[This story contains spoilers for the finale of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story.]
The ending of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story was never in doubt: The real-life case ended as USA’s true crime anthology depicts it, with Broderick (Amanda Peet) sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for murdering her ex-husband, Dan (Christian Slater), and his second wife, Linda (Rachel Keller). Tuesday’s finale shows both trials that Betty Broderick went through (the first ended in a mistrial) before her conviction, where she tried to make her case on the witness stand and became, in showrunner Alexandra Cunningham’s words, “a folk hero” to some people, for whom her story of a woman wronged resonated.
“That really empowered her and made her very bold and unapologetic at a time when that was, in my opinion, not the way to go,” Cunningham told The Hollywood Reporter. “She really felt people were understanding what she went through for the first time, and that made it really difficult for her defense attorney.”
Cunningham spoke with THR about delving into the trial transcripts to see how Broderick’s psychology played out at trial, how her “rash attitude” ultimately ended up hurting her defense and where she’d like the next iteration of Dirty John, should there be one, to go.
What drove your decision to turn the finale into mostly a courtroom drama?
There’s no accurate or complete retelling of the Betty Broderick story without including the trials. Even the original CBS TV movies with Meredith Baxter Birney devoted the entire second movie to the trials. That’s how important they were. I think it’s precisely because that’s where the story took the bizarre turn where she became a folk hero to a lot of people. This story that she had been so desperate to tell her friends or anyone who would listen, and couldn’t find any ears at all, let alone a sympathetic one, suddenly she was getting that just by virtue of being featured in the media. People she had never met, in other countries, knew her story.
That really empowered her and made her very bold and unapologetic at a time when that was, in my opinion, not the way to go. She really felt people were understanding what she went through for the first time, and that made it really difficult for her defense attorney. At first, that made it difficult for the prosecution, but then I think they clued into what was going on and turned that against her. All of that to me was an emotionally evasive tactic to avoid facing the reality of what she had actually done. …
I feel like that infected her forever. That attitude is still present from what I can gather from her parole hearings — she’s still trying to make people acknowledge that they would have done the same thing. [Broderick has been denied parole three times.] I definitely think the courtroom is where that began.
Why was she on the witness stand so much? Was she driving that strategy, or did her lawyer think she’d be sympathetic?
I don’t actually think they ever debated whether she would tell her story or not. If that had been a thing her defense attorney, Jack Early, didn’t want to do, I never saw that anywhere. I definitely think he felt hearing from her directly was necessary for a lot of reasons. She is an articulate person. She’s very well able to express her emotional state to a certain extent. In the first trial, it definitely worked to have her on the stand. The way the prosecution went after her made it easier for her to react in an emotionally sympathetic way. I had 6,000 pages’ worth of transcripts from both trials, a thousand of which is Betty. It was fascinating just as a student of this kind of thing to watch that cross-examination evolve from one trial to the other.
It was definitely a thing I wanted to bring up, because in the courtroom you have a female assistant district attorney and a male defense attorney. The ADA was outraged on a number of justifiable levels, but also to watch one woman going after another woman — if you read [the transcripts], you can picture it — Betty so clearly wanted the ADA to like her, even on the stand. The ADA was going after her and saying things like “Dan didn’t have to pay you anything,” and Betty would say, “Yeah, I guess that’s true,” with tears in her eyes. What was the jury supposed to make of that? She just went after her like, “No wonder no one wanted to be friends with you, no wonder Dan thought you were crazy.” It gave Betty a real opportunity to go for sympathy — a lot of which she deserved, other than the act.
I also wanted to ask about the shift from the first to the second trial. What did you want to highlight about the prosecution’s change in strategy?
The thing that changed between the first and second trial, which we touch on a little bit, is for some reason, which I’m sure she was shocked at herself when it was over, the ADA did not ask Betty anything about what happened in the bedroom. She just abruptly changed the subject and asked about what happened afterward. … Betty herself was shocked, because she had been prepped by her defense attorney to expect it and was ready to give yet another version of it. She’d given a lot versions by that point and was ready, but didn’t get asked. So there was no ability by the ADA to confront her about all the different versions of what happened in that room, because she forgot? I don’t know — she got nervous, she got distracted. It never happened. I do think that made it easier for the members of the jury who were on the fence to not have to think about [the fact that] she shot people until the chambers were empty. It didn’t come up.
