“I guess we should talk about what we shouldn’t talk about before we don’t talk again.”
Television shows that revolve around secrets can be extremely precarious. It’s not only difficult to keep stringing a secret along without it feeling contrived, but it’s also a struggle to maintain momentum and interest once that secret gets exposed. Dead to Me’s first season respects its audience enough that it doesn’t belabor Judy’s confession to Jen over her husband, Ted’s, death. It’d have been extremely detrimental to stretch this storyline into the next season, so it was a major turning point towards the end of season one when Jen learns the truth and tells Judy that she’ll straight up murder her if she ever sees her again. This is the appropriate reaction considering everything that’s gone on, but then the final moments of Dead to Me’s freshman season take a major left turn when Jen and Judy become inexorably tied together over another murder.
The biggest hurdle that Dead to Me’s second season faces is how to get Jen and Judy to remain together, in spite of how any sort of friendship between them should be impossible at this point. It can be incredibly difficult to find a convincing balance when relationships are redefined like this and it’s enough to derail a series into implausibility. Dead to Me faces an uphill, melodramatic battle with this new direction for its second season, yet it’s successfully able to make all of this work and push Jen and Judy into a genuinely fresh and compelling dynamic that’s even tenser than season one.
This season explores some heavy themes, like how to properly process grief, the true cost of a life, and the human mind’s incredible capacity to rationalize and defend itself. These ideas effectively compliment the series’ pitch black comedy and interest in emotional trauma. Dead to Me still classifies itself to be a comedy series, but it remains a show that would rather spend its time showing a character in pain than execute a silly sight gag. It’s a dynamic that both helps and hurts Dead to Me, but it always feels authentic.
This new season turns Jen and Judy into paranoid wrecks as they’re now both forced to shoulder an incredible secret. A lot of season one’s tension grows out of the inevitable tension over Jen and Judy growing closer. Now there are considerably higher stakes as the two freak out over whether anyone is suspicious of their crime and if their increasingly flimsy house of cards is about to fall down and bury them.
There’s a degree of safety that’s felt between Jen and Judy as they negotiate these murky waters together, but it’s also exciting to watch this toxic codependence as these two sink deeper into emotional quicksand. It’s entertaining and easy, but this season shines a lot more on how the friendship between these two is akin to an unhealthy addiction and the way in which they enable each other will only end in disaster. It’s a car crash in slow motion. Cardellini has to shoulder a greater spectrum of baggage in season one, but now that dynamic flips as Applegate’s Jen is the one who always feels like she’s five seconds away from a meltdown. There’s constant anxiety in every single syllable and micro-gesture from Jen, but there’s a very natural comedy to how she and Judy twitch under pressure.
Dead to Me season 2 coyly parses out its details and builds an engrossing mystery from how the audience is kept in the dark over the “full truth” of this story. A similar approach was present in season one when more information on Ted came to light, but there’s a greater payoff this time around as the season genuinely makes the audience question whether Jen is a good person or not. The twists are much bigger this time around and this season triumphs at reveals that drop jaws rather than raise eyebrows. That being said, some of these developments do feel manipulative and less earned than others. The season tries to keep the audience on a constantly unpredictable thrill ride and as a result the show succumbs to some of the same faults that held back its first year. However, the season goes out on its strongest note yet and will have audiences screaming for another season.
Applegate and Cardellini’s effortless energy remains the strongest selling point of this series. The two are so often in panic mode that the few brief occasions where they’re allowed to have fun and enjoy themselves really stand out and reflect their palpable connection. This season underscores that friendships can be very messy, but are also fundamentally important relationships. The mental toll that this takes on both Judy and Jen really leads to some amazing, layered work from Cardellini and Applegate this season.
Dead to Me season 2 does better work with how it handles its supporting cast and fleshes out its world. Jen and Judy are still the focus, but other characters get more of an opportunity to develop. Jen’s children have an increased importance this year. They become more fleshed out characters this season and not just obligations and distractions in Jen’s life.
There’s also more anxiety courtesy of Jen’s nosy-but-good-intentioned neighbor, Karen, who combined with Detective Perez and other new threats become the major predatory forces this season now that Ted is out of the picture. The always-fantastic Natalie Morales also joins this season as a new presence in Judy’s life. Her character provides some positivity in Judy’s life and is a brief source of brightness amongst all of this pain. The scenes between her and Judy are some of the most enjoyable and tender moments of the season.
Dead to Me season 2 amounts to a highly emotional gauntlet as Jen and Judy are hopelessly out of their league and with no one to turn to but each other. This isn’t a season about meek characters that seize control of their lives after they discover that they’re actually steely criminals. It’s a painful meditation on responsibility and seeing the good in others. The characters grow and fail in realistic ways and even when Dead to Me becomes its most implausible, it’s the undeniable chemistry between Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini that ties all of this together. Dead to Me season 2 is messy and imperfect, but so is life itself, and these characters deserve at least one more season to try to get things right.
Dead to Me’s second season is available to stream on Netflix on May 8th. This review is based off all 10 episodes of Dead to Me’s second season.