There’s something about the dreaded “third and final season” announcement from Netflix that tends to loom heavy over a series once said third and final season finally drops. Will the show feel rushed because of the streamer-imposed end date? Will it get to close the loop on all of its stories? Will it be worth it? The Christina Applegate/Linda Cardellini two-hander “Dead to Me” obviously had to deal with all of those questions leading into its concluding installment (dropping on Netflix on Nov. 17), but then it also had to deal with the questions that came from real life interfering in its production.
Netflix announced in July 2020 that the series would be ending after Season 3, just a couple of months after Season 2 aired. But because of COVID-19, series production was delayed for a year; then it was delayed even further the following month by Christina Applegate’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis, which seemingly would’ve played a hand in ending the series had Netflix not already decided to, as she has since said this will be her last big role. A role she’d come out of semi-retirement to do in the first place.
It’s difficult to write about “Dead to Me” without giving up the game of the series’ twists and reveals, but that’s also part of what makes it so interesting to think about. When the second season ended, Applegate’s Jen and Cardellini’s Judy had just ended up on the wrong end of a hit-and-run, with the reveal to the audience being that a drunk and upset Ben (James Marsden) was the one to hit them. It was a whole confluence of events in that moment, as Jen and Judy were driving the car they’d bought Jen’s son Charlie (Sam McCarthy) for his 16th birthday, celebrating a stop sign that Jen had convinced city council to put up (after they’d ironically told her they were sure a stop sign would cause more accidents); all while Ben had just learned the police had found the body of his dead twin Steve (Marsden), who he had no idea Jen had killed (and then buried with Judy).
Speaking of Marsden, it’s worth mentioning (despite how great he is, he can get lost in the shuffle as the support to Applegate and Cardellini’s leads) that he continues to get to do good work here in the final season as Ben (and, in flashbacks, as Steve). “Dead to Me” has understood Marsden’s charm from moment one, which is why it was able to weaponize it with the despicable Steve in the first place. As Ben, Marsden gets to play more of the loveable puppy dog that audiences expect from him after his work in things like “Enchanted,” but he also gets to channel how haunted Ben is in the aftermath of his brother’s death and how he struggles with his survivor’s remorse.
Plus, this season, he also gets to sing a song he once sang on “Ally McBeal,” which is as fanservicing to some as the series finally putting Katey Sagal (who plays Judy’s mother Eleanor) in a scene with her fellow “Married… with Children” daughter Christina Applegate is to many others.
As a final season, “Dead to Me” serves as a reminder of how rich the Laguna Beach-set world of the series is, from Jen’s annoying neighbors to her and Judy’s support group to Judy’s work (and depressing to everyone but her) and family life. There were moments of the second season where it sometimes felt like the series forgot aspects of the world in service of going bigger, but it ultimately always found a way to come back to those smaller moments; Season 3 finds a way to round that all out even more, making creator Liz Feldman’s vision of this series feel as whole as it possibly can in such a short amount of time. The series is able to call back to its past and hold up a mirror to its characters in a satisfying way, despite some unsatisfying circumstances in production.
One of the things that has made “Dead to Me” so intensely bingeable since its debut is its constant sense of motion, in terms of its storytelling. (When all is said and done, the majority of events of the series apparently take place in about a year and a half.) The twist reveals, the misdirects, the web of lies could all arguably make the series feel predictable — and after the first season, those beats were especially “easy” to track as the series continued — but they’re arguably what makes the show, despite its status as a dark comedy, so comforting.
The tension remains, but so is the relief that comes with the series’ ability to lampshade itself. “Dead to Me’s” final season is self-aware without being too winking or cloying, instead playing on the real emotions that Applegate and Cardellini have been able to mine out of their characters and their co-dependent friendship.
Interestingly enough, “Dead to Me’s” final season could actually end with its penultimate episode. While there are still certain balls up in the air, it would speak to the “Thelma & Louise”-esque relationship between Jen and Judy — or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”-esque, as this season even invokes — not completely sure how things are going to end but having a pretty sinking suspicion it’s not going to be sunshine and roses.
Each season of the series has had a different episode naming scheme: The first was “I”/”me,” setting up for the second season’s “you,” which in turn set up for this season’s “we.” While this show has always very much been a two-hander for Applegate and Cardellini, this season truly is the most “we.” And nothing embodies that spirit more than the series finale, “We’ve Reached the End,” which is truly the best dramatic work of the series from the two lead actresses. This is a season that goes out on a high from episode-to-episode when it comes to the comedic back and forth between the two, but the dramatic stuff is on a whole other level, giving Applegate and Cardellini the chance to shine in the shadow of both of their somewhat underrated status as dramatic performers.
“We’ve Reached the End” closes the loop on a number of beats for “Dead to Me,” but most importantly, it focuses on the love and friendship of Jen and Judy. And it does so while maintaining its sharp humor, somehow, amid all the emotions. That’s “Dead to Me” in a nutshell.
“Dead to Me” Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.