Aside from series creator Liz Feldman, no one could have predicted the end of Netflix‘s Dead To Me — except Linda Cardellini.
“I knew last season that Liz was thinking about doing Judy’s storyline. I knew sort of what that was,” Cardellini tells TV Insider of her character Judy Hale’s ultimate fate: a diagnosis of stage four cervical cancer and the subsequent choice to live out the rest of her days on her own terms, following a spontaneous vacation to Mexico with BFF Jen Harding (Christina Applegate). Despite knowing how it all ended, however, Cardellini was still caught off guard at the way the storyline played out.
“I knew that whatever she thought of would be surprising and emotional and funny but what I didn’t realize was how it would remind me so much of what grief feels like,” she says. “And that whole thing of when you have to say goodbye to somebody or when you’re ill-prepared to say goodbye to somebody and what that feeling leaves you with. I really think that’s a wonderful way that they constructed the story, especially for Jen and Judy, and I was really excited to see Jen and Judy take this one last wild ride. At the heart of what happens is the two of them sort of go on this journey and you get to see them kind of be in sync for a lot longer than normal.”
For James Marsden, who plays the charismatic Ben Wood — twin brother of Judy’s deceased ex-fiance Steve (Marsden) — the ending of the show was a story he didn’t see coming at all. “Of course, it’s just absolutely emotional and heart-wrenching, but also all that thread of humor woven in there so brilliantly,” he says. “It felt quintessential Dead To Me just amped up to ten, and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.”
“I think we kind of had a sneaking suspicion,” says Sam McCarthy, who plays Jen’s oldest son Charlie. “It was potentially kind of not expected, but it was speculated on and it was really kind of sad and touching.” Adding that his views on the ending felt different being a collaborator as opposed to an audience member, McCarthy noted that when he read the final scripts, he was “sad and touched” for the characters of Jen and Judy. “But I also think that artistically, there’s some type of a kind of beautiful merit in that type of impermanence. And so to be honest, I found — as maybe weird as this is to say — a touching ending to the show.”
With any show that runs for a long amount of time, it’s not hard for the actors to feel a sense of responsibility towards their characters, as well as an attachment. That’s especially true with a show as multi-layered as Dead To Me, where in addition to the tight-knit cast, almost every scene is rooted in deep emotion and vulnerability.
“What they write for us is so layered and you’re never just doing one thing. There’s always layers to it. [Judy] is there and she’s with people but she’s also got all these things happening underneath and it’s just so rich and juicy and it’s funny at the same time its very tragic,” says Cardellini. “And I’m going to miss the mix of all of those things because it’s hard to come by in one project.”
“In a million ways, I grew alongside Charlie. I think his experience demands of him a bit more sensitivity and empathy towards the people around him,” explains McCarthy of his 3-4 year journey on the show. “He’s kind of kept in the dark, and not really understanding everything. And in those gaps of not understanding, I think he learns that it’s better to treat people with sensitivity. And I think, to be honest, that kind of coincided with me about two years ago. So I guess in between shooting season two and three, I kind of realized that people like to be treated kindly. And there’s kind of this myth that I think many teenagers believe — I think I certainly believed — that it’s not very cool to be kind or sensitive to people. I think I eventually was able to learn that it’s beneficial to treat people sensitively. And although Charlie’s environment was a little bit more high stakes and high pressure than my life has been in the past couple of years, I think his development in trying to be more understanding of his family and those around him kind of coincided with maybe mine.”
While the show announced its final season soon after its season 2 finale aired in 2020, it took two more years for that third and final season to come to reality thanks to COVID delays and co-star Applegate’s MS diagnosis. While that did afford the cast a little more time than usual with their beloved characters, it didn’t make it any easier when they finally said goodbye.
“Judy is an exquisite role. It really is,” says an emotional Cardellini, who claims that she remembers being “terrified” of playing Judy when she started filming the show in 2018. “I thought ‘oh no, I’m nothing like her, I don’t know how to do this.’ And then the idea that now I feel like she’s so close to me…I’m gonna miss her.”
“It’s been really bittersweet to say goodbye to these characters we’ve been getting so close to,” Marsden shares. “I’m a fan of the show as much as I am part of it. I don’t want to say goodbye to these people, but I’ve been really fortunate to watch these brilliant actors do what they do and Linda and Christina are just the beating heart of the show. It’s really sad to see it coming to a close but we’re also discovering what grief is, which this show deals with quite a bit.”
McCarthy also credits that “beating heart of the show” — aka Applegate and Cardellini — as an actor’s studio type of experience, mainly due to the “relaxation and fun” both actors brought to set. “Very quickly, I was able to have a deeper understanding for what Christina and Linda were doing. I think I was a bit tensed sometimes and to watch them work with such ease and such a light touch was always wonderful to watch,” he says, citing his bond with Applegate as one that went beyond on-screen mother and son. “There was a time she gave me a phone call. I was feeling down or not maybe not the most proud of what I was doing and she kind of gave me this talk about putting that type of pressure on yourself is in itself a constructor, and how one has the luxury and also the responsive luxury and responsibility to trust themselves in their work. And if you can’t trust yourself, you might be stuck.”
It’s that collaborative set environment with fellow cast and crew members that Marsden will miss most. “The laughs we have on set, carving these scenes out and getting to play with them and Liz is always right there and there’s this fluidity to it,” he says. “Sometimes it’s like here’s the script, the writer’s in some building across town and do your thing and here’s the instructions. This is such a collaboration on set. We all know the intention of the scene, we all know where the humor is, and sometimes we’re even surprised with new bits that we find on the day and it’s just not always like that.”
Dead to Me, Seasons 1-3, Streaming Now, Netflix