07:45, June 06 86 0 abajournal.com

2019-06-06 07:45:06
‘Dead to Me’ is entertaining but digs only so deep into degrees of culpability

Dead to Me

Christina Applegate (front) and Linda Cardellini star in “Dead to Me.” Photo from Netflix.

Stop right here if you still haven't watched (or are at least planning to watch) Netflix's newest dark comedy, Dead to Me. Reader beware: There are a few spoilers ahead. I'm not going to give everything away, but this column will touch on a few of the series's surprise twists and turns.

From the looks of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, perpetual content-creation king Netflix has done it again. Both aggregator sites give Dead to Me high marks, and rightfully so. The series is a morbidly fun “whodunit” with enough suspense to keep viewers guessing, and a balance of high- and low-brow humor to simultaneously keep them laughing as well.

Another plus? You can watch all 10 30-minute episodes in one lazy weekend afternoon. Believe me … I watched my wife do it. It was entertaining enough to keep my attention as I meandered throughout my weekend tasks, but not so detail-oriented that I couldn’t hop in and out of the narrative. Not all death is treated equally.

The series stars Christina Applegate as a mother and wife who loses her husband in a tragic hit-and-run accident. Applegate’s character, Jen Harding, is a strong woman who is working to cope with such a painful loss and still function in her role as a provider and parent. She begins to attend a grief group, where she meets Judy Hale (played by Linda Cardellini), another woman who has lost the man she loves.

With local law enforcement failing to give her the closure she so desperately needs, Jen spends a great deal of her time searching for the vehicle that hit her husband. She develops an obsession with driving around inspecting vehicle bumpers sporting human-sized damage. She feels, perhaps rightfully so, that law enforcement has given up on trying to find her husband’s killer. Much of the show focuses on Jen’s difficulty accepting that the perpetrator may never be apprehended.

Which makes the initial big reveal all the better. By the end of the first episode, you know Judy ran over Jen’s husband. Talk about a potential obstacle to a budding friendship.

Consequently, an excellent dynamic develops between both character arches: Jen is constantly angry, not only regarding the loss her family unfairly suffered, but also with the impression law enforcement won’t spend the time and resources she believes her husband’s death deserves. Judy, on the other hand, is constantly in fear that Jen and other non-law enforcement citizens will find out her horrible secret.

It does appear that Jen and her assortment of friends spend more time looking into the situation than law enforcement, and the series implies that the cops are simply too busy to find out who mowed down a pedestrian. Sadly, that is often the case in real life as well. The hopes of finding a hit-and-run perpetrator in a large city are extremely difficult absent eyewitnesses or other circumstantial evidence.

There are moments when Judy refers to herself as a murderer even though the killing she caused was accidental. She is corrected by her lawyer boyfriend, though, as he explains that she committed manslaughter, at worst. The distinction is essential in more ways than one. Obviously, the potential legal ramifications are less harsh for someone facing manslaughter, as opposed to murder, charges. For the purposes of Dead to Me, though, the differences manifest internally as well.

One of the series’s most interesting aspects is the way it subtly touches on the mental ramifications various parties might manifest depending on their role in a killing and connection to the deceased. The audience observes the fallout, not only in the way the death affects Jen and her two sons, but also in regard to Judy as well.

Depending on the circumstances surrounding a death, it’s arguably easier for someone to cope with the guilt of killing another person. That premise presumes, of course, that the person in question subscribes to the same social contract as the majority. Taking another person’s life is bad, and people should, in turn, feel bad when they commit those actions in varying degrees depending on their culpability.

In Judy’s case, the fact that her negligent driving led to the death of a pedestrian gives her a blatant excuse for trying to hide the killing, but she is continuously able to fall back on the self-assurance that it was “only” an accident. She is competent, and she knows the incident was not a premeditated killing with malice aforethought. It wasn’t a murder, but an action that she nevertheless declines to disclose to Jen. In Judy’s mind, she feels she can still “make it right” in other ways.

As one would imagine, the series builds quite a bit of tension between the main characters, and the feeling is furthered by the audience’s omniscient understanding of Jen’s husband’s demise and Judy’s refusal to admit her role in it. Because Judy won’t come clean as her friendship with Jen continues to blossom, viewers are left to speculate when the reveal will occur. Consequently, the series does a great job of allowing the audience to grow more and more resentful toward both the cat in the bag and the person who won’t release him.

The growing resentment leads to the story’s crucial question: What do you do when you find the person who took a loved one from you? What is “justice”? What if Jen were to kill Judy for killing her husband? Would she then be a “murderer”?

As we lawyers love to say, “tt depends.”

What are the circumstances surrounding this hypothetical killing? What is the triggerwoman’s mindset when the pin hits the shell? Is there meaningful temporal distance between the killer’s inevitable discovery and their actions resulting in another’s death? If so, that would arguably present an opportunity for the person committing the killing to contemplate their actions…

If a person has the ability and opportunity to “cool off” or actually consider their decision, and they still kill someone regardless, they’re most likely looking at a charge of first-degree murder. At the end of the day, malice aforethought is all that distinguishes a lesser degree of killing—such as murder in the second degree, felony murder, negligent homicide or some degree of manslaughter—from murder in the first degree. If the killing is more reactionary/accidental, then it’s more likely to fall into a lesser degree.

The series doesn’t touch on the topic much from a legal perspective, which seems like a missed opportunity, seeing as Judy’s boyfriend is an attorney who knows all too well about Jen’s husband’s ultimate demise. A potential second season?

By the last episode, it’s fairly obvious how the series will end (to a degree). Other players begin to catch on to the idea that Judy is responsible for Jen’s husband’s death. Characters are beginning to discuss the possession and use of firearms. One neighbor gushes about your right to shoot someone if they don’t leave your home after you ask.

Without giving away everything, a significant player does die in the last episode, leaving the audience with a classic cliffhanger. In and of itself, the ending is enjoyable, and its open-ended nature allows the viewer to come to a sensible conclusion as to the characters’ inevitable fates.

At the same time, though, the finale also acts as a perfect setup for a second season. If Netflix does move forward with a second season, I hope they will offer a little more insight into the legal distinctions and justifications that differentiate degrees of culpability. That’s really all season one lacked.

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Law Offices of Adam R. Banner, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seem to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

Week News

Month News

Year News