Dead to Me revolved on the strength of the friendship between its lead characters Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini), so it is fitting that as the show came to an end, it did so with only one of them.
"I was thinking a lot about how to bring the characters closure. Because this is a show about grief and loss and forgiveness and friendship, I realized that in order to do that — to bring both of these characters to healing and to really feel like the show was done — this is the best expression of what I've been trying to say throughout these three seasons," creator and showrunner Liz Feldman tells Metacritic.
Jen and Judy's friendship was a fast and as-strong-as-family one, even if somewhat unlikely. After all, they met at a grief group Jen only attended because Judy was responsible for a hit-and-run that killed her husband. As they bonded, Judy moved into Jen's home, helped her cover up her own murder (of Judy's ex-boyfriend, to boot!), and prepared to take care of Jen's kids when Jen decided to confess her own crime. Despite the unconventional way they met, they had a lot of important things in common, including deep-rooted mother issues, and they also balanced each other in essential ways, such as Judy's positivity to Jen's anger. In the third and final season, things got even more complicated, though when Judy was diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer and eventually was told she was terminal.
But, even if it was pretty clear who was left standing at the end of the three-season streaming comedy, there were quite a few questions left unanswered. And that was by design.
"I don't tend to be heavy-handed with storytelling because I really want to leave room for people to have their own feelings, their own experiences, with the show," Feldman explains.
When Feldman was first developing the show in the late 2010s, she was using it to grieve losses and relationships in her own life. "I had lost three different friends in their 30s, my cousin passed away on my 40th birthday, I was having these like fertility struggles, and that's where the idea for the show came from," Feldman says. "I just felt that I needed to talk about loss; I needed to find a way to work through it somehow, and the show was my somehow."
Because Judy was inspired by one of Feldman's friends who had passed away, the idea that Judy would not survive the series was in her mind — not from the beginning, Feldman says, but early enough that she shared the idea with Cardellini while they were working on Season 2. "I just started to think about my friend and I started think about Jen and Judy, and I realized that this could be a powerful, albeit really sad, but hopefully profound way for Jen to really work through the trauma of losing a mother," she explains.
Jen had previously talked about what it was like to watch her mother succumb to cancer, and in the third and final season of Dead to Me, that experience fueled Jen's actions in trying to assure Judy would have a different fate. It did take Jen a minute to tell Judy she needed treatment — because at the hospital, a case of confused identity caused her to get the news.
"Part of what I love about how they did it is she's already grieving that diagnosis but doesn't even realize it's her own. I thought that was very special and very Judy — and allows her to be the most Judy in that moment, just this empathetic person that wants the best for everyone around her, but at the same time is just yearning to be loved in a way that is just a bottomless pit," Cardellini says.
Jen served as Judy's advocate, sitting by her side during chemotherapy, kicking her teenage son out of his room so Judy could have it, getting her into a clinical trial, and, at one really desperate point, suggesting Judy fake her own death to at least live the rest of her life as best as she can instead of facing consequences for confessing to a crime. (Don't worry too much about that last part, in the end everything got pinned on the Greek mafia anyway.)
"There was no way that Jen would let her not try to heal it, so it felt like it would be Jen's drive to get the best treatment possible," Feldman says. "In the writers' room, this cancer story hit really close to home for many of us who have had friends who have gone through this, and so, it was important to tell that story through the lens of friendship. I felt that seeing her to go through treatment with Jen by her side was a a good way to do that."
But ultimately, Jen couldn't control the outcome, and the outcome was that Judy was terminal. She opted not to do the clinical trial (because that was Jen's plan, not hers), instead spending a short vacation in Mexico before sneaking off in the middle of the night to climb aboard a boat. While the show opted not to show what became of her after that, Jen went back to Southern California alone. Cardellini jokes that the show technically could have been an unreliable narrator, but most likely, "she's done exactly what you think she's done, which is try to make everybody else's life a little easier."
"I don't think Judy really loves being alone, so that's a huge thing for her — to leave. For her to leave Jen at any time had never been possible unless that she thought it was best for Jen," Cardellini says.
But making a choice for herself as to what happens to her is also best for her.
