Warning: Medium-to-large spoilers for Dead to Me seasons one and two comin’ at ya.
“You like her.” “I do.”
Five small words. On paper, nothing special. But in the context of the second season of Dead to Me? Game-changing.
But let me back up a little. I watched the first season of Dead to Me two days before the release of the second season. I was just looking for something to put on while I worked, and Netflix had bumped it up to the top of my home screen because of the upcoming new episodes. For reasons I do not understand, no one I knew had ever tried to talk to me about the show. I did my traditional quick search on Autostraddle and nothing turned up, so I knew it wasn’t going to be gay. And since the episodes were 30 minutes long and the snippet Netflix showed me when I rolled over the title page was Christina Applegate hilariously shutting down an over-eager neighbor with dry humor, I assumed it was a sitcom of sorts.
Basically, what I’m saying is, no one prepared me for what this show was about. No one prepared me for how hilarious it was while also being deeply tragic. No one prepared me for how invested I would be in the extremely fucked up relationship between two women whose lives couldn’t be more different than mine. No one prepared me for the intricate and stunning storytelling that would unfold as puzzle pieces of a mystery started to fall into place, all while Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini made me laugh and cry and gasp and laugh some more.
I finished the first season in one day. I couldn’t stop watching. These two women, Jen and Judy, were so engaging and interesting and so deeply messed up. They are open with each other in a way they aren’t with anyone else in their lives. They stay up late talking to each other; Judy eventually moves in and becomes something of a second mom to Jen’s kids. Their chemistry was off the charts, and even though I knew they weren’t going to end up together, I couldn’t help but wonder. Even Jen’s son clocked it; he would joke about them “breaking up” whenever Judy wasn’t around for a few days. But what else was he supposed to think? The majority of his experience with his mother before was a quick-to-anger, all-business woman who had been cold in the months before his father died, and all but shut down after. And here she was opening her home to a stranger, being affectionate and gentle in a way that he couldn’t quite wrap his head around. And besides, the show is created by lesbian comedian and writer Liz Feldman; surely it’s GOTTA get gay at some point.
But Jen and Judy aren’t why I’m finally able to write about this show on Autostraddle. No, their relationship is more complicated than that, and isn’t sexual at all. Again, I will reiterate that nothing about their friendship is HEALTHY. Their entire friendship was built on layer after layer of lies, and they absolutely at no point should have been in each other’s lives. In fact, it’s only through trauma bonding they still are. Judy even picked up the same bad habits she had with her abusive ex-husband and just transferred them to Jen. (In season one, Judy and Steve had this back-and-forth pattern where Steve would say something awful, Judy would scold him, he would say “Sorry” and she would respond “It’s okay” like a reflex. The same thing starts to happen with Jen eventually.) These manipulative and unhealthy relationships in equal parts mirror and are an attempt to make up for the fucked up relationship with her mother. It’s bad, bad, bad, but just because it’s fucked up and not something I’d want in real life doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely magnetic and fun to watch.
Also fun to watch? Natalie Morales. A queer actress you know and love, maybe from Parks and Rec, maybe from last summer’s bisexual pop of a sitcom, Abby’s. But I’ve never seen her quite like this.
She floats in like cool silk on a hot day and even though she’s looking at Linda Cardellini the whole time you somehow feel like also she’s looking at you? I’ve never seen anyone flirt like this. It’s absolutely electric. There’s one part where she’s leaning on a doorframe and I have never wanted to be a doorframe but here I was, wishing I could be a doorframe.
I also, for a while, couldn’t tell how it was going to go. I could tell Natalie Morales’s character, Michelle, was into Judy. I could tell Judy liked the attention Michelle was giving her. But I didn’t know how it was all going to shake out. Was Michelle going to make a move and scare Judy away? Was Judy going to make a big thing about her newfound feeling for another woman and it was going to be awkward and terrible? Was Judy going to try to lean into this despite not really being into it just because she likes being liked and it was all going to go down in flames? Was Jen going to flip out and try to talk Judy out of her feelings? I’ve been burned so many times that I found myself waiting to find out not whether or not it would be a good storyline, but how the storyline was going to hurt me. But then none of those fears came true. Instead Michelle and Judy flirted and flirted and got closer and closer until Jen saw the two of them interacting and turned to Judy and said, more than asked:
“You like her.”
And Judy answered with hearts in her eyes and no hesitation in her voice, like letting out a breath she’d been holding, “I do.”
It’s not the first time we, the audience, know there’s something more. There’s a point when Michelle is asking Judy about Jen while also trying to figure out if Judy is into women the way we all have had to play Nancy Drew in our lives. She asked if Judy was…not finishing the sentence. Not having to. And Judy answered, “Not with HER.” Simple. Perfect.
But this was the first time Jen learned. And Jen just smiled at Judy and said they were good together. Judy smiled and says she feels like the most herself when she’s with Michelle. And that’s the extent to which they talk about the fact that Jen had previously only known Judy to date men, and now she’s dating a woman. Two grown-ass suburban rich ladies just rolling with the queerness. It’s possible, and it’s beautiful.
Of course, because this is nothing if not a roller coaster of a show (my friend Megan described it as “fun stress”) there are plenty of other complications in their relationship, but the queer aspect of it is never the hurdle. And have I mentioned how perfect Natalie Morales is? (Also when we meet Michelle she’s living with her ex, which is such a relatable gay experience it’s not even funny. While also being hilarious.) And Natalie and Linda have a heat usually reserved for teenagers. In fact, they even stole a page from Emily Fields and Maya St. Germain’s book.
It’s also, so far, Judy’s healthiest relationship. It’s one of the first choices we see Judy make purely for herself. Almost everything else we’ve seen her do so far was for someone else; to appease Steve, to help Jen, etc. But in that photobooth, when she leans in and kisses Michelle for the first time, that’s just for her. Because Michelle doesn’t demand anything of her, she doesn’t owe Michelle anything. Judy just wants Michelle, and Michelle wants her back, and in that moment, it’s the purest, happiest, least complicated thing in Judy’s life.
I love that this show, while being about Jen and Judy’s ex husbands in a…very specific way, is actually about their relationship with each other. In all its complicated glory. These are two women who make a lot of bad choices and continue to hurt each other and other people and yet, you can’t help but root for them. You just want them to be happy, despite all of the terrible things they’ve done. It’s a perfect show about imperfect people, and while I don’t recommend emulating any part of your life on anything that happens on this show (unless you can get Natalie Morales to flirt with you), I do highly, highly recommend watching it.