In the second trial, her defense attorney did say to her, she’s not going to do that again. This is too high-profile — no one’s going to let her forget to ask you. At that point, because of the mistrial, Betty was really feeling, “There’s a groundswell of support for me, they can’t convict me.” She got very proactive with her defense attorney with jury selection for the second trial. … That’s a very rash attitude to take given what’s at stake. She started really feeling her oats about it as a result of mistakes in the first trial that were not made in the second trial. For me that was also fascinating — the journey she should have been on versus the one she chose to be on. So much of it for me was her being able to distract herself with all of these details and feelings of finally being understood, to not think about what she had done in that room. And to think she could confuse and evade and distract everyone else from thinking about it also.
Were you were filming the courtroom scenes, how much did you lift from the trial transcripts?
So much. The great thing about it being public domain was I had these transcripts, and they were an embarrassment of riches. It gave me a great deal of respect for both of those lawyers. They were both coming from a place of emotional truth. Jack Early really did believe Betty had been driven to it. He really understood the concept of coercive control and the effect that everything she had gone through had on Betty. He was the best lawyer she could have had, I think. And [prosecutor] Kerry Wells, her point was, you can’t forget what happened here. I don’t agree necessarily with the position of “It doesn’t matter why,” or there wouldn’t be so many charges you could choose if it didn’t matter why. There’s a difference between involuntary manslaughter and first-degree murder because it does matter why.
Betty was such a mercurial person to have on the stand, and so cunning, and had something she was going to go really far to conceal, which is what happened. The dancing and weaving and crying — Kerry Wells really did have a difficult job, but she felt that justice needed to be served. Deciding what to pull from the transcripts and how to lay it out had a real effect on me.
What about Betty’s story do you think resonated with so many people who wrote to her and sent her things?
From the excerpts I’ve read, people were writing to her not just for one reason. Some people were writing to her because … they felt they had had the power of the legal system or of someone who knew how to use the legal system [used against them]. They had been damaged by that and had come to understand the concept of fairness being weaponized in the same way Betty did. There was a lot of resonance there: “I’ve been screwed over, you were screwed over, I understand what that’s like.”
There were people who had been divorced and for whom it was very specifically about divorce, or about adultery, or both: “I understand what it is to be lied to, to be betrayed, to be left for a younger woman, to not know what to do with my anger, to not know who I’m supposed to be anymore.” And there were some sort of ghoulish people who wrote to her. We show a couple examples of that in the show, people making T-shirts and other things with “Betty Broderick: Kill all the lawyers,” and things like that.
Betty had a very macabre sense of humor. The thing she says to her lawyer about at least bail being set for Jeffrey Dahmer — all of that was directly lifted from a conversation Bella Stumbo recounted [in her book about the case, Until the Twelfth of Never] where Betty said, “Maybe I should have eaten Dan and Linda.” If that’s not an example of how, even in this situation, Betty would say anything for a laugh — her sense of proportion is completely broken.
That and the calls she makes from jail about how she’s broken out …
Yeah, trying to revenge herself on her friends. I didn’t make that up (laughs), but I definitely wanted to show people that it happened.
If this case played out today, do you think the outcome would’ve been any different?
I’ve thought about this, and on one hand yes. I do think the way Jack Early and the witnesses and even those that were theoretically for the defense painted the picture of [Betty and Dan’s] life together, I think a lot more people would be more receptive to [the idea of] emotional manipulation and would understand the emotional extremis that would drive someone to.
But the other part of it is, if it were happening today, that would mean Betty was born around 1970, and a Betty born in 1970 as opposed to born in the ’50s is going to have been raised differently and have a different concept of what’s possible and the ways you can find identity, and probably more aware of resources and resilience. This is not to say it couldn’t happen today; it’s more that the Betty who would be tried today would be a different person. So it’s hard to picture it. I know that people would have heard her story more sympathetically, but would her story even exist in the way that it did? That’s not as certain.
Have you given thought to what the next season of Dirty John might be?
I have. We’re going to be having a conversation very soon. If it’s something that everyone is excited about as I and my executive producer Jessica Rhoades are, it will be super awesome.
How would you want to future seasons different from these two, whether it’s in the type of case or the type of people involved?
The stories we’ve been talking about are definitely different milieus than Orange/San Diego counties. But also, we consider our unifying principles to be love gone wrong and coercive control. … The thing I would love to do, all things being equal, to me the ultimate example of love gone wrong is familial. Not romantic love, not a couple, not a boyfriend-girlfriend like the first season or a married couple divorcing, but mother-child, siblings. Especially parentally, I think that’s where love gone wrong truly begins, that the love coming from a parent is not appropriate or twisted or not real, that is obviously one of the things that contributes to people’s future behavior. That’s something I’d love to explore if given the chance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.