Spoilers ahead for the Dead to Me Season 3 series finale. Dead to Me finished its three-season run in much the same way as it started: with lovably sarcastic widow Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) grieving another tragic death. But this time around, as one character was taking their final breath, another took their first.
“It was never a question of what was going to happen in the ending, but rather how we were going to show it and what we were going to show,” Dead to Me creator and showrunner Liz Feldman tells Bustle. “I was pretty steadfast that this is how I wanted the story to end. But in terms of the nuance and the detail involved, that is something that we had to find along the way and measure out so that it felt like you were getting an ending that felt satisfying, but not too happy or too devastating.”
That’s exactly what the series finale accomplished. After Ben Wood’s (James Marsden) Season 2 hit-and-run lands Jen and her best friend Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) in the emergency room, routine tests reveal that Judy has Stage 4 cervical cancer that has spread to her liver. In another twist of fate, Jen later gets the shocking news that she’s pregnant with Ben’s baby. When a grueling round of chemo proves unsuccessful — and the FBI is about to solve the murder of Ben’s twin brother, Steve — Judy falsely confesses to Nick Prager (Brandon Scott) that she killed her ex to protect Jen and her growing family.
With an unexpected assist from Judy’s mom Eleanor Hale (Katey Sagal), Jen is able to buy them two weeks for a covert vacation to Steve’s beach house in Mexico. At the end of the getaway, an ailing Judy confesses that she has no intention of returning to California, kicking off a tearful goodbye — though they never actually say goodbye. When Jen awakes the next morning, Judy is gone, having presumably paddled off into the ocean, leaving behind only a note, a bracelet, and Steve’s convertible as a parting gift.
If the tear-jerking oceanside scenes weren’t enough to remind you of 1988’s Beaches, Feldman also included Peggy Lee’s version of “The Glory of Love,” which Bette Midler performed on the movie’s soundtrack. “Once I decided I was going to bring Judy through this cancer journey, of course I thought of Beaches,” she explains, also citing 1991’s Thelma and Louise as a Season 3 inspiration. “This is a show that’s always been set by the water; the ocean has been a motif throughout the seasons. So it felt like a fitting end to homage Beaches … as a way of saying thank you to that movie.”
After a small time jump forward, Jen’s daughter, Joey, has been born, and just as everything is beginning to feel perfect with Ben, she seemingly decides to confess to him that she’s actually the one who murdered his brother. Before she gets the chance to do so, the screen fades to black for the last time.
Below, Feldman breaks down Judy’s tragic death and shares more Dead to Me Season 3 secrets — including if she would ever be open to reviving the series down the road.
You’ve said you got the idea of how to end the series halfway through shooting Season 2, and it felt “very true to the show” and “a great way to end it.” Now that we know the actual ending, can you unpack that statement a bit?
This show has always been about grief, loss, and friendship. When I was thinking about how to bring a satisfying end to these characters, I went back to those themes, and I realized that the best way to express my underlying ethos was to do what I did, and that is to show that grief is an experience you only have if you love somebody. As painful as it is to lose that person, it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have had that relationship, and the relationship will always be with you, even if the person is not.
The emotional scene between Jen and Judy when they’re lying in bed, and they’re saying their goodbyes felt super real. To what extent were Christina and Linda also saying underlying goodbyes to the series and their characters?
That’s actually the very last scene that we shot, so you are exactly right in that it was this very meta moment where Jen and Judy were saying goodbye without saying goodbye, but so were Christina and Linda. And so was I, and so was the crew. We all knew it was the last season, and there was so much crying happening off-camera in that scene that it almost eclipsed how much crying was happening on camera.
Every take was incredible. I directed that episode as well, so once I felt we really had it in the can, I went up to Christina and Linda, and I said, ‘We’ve got it, so we could be done.’ And they looked at each other and looked at me, and Christina was like, ‘Let’s do it one last time.’ And so we really knew that the last take was the last take that we were ever going to make in Dead to Me. It was extremely emotional and powerful and cathartic.
The next morning, we see footprints in the sand and the trail of the boat to the water. What are viewers to make of that, and what went into the decision of Judy’s exit happening off-screen?
Everything that you see is by design, and everything you don’t see is also by design. I know that this audience has their own relationship with Judy and with Jen and with their friendship. And I didn’t feel that I needed to hit everything on the head.
That has also been my experience with grief, which is that you’re talking to somebody one day, and the next day they’re gone. Somebody once said that it was like the person just walked into the other room. Loss is very ambiguous sometimes. I tried to find a way to express that paradigm. I also wanted you to draw your own conclusions, and, at the same time, it’s still Dead to Me, so, of course we had to end on a cliffhanger.
Speaking of that cliffhanger with Jen and Ben, could you see this story continuing in the future?
I wrote this finale as the end of this story, but I will never say never. Just like life, there’s always a surprise around the corner, and as much as I’ve said what I needed to say with this show, talk to me in a few years, and maybe I’ll have a different idea.
You finally gave fans their wish of a Married… with Children reunion between Christina and Katey Sagal, validating their theory that Judy’s mom would get out of prison. Can you talk about how that onscreen reunion came together?
As soon as we knew Katey Sagal was going to play Judy’s mom, it was a no-brainer to get her in a scene with Christina. It was a really unique opportunity to allow them to be in a scene that’s pretty dramatic and incredibly different tonally than the kind of scene you’re used to seeing them in. They’re no longer mother and daughter in this broad network multicam; they were these adversaries — these two women who were fighting for Judy’s soul across a kitchen island. It was a thrill to get to direct it, and I know that the two of them had a wonderful time working together again.
After Christina’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis, there was a discussion of ending after a few episodes, but she felt an obligation to Dead To Me to continue. Can you talk a bit more about those plans and Christina’s determination to keep filming?
The season was completely written before we started shooting, and then Christina received her diagnosis when we were 50 percent of the way through. The way we shoot Dead to Me is unique in that we shoot it completely out of order. So we had shot scenes from all 10 episodes, but we had no complete episodes. So it was either we walked away from the show, or we continued, and there was no world where Christina was going to leave and not finish. It was she who wanted to put this story out there so the audience would have it. We did it on her terms.
What do you hope viewers take away after three seasons?
I hope that they take away the message that friendship is worth it, and deep and abiding relationships last long past death. If you have incredible friends, it makes going through those difficult times bearable. I hope that our audiences carry Jen and Judy’s friendship with them because, ultimately, what people connect to on the show is that relationship. And just because the show’s over doesn’t mean you can’t take it with you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.