Dead to Me ended its three-season run on Netflix much the same way in which it began, with Christina Applegate’s Jen in mourning. This time, instead of grieving the sudden death of her husband, she was reeling from the tragic loss of her BFF Judy (Linda Cardellini), who succumbed to stage 4 cervical cancer in the series’ final episode.
Or did she?
In the closing moments of the Liz Feldman-penned and directed swan song, “We’ve Reached the End,” Jen cryptically announces to her newly-minted baby daddy Ben, “I have to tell you something.” The screen then cuts to black.
Of course, conventional wisdom strongly suggests that she was about to finally confess to her role in the Season 1 death of his twin brother, Steve. However, given Dead to Me‘s tradition of wackadoodle plot twists, it’s also possible she was about to drop a bombshell regarding Judy’s actual fate.
“It’s left ambiguous,” Cardellini concedes to TVLine. “Maybe at the end Jen is gonna say what you think she’s going to say to Ben. Or maybe she’s going to say something about Judy.”
In an effort to get a smidge more clarity on the issue, we rang up Feldman — Dead to Me‘s creator and showrunner — and lightly grilled her about that climactic curveball (among other burning finale Qs).
TVLINE | Was it always your plan for Judy to die in the finale?
No. When I conceived the series I did not know how the series would end. I knew how I thought the first season would end, but then what happens is you get into a room with extremely talented writers and someone comes up with a better idea. And that was exactly what happened. One of my writers, Abe Sylvia, pitched that Jen should kill Steve at the end of Season 1. And that changed the entire course of the series. I did know when we were about halfway through shooting Season 2 that I wanted to end the show [with Judy dying]. I wasn’t 100 percent sure how [exactly] I was going to do it. But then the pandemic hit and we were all kind of going through this existential crisis together and experiencing all of this ambiguous grief with this unseen force out there that could get us at any moment. And that sort of helped me find the way I was going to bring Judy to her end.
TVLINE | We don’t actually see Judy die…
I left it ambiguous because I want people to project their own ending onto it. I didn’t spell out the ending. I didn’t show you exactly what happened deliberately, because I wanted it to feel like an experience of grief. When you really love someone and they’re here one day and gone the next you’re sort of like, “What happened? Where are they?” Someone once said that death often feels like someone just walked into the next room. I was essentially trying to give the audience that feeling. The feeling that you don’t quite know what happens when someone passes. And we don’t even know if Judy [dies].
TVLINE | That ambiguity feeds into the cliffhanger, in which we’re led to think Jen is going to tell Ben about Steve. But perhaps she have new information about Judy’s fate?
Either one can be true. [Laughs] I’m really happy to say that what you see is exactly how I meant it to be. I know that maybe by not giving a definitive answer that’s not satisfying, but that’s [consistent with] the experience of losing someone. You don’t get all of the answers. You don’t get to ask them any more questions
TVLINE | I read that the final scene that you shot was the moment in the finale where Jen and Judy are holding each other in bed crying. What was that experience like for you?
We shot that scene last on purpose because I knew it was going to be so hard to get through. What was incredible was every take was wonderful. Those ladies were so present. Because not only was it a scene where Jen and Judy are saying goodbye without [literally] saying goodbye, but Christina and Linda are saying goodbye — to the characters, to the show, to this working relationship that they had. And you can feel it. It was so palpable. Every take was great. There was one take that was particularly beautiful and I didn’t think we needed anything more but I knew that I should give Christina and Linda the option [to do it again]. So I went up to them and said, “Look, we really have it. So we could be done.” They looked at each other and then they looked at me and they were like, “Let’s just do it one more time.” So they did it one more time. And It was incredible. I cried. They cried. It was a really powerful last night on set.
TVLINE | How much of that emotion was about the show ending, and how much was it about all the challenges you faced in finishing this third season, including the pandemic and Christina’s MS diagnosis?
That particular moment was really just about that meta feeling of saying goodbye to the characters as they’re saying goodbye to each other. And saying goodbye to the show as a whole. It was people realizing, “S–t, this is it. This is our final collaboration.” You build a community with the people you work with, especially through difficult times. And I felt really lucky that I got to choose to end [the show with Season 3]. So many show creators don’t get to have that choice. There was a feeling of real gratitude that we got to say goodbye the way we wanted to.