How Dead to Me season 3's biggest twists (babies! deaths!) bring the series full circle
Warning: This post contains spoilers for Dead to Me's final season.
Life and death take center stage in the third and final season of Dead to Me, creator Liz Feldman's dramedy centered on loss, grief, and friendship.
Police are on to Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) after Steve's (James Marsden) body is discovered in the woods, but unintentional murder takes a back seat in the ride-or-die BFFs' final trek to evade the law. Jen is pregnant with Ben's baby. Ben is working through the grief of losing his brother. Oh, and Judy receives a fatal cancer diagnosis.
It's a lot. But Feldman is intentional with her storylines. Well, admittedly, she did not initially plan for that surprise pregnancy. "At first I was like, 'No, that's crazy. That's so crazy.' 'Oh, that's so cruel to do that to Judy,'" she tells EW. But that "crazy swing" stirred up a lot of excitement, and — coupled with Judy's fate — led to a finale that mirrors the show's long-standing themes.
Below, Feldman speaks to EW about Judy's ambiguous death ("Everything you see and you don't see is deliberate"), Jen's surprise pregnancy, the future of the series, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was Judy's cancer storyline conceived, and why was it the best conclusion for her?
LIZ FELDMAN: This show has always been about grief, loss, forgiveness, and friendship, so when I was thinking about how to end it in the most satisfying but also authentic way possible to deliver on those themes, this is the story that came to me. Judy was actually in part inspired by a friend of mine who passed away from cancer at the age of 38. That was just a few years ago. I wanted to honor her and her spirit by infusing some of that into Judy. It didn't occur to me that that's how I would end Judy's story when I started working on the show, but ultimately, it just felt like a true to life way to bring closure to these characters that have been through so much, and have represented for each other this mirror that shines a light on the things that they really need to work through.
Jen has this trauma in her past with the loss of her mother and the way in which she behaved around the loss of her mother. So I felt that by giving her an opportunity to go through another journey where one of her closest loved ones was dealing with the same illness — but allowing her to handle it in a different way, in a more positive way, in a less selfish way — that would help Jen heal that part of her. So, those are some of the reasons why I decided to go with this story, as much as it pained me truly, and as much as I know it's really hard to go through, because of how much our audience loves Judy. But I do want to assure everyone that I love her just as much. So, it was really hard to write.
Once I came up with the idea, I ran it by my trusted writers. I ran it by Linda. I said, "I'm thinking about doing this," and she got it right away and she totally understood what I was going for. I was actually expecting some pushback because it's not fun and it's a difficult way to deliver a character to their end, but everybody kind of understood the message and the poetry that I was trying to create by bringing her on that journey.
Linda noted the ambiguity of her fate and said, 'Well, for all we know, she could be in San Francisco.' What was the intention behind making it ambiguous?
Everything that you see is a deliberate choice and everything that you don't see is also a deliberate choice. I wanted it to feel like an experience of grief, and so much of Jen's journey in the finale is about coming to a form of acceptance. I wanted to try to bring the audience through a similar journey where, throughout the whole season, from the very beginning, we tell you there's something really wrong and Judy is quite ill. I know that there will be people in the audience, just as there were people in my writers' room going, "But she's going to be okay, right? She's going to be okay?" Because that's what happens when these diagnoses hit the people we love. You can't stop fighting for them until you come to a place where you have to accept.
I was hoping to sort of mirror the experience of grief, which can be really ambiguous and can be really hard to accept, because it does often feel like somebody was there one moment and then they're not the next. And you don't really know what happened. And we don't really know where people go when they're gone. On the sort of alternative ending side, I also wanted to leave it ambiguous because I want the audience to decide what happened for themselves. You don't see her pass away. You don't see where she goes. You don't see how she goes there. So, if it's too hard for people to accept that she might have met her end, then people are more than welcome to run away with their imaginations and think maybe, yeah, she is in San Francisco.
Along with the grief and loss, there's hope and life in this season in the form of Jen and Ben's surprise pregnancy.
It's certainly not something that I was planning on initially, but you get in a writers' room and people start pitching ideas. Our brilliant writer Jessi Klein said, "What if Jen gets pregnant?" And at first I was like, "No, that's crazy. That's so crazy." I was like, "Oh, that's so cruel to do that to Judy." And then I paused, and what happens in a writers' room when there's a good idea in the air is you just can feel it and you can't deny it and people get excited. I walked away from that day thinking "God, that is such a crazy swing," but [I saw] how it would inform the story and how it would bring some closure to this idea of Judy not quite getting her dream of being a mother, and maybe allowing her to look at her life and see the ways in which she really has become a mother. So I really appreciated the pitch because it's not something I would've come up with, but I'm really proud of how we leaned into the stories that sprung from that plot twist.
In season 1, Jen has a double mastectomy storyline inspired directly by Christina's own experiences. Were there ever any discussions about infusing her journey with her MS diagnosis, which she learned about mid-production, into the season?
The entire season was written in 2020 and we were about halfway through shooting when Christina received her diagnosis. And we shoot completely out of order. So we got scenes from all 10 episodes by the time the news came, so there was really no way to rewrite or incorporate or change anything because we already had so much of it shot. It was just sort of a strange kind of coincidence that we were dealing with illness this season and that it affected us in real life as well.
Along with Judy's open-ended fate, the series ends with Jen and Ben, a happy family by the pool, before she turns to him and says "I have to tell you something," presumably about Steve. It leaves the door open for more of this world. Would you revisit this world and these characters in the future?
I mean, listen, like I said, everything you see and you don't see is deliberate. So I will never say never, but I do feel like this story came to a close. And in keeping with our very Dead to Me vibe, everything ends on a cliffhanger in this show, so why shouldn't the finale?
Lastly, how difficult was it to source those creepy twin dolls in the episode where Jen gets locked inside of the closet during Steve's funeral?
[Laughs] I have a fantastic, incredibly indefatigable art department that sourced all of them, but I do think they enjoyed it. What a weird job to have to do, to hunt down 300 pairs of lookalike dolls, but boy, did they absolutely nail it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Dead to Me season 3 is streaming on Netflix.
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