"To me, this is the ultimate show of growth for Judy," Feldman says. "She was willing to latch herself onto the nearest warm body just to escape the feelings that she would have to sit with if she were by herself. So, to me, how I expressed this character healing herself and becoming whole again is by being able to return her to a place where she essentially rides off into the sunset."
Before that could happen, though both Jen and Judy have to come to terms with how important honesty is, Cardellini points out. Which is easier said than done, especially when Jen tells Judy she is pregnant — something that is both a shock (Jen assumed she was in menopause) and something of a disappointment (Judy tried for years to have a baby but couldn't).
"The scene where Jen has to tell Judy that she's pregnant is absolutely ripped from my own life, where, just after my 40th birthday, I was trying to get pregnant for like the fifth year in a row and already having lost cousin, my best friend told me that she was pregnant," Feldman shares. "And I, in the moment, did the exact same thing that Judy did onscreen, which was [say], 'That's amazing!' I truly was happy for her, but I absolutely put her feelings before mine, and two minutes later, I walked to the bathroom and I cried my eyes out, and I never even told her that I did that until I was like, 'Well, it's going to be on TV.'"
Feldman wrote the surprise pregnancy in to help her characters get to "a place where they are healed from these traumas they have been through" and also put Jen in a similar situation to Judy, where the choices she hasn't aren't great, but she "has to make the best of them." But in a way, it's also just poetic to welcome a new life while another one is ending — although thankfully Jen resisted doing the TV thing of naming her new baby after Judy.
True to form, Jen and Judy work through the pregnancy diagnosis and even a health scare with the baby together.
"The friendship starts off this other thing, but it becomes very honest, and I think that that's part of the journey. It can start somewhere where you don't know all of the truths, but eventually that trust will happen. And I think that speaks to the end," Cardellini says.
Honesty becomes key in Jen and Ben's (James Marsden) relationship throughout the final season, too — from him remembering and owning up to the hit-and-run he committed in the Season 2 finale that put Jen and Judy in the hospital and led to Judy finding out she had cancer in the first place, to him finally coming clean that he was actually in the car with Judy and Steve (also Marsden) when they fatally struck Jen's husband.
"You see him get to some dark places this season, and that's obviously one of the reasons why," Marsden says of the reveal of Ben's involvement in the crime that started it all. "But there's a little bit of ambiguity with the character and what you're showing throughout. I think his drive is this woman who's a light for him, who he feels safe with and is happy with, but how does he reconcile and deal with everything that's lurking behind him in his past? He keeps glancing through the rearview mirror and it's not good stuff."
Still, Jen heard and accepted his admissions of guilt and apologies, perhaps in part because they made her feel slightly better about killing his brother. But whether she will ever actually tell Ben the full truth about what happened to Steve remains up to the audience to decide.
Come in, if you thought Dead to Me would end in any other way than a cliffhanger, you may not have been paying close enough attention while watching the three seasons!
The final moments of the series finale see Ben playing in the pool with Jen's teenagers while she holds their newborn. The cat she took home from Mexico stands outside the guest house, as if reminding Jen that Judy is still there somehow. (Though, for the record, Feldman won't confirm that either. "I'm spiritual person, I believe in signs, and that is the kind of sentiment that helps me get through my grief — to feel that the people I'm under still around me. But I leave it to the audience to decide what the cat means," she says.) And when Ben pulls himself out of the pool to sit next to her, Jen says, "I have to tell you something" to him.
"I've always written it tongue-in-cheek, whether people realize it or not, so I know how many times characters have said, 'I have to tell you something' on the show, and it just tickled me that it would be the last line," Feldman says.
But more seriously, she continues, "Throughout the finale, Judy is trying to get the message across to Jen that living with secrets is too hard a burden to bear, and if she finally really wants to feel free, she should unburden herself. And so, I imagine that that's exactly what Jen is about to do. But what is she unburdening herself with? I don't know. I know [Christina] knows what she was gonna say, but it might be different than what I thought she was gonna say."
For what it's worth, Marsden feels that by the end of the series, Ben is healthy enough that if Jen was about to confess, "and it's coupled with her still accepting him in her life, then they could get through it. I think he's got enough remorse and regret about the things he's done wrong that they can come together as human beings.
"Forgiveness is a big theme throughout the show, especially this season," he explains.