[This story contains major spoilers to the series finale of Dead to Me.]
When Liz Feldman created Dead to Me, she said she explored main character Jen, played by Christina Applegate, and her grief and sadness though cathartic and empowering rage. She created a “zero-fucks-giving woman” in her justifiably angry widow that, at first, scared some executives (who turned out to be very wrong, given the success of the hit Netflix tragi-comedy).
But when it came to Judy, the friend who enters Jen’s orbit through a grief group and who is played by Linda Cardellini, the other starring role of Dead to Me was a very different exploration.
“Judy was described as free-spirited, which I think is funny for someone who is carrying around as much guilt and shame as she is,” Cardellini tells while reflecting on the beginning of her Dead to Me ride in a chat about the series finale. “But it was that she’s free-spirited in her way of thinking. She doesn’t really follow the same linear thinking. But she has crazy amounts of inner life that’s happening that’s keeping her from being a true free spirit. And that was kind of fun to discover as time went on.”
When thinking back on that initial character description for Judy, Cardellini also agrees that while the buddy black comedy began as a twisty-turny, high-stakes murder mystery, it ended up as a meditation on grief and on friendship — and a vehicle for Cardellini and Applegate to do their thing together on camera.
The third and final season, which has dropped all 10 episodes, sees the outlaw chaos move to the B-plot, as Jen and Judy’s friendship takes center stage. Jen deals with a surprise pregnancy and Judy, a terminal cancer diagnosis — all with the looming threat of Jen being found out by the police for killing Judy’s ex Steve (James Marsden), whose twin brother, Ben (also played by Marsden), is unknowingly the father of Jen’s baby. But the finale heads out on one last adventure, to the shores of Mexico, with the two women as they put all of that aside. The ride-or-die pair go out in a Beaches-level sobfest, as Judy decides to leave this world on her own terms before her stage four cervical cancer fully takes hold, and they each share how much they’ve meant to one another.
“There’s one line where I say, ‘I had the best time.’ And I think when we did that in the table read, it gutted me because we really all have had some of the best times — some of the worst times and some of the best times — together. It really resonated for all of us,” says Cardellini, whose Judy vanishes into the ocean by the next morning. “When you see us cry, those are real tears of us knowing we’re saying goodbye.”
The third and final season was halfway done when Applegate received her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Feldman revealed that, since they only had Marsden for one month of shooting, they had filmed the first half of the season entirely out of order. They then paused for five months while Applegate began treatment and, determined to finish, returned on their star’s own terms to wrap the show. There are certain episodes where 10 months have gone by. But the goodbye scene that will serve as the show’s legacy, a moment between on and offscreen friends, was the final scene they shot.
Below, in a chat with , Cardellini opens up about that journey of finishing the series and the inspiring friendship at the core that kept them going — and how she wants Judy to be remembered.
Liz Feldman told THR in a recent interview that she didn’t have a plan going into Dead to Me, and that she plotted it organically with each season. How would you say Judy has evolved?
She was described as free-spirited and, it’s funny because yes, here’s this person who believes in lots of different things that other people want to call “woo-hoo” or whatever that is, but she’s also dealing with such trauma and grief that she’s sort of bound by that. But truly the thing that evolved the character most is her relationship with Jen, and that comes from my relationship with Christina. Her just brilliant ability onscreen, and our connection offscreen. That trust and love really worked its way into informing both of our characters, and where you would forgive and where you wouldn’t forgive. [In the first season,] Judy hit Jen’s husband with a car and she lies about it this whole time, and she moves in with her. How do you ever forgive that person? And it’s sort of all the in between things about their friendship that evolve.
My favorite thing as an actor is learning everything I need to learn exactly the way it needs to be learned, and then coming in and letting the relationship with the person across from me change that. And that’s what’s so wonderful about working with Christina. It’s very alive. Every moment is open to a new translation as you’re saying it. So having a partner like Christina, who I think finds the same joy in that, was such a wonderful partnership. We’ll be friends forever, but I’ll miss that partnership onscreen forever, too.
Dead to Me began with high plot stakes, but ended by orbiting around the two of you just being onscreen together, which was joyful to watch even when it was sad. Christina Applegate has spoken about finishing this season amid her diagnosis, crediting your support amid her determination. What was it like to go through that process together?
I just wanted her to do what was the best for her. I said, “It doesn’t matter about the show. Do what’s best for you. Nothing else matters but you.” Our health, our lives, that’s the most important thing. Jobs always come second. Her and I have both been in this industry long enough to realize things like that can come and go. But she was really determined to want to do it and, for any challenge we’ve been through throughout the years, because challenges do come into your life on a daily basis, we’ve always gotten through them together and none more so than this last season. Jen and Judy are friends, and you see them leaning on each other in the show. But Linda and Christina are also friends, and we leaned on each other. And, as I would lean on her, I would hope she would lean on me. I just wanted to be the best support for anything she needed. As I wanted to be the season before, I also wanted to be that this season amid extraordinary challenges. You just want what’s best for your friends, and you just want to love them. And we both mama bear each other. She’d do the same for me.
