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‘Dead to Me’ is the rare show that lets grief be ugly
At its heart, the Netflix series is about finding connection during your loneliest time.
Halfway through Netflix’s new show Dead to Me, we get some relief. Newly widowed Jen (Christina Applegate) is sitting by the pool, the sun on her face, wistfully saying how she has nowhere to be. She is sucking down the last watery drop of her margarita, ordering a second one before noon. That sweet spot of a buzz has just set in: when the running mind tapes have faded out and the rest of the day, or at least the next few hours, seem hopeful, exciting even. Beside her is her new best girlfriend, Judy (Linda Cardellini), and they watch a very chiseled, surf-chill version of John Cena emerge from the pool. Jen has locked in her immediate goal. She is confident she will indeed fuck him. For this moment, however long it will last, she is not thinking about the miserable life she has to meander through. She is not aware of the hole in her heart, or the work she has to do to feel her feelings and find a new path. She has an escape and I am living through her.
“I’ve Gotta Get Away” is an episode about attempting to take a vacation from grief. If you have ever lived through a massive loss, you know these moments of being truly able to check out and not give a fuck are ones you devour. Deep down, you know the escape is fleeting and that the hollow, throbbing pit in your heart is awaiting you on the other side, but whatever, you’ll take any tiny salvation you can get. The irony in Jen’s situation is that this poolside getaway is actually a retreat where all people do is talk about grief. There is even a karaoke night called “carry-on-oke” where a fellow widow wails “Don’t Leave Me This Way” for what feels like 20 minutes while conference-goers clutch onto their highballs and sway.
Critics and viewers are calling Dead to Me a black comedy, more dark than light. And it might be, but I actually find the show rather comforting. As someone who suffered the depths of grief, mourned in tiny moments between work emails and in long bouts in bed, I can tell you that there is a lot of levity in what may be one of Netflix’s best shows in ages. The beauty of Dead to Me is that it lets grief breathe.
When I lost my mother, and then my father, people were quick to tell me there is no one way to grieve. It’s one of those clichés that will drive you mad—it’s one step above “I’m sorry for your loss”—because it shows people don’t know what to say, and they don’t know what to say because they haven’t had to feel this needling, endless amount of pain, which only makes you more bitter. And while it’s true—grief takes many forms and there isn’t a straight path to peace—television shows and movies will often cycle through some sort textbook version of grief: an angry outburst, a montage of weeping under the covers, a feel-good revelation seven minutes before the credits. These things happen, sure, but they do not happen in a linear fashion. Sometimes you look at a note your kid wrote to the person you lost, curl your knees into your body, and sob hysterically. Minutes later, you might storm off searching for the cigarettes you don’t usually smoke.
Jen grieves in guttural, feral ways that are familiar to me: Sitting in your car, windows rolled up, blasting heavy metal to drown out the head noise; punching a cake; boozing; fucking; running your mouth; running off to buy those cigarettes. But Judy, who is mourning several losses, including five miscarriages, is also familiar. Judy’s grief manifests in being simply sad, absurdly empathetic, and eager to ignore her own pain to make others feel better. But what is probably most realistic about their portrayals is the way they need each other. Grief, at its core, is incredibly lonely. You would do anything for someone just to understand. To get it. To make that hole consuming your insides feel just a little less expansive.
The weird thing about grief, at least for me, is how hard it is to mourn with the people who have lost the same person you have. Everyone has had different relationships to the deceased, some more fraught than others, and it feels messy and imposing to have to be part of how they work through their dynamics and the emptiness left behind. Not to mention their pain is too much a reflection of your own. It’s why it is easier for Jen to be with Judy than it is for her to even be there for her sons.
Plot twist aside, people like Judy are the ones you want on your side when you feel extremely anxious and stripped of your bearings. Someone who has been through loss, mourned in the shadows, and feels like they’ve failed at coping. Someone who knows how much the emptiness consumes your every thought and how much pressure you feel to perform the “normal” you. Someone who can make you feel comfortable to be vulnerable. Because everyone else around you is going on with their lives, making you feel even lonelier. So for Judy to constantly be supportive of Jen and validate her every complaint, tear, and need is honestly the greatest gift a person in mourning can receive.
Perhaps one of the most moving moments of their friendship occurs shortly after they meet. The two are on the phone late at night talking about the men they loved, and Jen asks Judy to stay on the phone with her until she falls asleep, “like all the way asleep.” Jen places the phone on her late husband’s side of the comforter and you can see (and hear) that Judy is still on the line. The hardest thing for me when it comes to grief is admitting how lonely you are, asking someone to help you feel less lonely, and finding those little moments of relief when others will carry you.
It is clear that showrunner Liz Feldman and her writers have experience in great loss. The casting is also superb: Both Applegate and Cardellini have always been captivating, layered actresses who can perform nuance, depth, and comedy in a simple gesture (see Up All Night and Mad Men, respectively); it’s refreshing enough just to see these two 40-something women connect in a way that isn’t about landing a man or planning a coup in the workplace. But what makes the show really shine is its message that when you are at your worst, there is nothing more powerful than a good friend. Even if that friend is not perfect. Even if that friend is ultimately just as lonely as you are.
Jessica Machado is the IRL editor of the Daily Dot. Previously, she was an associate editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Elle, Vice, Salon, BuzzFeed, Guernica, Bitch, Bust, the Cut, the Awl, the Toast, among others.