him feel safe and comfortable, and he wants to be in her orbit.”
With the conclusion of “Dead to Me” out in the world, Feldman said her ultimate goal was to be reflective of life’s natural curveballs. As much as the Emmy-winning series borrows from television tropes (hello, unforeseen twins), it’s also grounded in the tangible experiences of what happens when mourning turns into something more — a chance for new beginnings, a glimmer of hope and a profound yearning to live fuller.
“I just always wanted it to feel authentic, and as much as there are twists and turns that seem heightened on the show, stuff happens in life that you can’t make up,” the creator concluded. “The truth is two weeks before we were done shooting, I found out my wife was pregnant. So after going through years of making the show and coming to terms with the fact that maybe I wasn’t gonna have a child, all of a sudden I found out that I was gonna be a mom. I’ve always just wanted to lean into the dark and the light, and the good in the bad, in everyone and hopefully bring all these characters I love to a place of healing.”
“Dead to Me” is now streaming in its entirety on Netflix.