SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Dead to Me,” streaming now on Netflix.
By the time Liz Feldman’s dark comedy “Dead to Me” completed its 10-episode first season, it took its characters through the stages of grief not only for the deceased loved ones in their lives, but in a sense for the new friendship they formed during the process, as well.
Recent widow Jen (Christina Applegate) starts the series as a “tough bitch,” as Applegate herself puts it, whom Judy, portrayed by Linda Cardellini, says “will not take no for an answer.” Judy works her way into Jen’s life after “bumping into her” at a grief group. What starts as a seemingly sweet new bond between two people who have experienced a lot of loss very quickly proves to be something much deeper as it is revealed — first to the audience, but eventually to Jen, too — that Judy was the one responsible for Jen’s husband’s death. And still, when things go south for Jen, and Judy’s ex Steve (James Marsden) ends up dead in Jen’s pool, Judy is the one she calls.
“She has no one else, and guess what? They’re on an equal playing field now,” Applegate tells Variety. “She’s been vulnerable, and now she’s like, ‘Here we are. Now I f—ing need you.'”
As angry as Jen was when she learned the truth about Judy, the conversation with Steve redirected some of that anger. She saw that Judy wasn’t completely at fault for not stopping after she hit her husband in the road, and the relationship she had developed with Judy leading up to the moment the truth came out could not be erased so neatly.
“Loss is loss, and Jen’s heart has been broken open a little bit,” Applegate says. “All of that anger and all of that toughness and all of those layers that she’s put on top of herself were slowly being chipped away at. When Judy talked about her miscarriages, that’s a huge loss, and I think any woman can relate. You can’t turn your back on that.”
While Applegate says she related “very well” to Jen, Cardellini admits she wasn’t sure she would find her character at first. Unlike herself, Cardellini acknowledges, Judy doesn’t think a lot before she acts and often ends up making the wrong choice, even though her heart may be in the right place.
“As a result of not thinking things through, she ends up making choices that inevitably seem selfish when that wasn’t her intention at all,” she says. “All she wants is for Jen to be happy, and the problem with that, and what she doesn’t realize, is it’s incredibly selfish how she’s going about it. In her mind it’s selfless because she’s trying to repair something and she thinks it’s possible, but that thought in and of itself is illogical.”
Due to Judy’s guilt over hitting Jen’s husband with her car and not stopping to help him, she kept trying to find something “to have something in common [with Jen] because I don’t want her to get away from me,” Cardellini says. But in the beginning of the story, the actress couldn’t allow that guilt to shine through in her performance because the audience didn’t know what Judy did.
“I think it’s really fun to go back to the first episode because you can’t know certain things watching it the first time, so there are things that, as the show goes on and the audience becomes aware of, Judy and the audience know more than the other characters do in some ways. And that grows,” Cardellini says.
Cardellini didn’t know those were the turns the story would take going in, either. Before they started shooting, she spent ample time working out with Feldman what “level” she wanted Judy’s guilt at because she didn’t want to tip the audience off too much when Judy first walked up to Jen at the grief group to befriend her. What they worked on was ultimately shooting certain scenes several different ways so Feldman could choose in editing when it appeared Judy had a secret and when she was just being friendly.
“You don’t want to be repeating yourself constantly,” she says.
Cardellini also leaned on Feldman, and some of the other writers’ experiences, when it came to bringing to life Judy’s fertility struggles. “On one hand, that’s so helpful for your character; on the other hand, it’s heartbreaking as a human. But I believe it’s helpful to people to understand the struggle because it’s a struggle that a lot of people I know go through. I felt honored to be part of the story,” she says.
Although she had ulterior motives, Judy coming into Jen’s life when she did had a positive impact on the woman who “was incredibly tired and incredibly raw and incredibly angry and has all but given up on this life,” says Applegate.
“We’re talking about someone who’s been lonely for a really long time. No one has really reached out because she’s a frightening human being, and so for Judy to break the barrier and say, ‘Hey I’m here for you,’ that’s not something that Jen is used to,” she continues. “Jen’s portrayal to the world is ‘I can take care of this and I can take care of myself,’ but then she goes home and drinks too much wine and can’t sleep and cries herself to sleep. She would never show that to anybody, but this person said, ‘Hey I’m there.'”
But through the friendship, both women not only leaned on each other and learned from each other, but they also got pieces of their true selves back. Jen, Applegate points out, was “not living her authentic life” before Judy. She was living the life her now-deceased husband wanted, and she “didn’t know how to get back to herself.” Judy inspired her, by point-blank telling her that the things she was interested in that had been shot down in the past were not stupid ideas — which led Jen back to dancing. Meanwhile for Judy, Cardellini believes that before Jen, she didn’t have “some of the strength that she needed. I think she gave away a lot of herself all the time and continues to do so, and I think Jen reminds her that she doesn’t have to do that.”
“What draws them together [is] this underside of their feelings, and I think that’s what happens when you go through something traumatic: You find an unlikely ally because someone has gone through something similar. That’s what this friendship grows out of. It’s not always what it seems to be, but that’s where it grows out of,” Cardellini adds.
Both Applegate and Cardellini admit returning to television wasn’t something they assumed they’d do at this points in their careers. Applegate, whose last leading-lady gig on the small screen was NBC’s “Up All Night” in 2011-2012 was enjoying “semi-retirement,” she says, focusing on volunteering at her daughter’s school, while Cardellini, who last worked for Netflix on the dramatic “Bloodline” from 2015-17, was enjoying an equally dramatic film career. What drew them back to the medium was the subject matter of “Dead to Me,” as well as Feldman herself. But after spending so much time embodying these characters, as well as executive producing what turned out to be what Applegate calls a “really tough shoot” — both emotionally and because of the long hours — they feel they have grown just as much as their characters.
“There is so much about her that is me that kind of opened up, ‘Gosh that’s stuff I need to go deal with.’ I’m in therapy now. It’s wonderful to be able to talk about stuff that you’ve never faced or dealt with in 47 years. It’s been incredible for me, and it all kind of started after [‘Dead to Me’],” Applegate shares.
What both women say they hope the audience can learn from their show is not only the power of friendship, but also that we shouldn’t be so quick to write someone’s behavior off as “crazy,” as occasionally happens to Judy throughout the series.
“I think it’s a gross oversimplification of very complicated emotions that people don’t have the time or energy to deal with. It’s easy to just label it that and not have to actually deal with it. In some relationships, that may be the best thing, for somebody to walk away if they don’t want to handle that, but it’s belittling. It belittles the complexity of the emotions at hand and washes them all with something that seems to be hysteria or nonsensical, and that’s not at all a reality,” Cardellini says.
Adds Applegate: “It doesn’t serve anybody to call them that when they’re in the middle of crisis, and that’s usually when it happens. She’s got a story. Something has led up to this moment and maybe listen, maybe help, maybe guide. In fact, accepting the ugly makes the other person let their good shine through.”
And of course, “always go back if you hit someone on the side of the road.”