'Dead to Me' Creator Breaks Down Season 2 Finale: "I'm Ripping Headlines Off a Telenovela"

Creator Liz Feldman — who reveals that amid the pandemic, "we got to finish the season just in the nick of time to be able to release it" — reveals James Marsden's pitch to return and where things stand with Jen and Judy now.
Netflix

[This story contains spoilers from the season two finale of Netflix's Dead to Me.]

The follow-up season to Netflix's twisty, murderous, female friendship love story Dead to Me picks up right where season one left off, with Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) scrambling to cover up Steve's (James Marsden) death and rebuild their bond. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Steve's twin brother, Ben (a slightly more disheveled Marsden), new relationships, police investigations and a cliffhanger finale that puts one of the women's lives in question. 

Creator Liz Feldman — who reveals that amid the pandemic, "we got to finish the season just in the nick of time to be able to release it" and hopes to "give people something to distract them from this craziness" — talks to The Hollywood Reporter about how Marsden's return came together, why the introduction of new romances and where things stand after that finale. 

The idea of Steve having a twin brother who would show up right after his death — how early on did you know that would be the twist to kick off season two?

Before we got the season two pickup but after season one was released and it was being received in a positive way, people seemed to really like it. I was in touch with James Marsden and he had emailed me just saying thank you for the season and being so sweet, and he made a joke and he said, "Is there any way a person can survive a traumatic brain injury and drowning? Because it'd be so fun to keep working together." I absolutely loved working with him and I thought, "Oh, God, I wish there was a way to un-kill Steve," but I do want the show to exist in some form of reality, and I don't think you can bait and switch in that way, it wouldn't feel right, and as an audience member I'd be kind of annoyed. But when I started thinking like, "Well, how else could we have him back?" I just immediately obviously thought "twin" and when I just thought it inside my head, I started laughing out loud in my house. I just thought it was so preposterous and stupid and hilarious and obviously such a trope — I'm ripping off the headlines of a telenovela here. But I thought, "Maybe there's a way to do it, I don't know," and then I sat down and I had lunch with my best friend, Kelly Hutchinson, who's also a writer on the show. I told her about his email, and literally at the same exact time, we looked at each other, and we both said, "twins?" I hadn't said it to her before that, she had the thought independently and we started laughing so loud in this cafe. I just thought, "This is crazy," and then I pitched it to a couple of the other writers and everybody just thought like, "Yeah, that's hilarious and so weird."  As soon as we decided that that's what it would be, I started to think about who that character would be and how he would be so different than Steve and what could make him interesting and different and what could bring us story for the second season. So much of what you saw came to me pretty quickly in terms of his unfurling relationship with Jen and the fact that he has things that he's working through himself. That's sort of how it happened. 

Jen and Judy both have new relationships this season, why did you want to give them that? 

They had both been through such a loss and I think there's an aspirational element to the show in general, but also in my own experience of loss and watching loved ones go through losing a spouse is it takes time and obviously nobody is going to move on right away, though some people do and that's fine. We just, as a room, were kind of craving a little bit of romance, and I think from the depths and then the shallows of their grief, it felt like it was something they could both really use to help bring the characters back to life, to imbue a little bit of hope into their stories, and to also reveal sides of them that we wouldn't be able to. We just kind of went for it because it felt good.

For Judy’s relationship with Michelle (Natalie Morales), there’s no big coming-out moment about having a gay relationship or questions from Jen, it’s all done very casually. Why did you want to portray it that way?

It was important to me to portray it just as any new relationship unfolding. When a straight couple hooks up for the first time you don't have to make a big pronouncement about it, doesn't need to be a whole conversation. A woman gets together with a guy on a TV show, she doesn't need to have a sit-down with her friend telling her "Listen, I like guys," you know, "I like guys and that's just who I am." As ridiculous as that sounds, it's like the version where Judy would have to have some sit-down conversation with Jen just felt kind of ridiculous to me. As a gay woman myself, I've had the opportunity to tell coming-out stories and I think there's a time and a place for them — and they're incredibly helpful and they can be incredibly transformative for audience members —but that's just not what I wanted to do here. I wanted to show the opposite of that, which is just a person entering a relationship and not hanging any hats on it and just letting it exist for what it is, which is just a new relationship. I have a lot of friends who are women in their 40s and sometimes they date women and sometimes they don't. Not that I think we're in a fully post-coming-out world, but for this season, I wanted to live in one.

