During its three seasons on Netflix, Dead to Me has made a comedically ominous catchphrase out of the words, “I have to tell you something.” The show’s world is filled with secrets—accidental murders, secret twins, hidden substance abuse issues… The list is unending. It was only natural that when it came time to end the show, those same words were echoing in showrunner Liz Feldman’s mind.
Dead to Me observes two women forming a deep friendship that, by all accounts, should not exist: Linda Cardelliini’s Judy Hale accidentally killed the husband of Christina Applegate’s character, Jen Harding, in a hit-and-run. The two met in a grief group, and soon enough, Judy was living in the house of the man she killed. And not long after that, Jen killed Judy’s fiancé, Steve (James Marsden), with a bird figurine by her pool. (“I have to tell you something,” indeed!)
(Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dead to Me Season 3.)
Judy and Jen have done a lot of grieving and forgiving, and even as the show wound down, they couldn’t catch a break. Although one might expect a final season to spend most of its time tying up loose ends, Season 3 introduces new twists: Jen discovers that she’s pregnant at the age of 47, and thanks to a mix-up at the hospital, she learns that Judy has stage four cancer. It’s up to her to tell her.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Feldman broke down the season’s biggest swings (like that cliffhanger ending) and its most controversial decisions. (As in: Why did poor Judy have to die?)
Feldman didn’t necessarily set out to make Dead to Me a “crazy, twisty-journey soapy show,” but she did want to make something undeniably entertaining—something that could reach a lot of people, and that could speak subversively about subjects that would otherwise be difficult to digest. She had no idea how the series would end when it first launched in 2019; instead, she said, “it definitely evolved over time.” She wanted an ending that honors the themes Dead to Me has kept at its center for years: friendship, loss, and forgiveness.
Dead to Me has carried viewers through the stages of grief to revel in the glory and bravery of love—a source of connection that also opens us up to loss.
In the end, when Jen turns to Ben to say, “I have to tell you something,” it’s unclear whether she’ll actually be able to find the words to tell him everything she’s done—like killing his twin brother. And if she does, can he forgive her? We’ll never know; the show ends just as the conversation begins.
“At this point, something kind of feels Dead to Me or it doesn’t,” Feldman said. (Although she added that she felt “sort of douchey” saying so.) Leaving the show on a cliffhanger, she decided, would be a “very Dead to Me thing.”
“I knew that I wanted it to be what I would call a not-so-happy ending,” Feldman said. “… The truth is that it’s hard. Jen did do a terrible thing. I didn’t want to just pretend like she didn’t.”
Jen has suffered plenty in three seasons of Dead to Me, and Feldman didn’t feel the need to punish her any further with the show’s ending. At the same time, she did want to see Jen “take Judy’s words to heart—which is that you can’t really be free if you’re living a lie.”
Somehow, that abrupt ending might not even be Dead to Me Season 3’s most divisive decision. There’s also the fact that Judy dies in the finale from her cervical cancer.
Feldman knows this is a bold move, to say the least. “Judy is a part of me,” she said. “She came from me, and I was sort of hoping to help people try to come to a form of acceptance about the fact that death is a part of life. It can be a beautiful reminder of how brave it is to love someone.”
“I come from a comedy background with a capital ‘C,’” Feldman said, “… But I was always aching to say more. I love to make people laugh, and it’s at the core of who I am. But as I got older and I started to live through things that I was having a difficult time processing, I was longing to try to weave some of that into my work.”
As Feldman has previously discussed, Dead to Me draws its inspiration from a difficult period in her life: She had just turned 40, at which point she’d been trying to get pregnant for four or five years. She lost three friends, all in their thirties, basically consecutively. “And then on my 40th birthday, my cousin passed away unexpectedly—and he wasn’t that much older than me,” Feldman recalled. Then her friend, who’d flown into town for her birthday, told her she was pregnant. “This is like all in a very short period of time,” Feldman said.
A day later, Feldman said she flew to New York for a cousin’s wedding—and a day after that, her other best friend revealed she was also pregnant. And then, another day later, was when Feldman found out that she was not pregnant “for about the 30th time.”
That was the headspace Feldman was sitting in as she came up with the concept of her series.
Season 3 brings Dead to Me even closer to Feldman’s real-life experience when Judy, who has struggled for years with fertility issues, grapples with the news that her best friend—a good but at times reluctant mom—was pregnant.
Feldman recalled that when that moment happened in her real life, “I really did say, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing, I’m so happy for you guys.’ I went right into a place of unconditional love for my friend and support… And then two minutes later, I walked into the bathroom and I bawled. And I never told her that that happened.”
With Season 3 nearing its premiere, Feldman said she “did then have to call my friend and say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna see this thing in Season 3. And just so you know, that really happened, and I’m sorry I never told you.’ We had an incredible conversation about it.”
As the series winds down, viewers might notice that the curveballs both women face this season hold a mirror up to one another’s deepest injuries. While Judy tries to focus on her supportive feelings toward her friend’s pregnancy, Jen is reeling over Judy’s cancer—which reminds her of her mother’s death from breast cancer when she was young.
By introducing Judy’s cancer, Feldman said, “I wanted to give [Jen] an opportunity to do it again and do it better—to be a better human being through it so that she could heal that part of herself that’s still angry at herself for how she behaved around her mother’s illness.”
One of the most powerful driving forces behind Dead to Me has been the real-life friendship that formed on set between Applegate and Cardellini. Feldman said it was a joy to watch the actors’ friendship blossom as their characters’ bond grew deeper. Ahead of Season 2, Feldman told The Daily Beast, “I was just talking to Christina yesterday, and she was just telling me how good she thinks Linda is. And I was talking to Linda, and Linda was saying how good she thinks Christina is.”
Partway through Season 3, production halted after Applegate was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—a potentially disabling disease that affects the central nervous system. Speaking with the New York Times, Applegate described some of the production tricks that allowed the season to resume as normal after a few months—time that Applegate needed to process the news. Once production resumed, Applegate credited Cardellini as her “champion, my warrior, my voice” on set in moments when she hesitated to ask for accommodations or was not heard. “It was like having a mama bear,” Applegate told the Times.
Feldman had an addendum to add: “By the way,” she said, “Christina, in the exact same moment, will mama bear [Cardellini] back.”
“They just protect each other at every turn,” Feldman said. “It is incredibly sweet and heartwarming. And that’s a gift. It’s what the show is about.”
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