The charm of Netflix’s “Dead to Me” has always lied within its self-reflexive nature and breezy pacing. While the series has continually trafficked in contrivances, it was in on the joke, winking at its audience amid its Herculean chaos. At the same time, the series seldom lost touch of the emotional weight resulting from its exercises in absurd gimmickry, never lingering too long on a plotline. With meticulous attention to detail, showrunner Liz Feldman focused on each thread just enough for each twist to feel emotionally legible.
The third season of “Dead to Me” lacks this rudimentary appeal. It’s a season marred by glacial pacing and emotional incongruity — a result of an overstuffed, ill-defined final stretch of episodes.
In the final season of the series, Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) are reeling from their second hit-and-run — the first of which being the series’ inciting incident. Unbeknownst to them, Ben Wood (James Marsden), Jen’s former love interest, is the perpetrator, having crashed into them in a drunk driving escapade after learning where his brother’s body was found. While Ben doesn’t know that Jen killed his brother Steve (also Judy’s ex), the two women start the season off unaware that Ben is the hit-and-run driver. And this is just the start of an ever-confusing, entangling web.
A multitude of other machinations and gaps in knowledge abound at the start of the season. While Jen and Judy continue to cover up their involvement in Steve’s murder, Judy continues seeing Michelle (Natalie Morales), who used to be in a relationship with Detective Ana Perez (Diana-Maria Riva), who, despite knowing Jen’s involvement in Steve’s murder, has somehow also found herself embroiled in the elaborate cover up of his death. Further confusion arises when Ana’s subordinate Nick Prager (Brandon Scott), a past fling of Judy’s, becomes increasingly suspicious of Jen and Judy and bonds with Ben as a fellow alcoholic — all while he investigates Jen’s hit-and-run case. Oh, and Jen’s son Charlie (Sam McCarthy) stumbles upon letters Jen wrote to her children in case she was sent to prison, in which she implicates herself and Judy in various unscrupulous situations.
It sounds like a lot because it is. By the final season, Feldman and company have locked themselves into a needlessly labyrinthine narrative. The episodic structure of the season is excessively exasperating, with each episode relying on a concoction of awe-inducing revelations coupled with endless, overdone delays in communication. Past events are retconned in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, and miscommunication is repeatedly used as a narrative device to the point where it feels as if stakes no longer exist.
If anything, the third season of “Dead to Me” is an unfortunate, conspicuous embodiment of learning the wrong lessons from prior success. Jen and Judy’s trauma-filled, dysfunctional, yet ultimately loving dynamic is the show’s heartbeat. Feldman’s tiresome choice to construct the final season around pointless sequences of secret keeping between the two women — each secret being kept from the other for the other’s supposed benefit — feels less rooted in Jen and Judy’s love for each other than it is in the writers’ inability to construct an episode on the basis of character rather than contrivance. At various points in the season it is unclear how much time has passed; similar to the series’ facile approach to character, it doesn’t seem to matter.
If the season is watchable at all, it’s because of Applegate and Cardellini, who imbue their respective characters with traces of emotional tangibility despite the season’s gratuitous narrative gymnastics. In one particular scene involving magic mushrooms, the two women ricochet off each other with warmth and drollery that recalls the best of the likes of Amy Poehler or Tina Fey. It’s a transitory, magical moment — of which there are too few.
Regrettably, the season’s perfunctory impulses follow it to its very final frames. The series’ closing images are initially suffused with an obvious schematic nod to enduring love amid grief. But even this simplified exercise is undercut by a last-minute, inevitable shock — emblematic of the season’s hollow slump to its resting place.