A hefty percentage of our favorite films, television shows and novels would disappear without narratives of revenge and retribution. Batman Bruce Wayne's parents are killed by a robber when he's a child; he spends the rest of his life beating the tar out of criminals. Michael Myers in the “Halloween” franchise murders everyone he can get his knife into, until Laurie Strode turns the tables — and the blade — back on him. Week after week on “Law and Order: SVU,” evil people commit horrible crimes, and are tracked down and made to pay. Superhero stories, action movies, police procedurals, slashers — they're all driven by the pendulum-like logic of revenge.
Netflix's new black comedy, “Dead to Me,” is a revenge narrative in some ways. It starts with violence, and much of its ten-episode season is driven by a search for the perpetrator. That search, though, sits uncomfortably beside a story about grief, friendship and making amends. The series struggles to find a way out of its own expectations of retribution and violence. The result is by turns exhilarating and frustrating, as the show both challenges and illustrates the hold revenge narratives have on our imaginations.
The series struggles to find a way out of its own expectations of retribution and violence. The result is by turns exhilarating and frustrating.
“Dead to Me's” protagonist is Jen (Christina Applegate), a realtor whose husband Ted was killed in a hit and run a couple of months before the start of the show. Still consumed with grief and anger, Jen attends a counseling group, where she meets Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini). The two hit it off; Judy is an impulsive, scattered hippie, who tries to give Jen a hug 30 seconds after meeting her. (Jen recoils in horror.) But Judy is also, it turns out, the only person who Jen can talk to without feeling bad about how she's handling her husband's death. In turn, Jen helps Judy by bringing her into her family. Judy desperately wants children but has been unable to have her own. She leaps at the chance to be a surrogate second mom to Jen's two sons.
Early in the series, though, we learn that Judy has a secret; she was driving the car that hit Ted. As Jen tries to track down the person who killed her husband, Judy wrestles with her guilt, trying to decide whether, or when, to come clean. Viewers are encouraged to identify both with Jen's desire for revenge, and with Judy's desire to help her and to be forgiven.
In some ways, “Dead to Me” functions as a critique of revenge narratives and their assumptions. Christina Applegate's buttoned up Jen is always on the verge of spiraling from cynical sarcasm to volcanic anger. That rage is often justified, and even satisfying. We learn that Jen had a lot of reasons to resent her husband, just for starters. And it's hard not to cheer her bracingly mean-spirited response to smarmy condolences, whether from neighbors or her mother-in-law. But the bitterness also sabotages her life and her ability to function.
In one scene, for example, Jen takes a golf club to a car whose owner was rude to her, and who she thinks might have been involved in her husband's death. It's an enjoyable television moment, which neatly encapsulates why revenge narratives are so popular. Who hasn't wanted to smash the headlights of some rude jerk on the road. But we know that the car's owner didn't hit Ted; and inevitably Jen has to deal with the fallout. Retribution feels good briefly. But violent vigilante justice rarely works out so well in real life.
Often on television, it's the police who hold people accountable, and make sure justice is done. Here too, the “Dead to Me” questions how, and whether, retribution is effective. The officers on the show are a far cry from the earnest, concerned heroes of “SVU” or “Brooklyn 99.” Diana Maria Riva plays Ana Perez, the officer assigned to Ted's case, with a mix of boredom and disdain; she's disengaged when she isn't actively insulting. She has no interest in comforting Jen, or even in being polite to her. Pursuing justice and helping victims are two different things.
The person who does care about helping Jen is Judy. After the accident, in fact, she makes helping Jen the center of her life — much to the horror of her smarmy, wealthy boyfriend Steve (James Marsden.) Usually when someone commits violence onscreen, it's up to the victim to force them to repent. But Judy tries to hold herself to account. She's taken Jen's husband, and while she can't replace him, she can do her best to make amends by caring for Jen and her family. In lieu of revenge, she offers remorse and restitution.
You can't have real restitution without honesty, though, and Judy's lies undermine a lot of the good she undertakes. They also conveniently keep the narrative in motion. If Judy admitted to everything at the beginning, there would be no mystery to uncover. Revenge gives a story somewhere to go. It provides a beginning, a middle and an end.
It's perhaps inevitable, then, that the series' conclusion finesses many of the issues it raises, offering both violent revenge and forgiveness at the same time. “Dead to Me” offers a vision of remorse and reconciliation, but it can't quite translate that into an alternative story — or at least, it doesn't manage to do so in its first season. It's hard for us to imagine justice without revenge. But it's worth watching “Dead to Me” to see it try.
CORRECTION (May 3, 2019, 11:01 p.m.) An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of a character in the show. She is Judy Hale, not Julie Hale.