Why did you decide to have Detective Perez let Jen go after she confessed to killing Steve? 

I was so taken with Diana Maria Riva, who's the actress who plays Perez, after working with her on season one. We knew that we really wanted to delve into her character and three-dimensionalize her more, to make her feel like a part of this world with Jen and Judy. I had come up with the idea for the cliffhanger at the end of episode six where you realize that Perez is this person, I had come up with that pretty early in forming season two and I started to think about who she would really be.

We're dealing a lot with mother relationships in season two and, for me, I'm always interested in exploring it from as many sides as possible. In thinking about who this woman really is and how she came to be, we thought it would be really interesting to give her a similar kind of loss to Jen, that she had lost her mother as well. I wanted to humanize her and make her a vulnerable person, show a side of her that you would never expect from just the cop character. We tried to essentially set her up in this way and unravel her character in such a way that you would believe that for this moment, she doesn't want to take another mom away from her kids, that she just chooses in this moment to be a human being, exactly what she says — she just doesn't want to be that person in this moment, she just wants to be a human being. So hopefully we've earned that, and I just think she's such a phenomenal actress and I can't wait for people to see her in this.

It seems in that final episode they've found Steve's body in the woods. Jen and Judy think they're safe now, but does this reopen things?

Maybe. Is that coy enough for you?

We end the season with Jen and Judy being hit at the stop sign by Ben — can you walk me through coming up with that finale?

On this show, we're trying to outdo ourselves but in a way that still feels grounded in this world. It was pitched pretty early on in the season that the finale end in that manner, and for me it had to sort of pass the test of like, is this really earned? Are we setting this up in a way that it can be as surprising as it is inevitable? It was pitched early on and we thought about different ways of ending it, but we always kept coming back to this end because it felt like such a full-circle, karmic moment while still being able to deliver the kind of surprise and delight that I want to leave people with.

We see Jen get fairly injured in the crash, but she seems to be talking. Is she OK? 

I don't know that it means that.

The whole season, Jen's son, Charlie, has been around the edge of finding out what happened with Steve. Does him finding Judy’s letter mean he finally learned the truth?

He's found Judy's letter and Jen has definitely revealed things in that letter that Charlie does not know and we'll have to see what he does with that information.

What is the future like for those relationships with Ben and Michelle? Could we see those come back?

I love both of those characters very much and I think it can be really interesting to see them come back. I don't want to make any promises because I haven't started the writers' room yet and sometimes things have a way of changing but I mean, if it were up to me, which I guess it is, I'd love to see those two characters again.

Again this season you tackle so many bigger issues — alcoholism, verbal abuse, family trauma — how do you balance those things with the show also being a comedy?

I think I always just try to write the show as true to life as possible, and though some of the events that are happening around these ladies are a bit heightened, ultimately the feelings that they're experiencing are very authentic and grounded. For any of us day-to-day, you can have some really crazy shit happen but then end up having like a hilarious time with your best friend, or you can start off thinking that it's going to be a great day and get terrible news. Life is more than one genre at a time and that's how I balance it, which is to say that I just try to make it feel a little bit like life, but a little bit heightened, because it's a TV show. But I say that I am the arbiter of the tone, so sometimes we might write a version of a scene that does feel a little bit dark when we put it on its feet and we're there with Christina and Linda, sometimes we'll have them improvise a lighter exchange, we'll put that in and it feels like it balances out a little bit. So it's an organic process as we are shooting the show in terms of surfing that tonal wave.

There's a lot of personal growth and self-exploration this season. Why was that important? 

I think when you go through traumatic events, you hopefully come out of it having learned something and you hopefully come out of it a little bit more evolved than how you went into it. But I think also what we all know as people — and I think what we're expressing with the show — is you also are who you are, nobody changes in their core. My mother always tells me that I'm exactly the same person now as I was when I was in her womb, so there is obviously a core identity that everybody has but hopefully, especially as women in their 40s, there's still opportunity to grow and there's opportunity to look at yourself and face your demons and ask yourself tough questions. I think that's the power of a good friendship — it's the person who holds that mirror up to you to show you who you really are. 

Dead to Me season two is streaming now on Netflix. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.