Since you had already filmed 50 percent of the show, out of order, by the time you paused, were any changes made to the story when you came back?
No, there were no changes, I don’t think, really made to the script at all. We loved the story. I loved the story. I think we were all committed to telling that story, and I think that didn’t change. There are certain things you can and can’t do, because of lots of different things, and those kinds of things are addressed. But I think what you see in the show is that Christina is absolutely as brilliant as she’s ever been, and she is just an incredible actress. She can really do it all, and I can’t wait for people to see how amazing she and the season are.
Was there anything you shot before the break that you wish you could now do differently?
Don’t start with that! Oh, all the Monday morning quarterbacking that I could do… That’s always the hardest part about watching yourself. What would I have done differently? It’s a job of endless possibilities and you can always go certain ways, but I always try to do what’s best and most real for the moment. I don’t love watching myself, I have to be honest. It is difficult and it will always be difficult — the same way you don’t want to hear your voice on a recorder. But I wanted to see the beautiful work that everyone else did. The show is not just about me. I love to watch all the work that people on screen and behind the screen do, from the set decorating to the locations, makeup and hair. Those are all my friends. So I watch, I have a hard time with myself — and then I watch it a second time and get over myself, and then it’s great and sort of a joy.
The moving finale and bittersweet ending was a cryfest between the two of you (and viewers). How much of that was Jen and Judy and how much of that was Linda and Christina?
It’s like 100 percent both, if that’s possible! It’s 100 percent Jen and Judy, and it’s 100 percent Linda and Christina. When you see us cry, those are real tears of us [Linda and Christina] knowing we’re saying goodbye. We’ll be friends forever, but we won’t be seeing each other on set every day. We were sitting on the bed and crying and, there was nothing pretty about it — there’s snot and we both look wrecked — and so we looked at each other and laughed. And then we looked behind the camera and there was Liz crying and all of our crew, producers — everyone was losing it. So, it wasn’t just us. It was the whole community saying goodbye, it’s just those words came out of Jen and Judy’s mouths.
There’s a whole sort of leaving [theme] that happens towards the end, and any time those lines came out, they were really tough for everybody. We were really happy to end the show in a way that was designed for us to end it, because you don’t always get that gift, right? It was a choice that Liz made, and a gift to be able to wrap something up in the way that it’s intended. Then you also have the idea that you really have to say goodbye to your every day. We spent a lot of time together on set. Sometimes 12-hour days, five days a week. You go through years together, and you see peoples’ lives change in good and bad ways. And that’s a really important thing, having the community we have to lean on when you’re going through some really extraordinary circumstances. We had a really hard time saying goodbye. Jen and Judy, and Linda and Christina were crying some really big tears, but I think it was felt throughout.
It’s heavy to confront mortality no matter what. The series finale of Grace and Frankie comes to mind, as Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin also dealt with death in their ending and were two friends who also had to say goodbye to the show. Then, given what’s going on behind the scenes here, how did you two get through it?
Together. We just get through it together. That’s what friends do. I’ve definitely been helped through things and I just wanted to be a friend to my friend. If she wants to work, then I’m going to help with that. If she wants to stay home, then I’m going to help with that. Whatever it takes to be a good friend. I think that’s one of the greatest compliments in life, when someone tells you that you are a good friend. So I’m striving to be it. You don’t always achieve it, but you hope you can be a good friend or a good partner, or whatever it is.
In the end, after Judy’s goodbye, you see her very omnipresent in Jen’s life (the paper cranes she folded during chemotherapy light up Jen’s son’s performance hall), even prompting Jen to seemingly confess to Ben about killing Steve in the final cut-to-black scene. How did you feel when you first read the ending for Judy and what would you say is her lasting impact?
Judy is just such a juicy role. Such an incredible role to play. She goes everywhere all of the time; in one scene, it’s A to Z. And that was just such an incredible gift. Liz always talks about the themes of the show, and how they’re always striving to capture those themes, which are grief, loss, forgiveness and friendship. And I think that’s what this ending puts into focus. I think Judy leaving in her way and going through what she goes through; and the testing of their friendship that’s happened through the years and where they end up; and how they help each other through some of the worst things and how they try to give each other the best sendoff that they possibly can — I think that speaks to a lot about friendship. I do think there’s something about grief where you can’t quite explain somebody once they’re gone. And I think that’s what Jen is left with: How would you explain Judy to somebody who has never met her?
An angel baby bird!
(Laughs.) What a great role to play. I’m a murderer and people still think I’m an angel baby bird! What a gift. What a cool part. It’s wrapped up in so much, but I think at the core of it all is that friendship. We’ve all gone through some form of grief that has shocked and hurt us, and I think being left with that emptiness but filled with that love is a contradiction we all have to deal with. Seeing Jen’s life move on without Judy is sad, but you also feel Judy all around her. But I do also wonder, how is she ever going to explain to that baby who Judy was? (Laughs.) You would not believe it if you didn’t see it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The final season of Dead to Me is now streaming on Netflix.