True Crime Tuesdays: Dirty John Season 2
Helen Archer | On 25, Aug 2020
On Tuesdays, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
The first edition of the Dirty John anthology told the story of John Meehan, a con artist and sociopath who preyed on women – notably Debra Newell, played by Connie Britton. This second season carries the same name, and is very loosely thematically connected – both instalments are about romantic relationships with men who gradually reveal themselves to be a whole lot less perfect than they initially seem. But Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story recounts a completely different, yet equally notorious, true crime.
Even if you’ve never heard of Betty Broderick before, or seen A Woman Scorned, the 1992 Lifetime movie starring Meredith Baxter Birnie, you can ascertain from the first episode exactly how it’s going to end. Betty is still in prison for the 1989 murder of her ex-husband Dan Broderick and his new wife Linda Kolkena. This is a programme built less on suspense than it is on creeping psychological horror, documenting the process by which Betty, played here by Amanda Peet, felt she was driven to double murder.
Creator Alexandra Cunningham is well-versed in writing in this milieu, having cut her teeth as a writer and producer on Desperate Housewives. This anthology shares that slightly kitschy aesthetic. And, much like its Bravo stablemate The Real Housewives, it is ripe for ridicule – or at least ironic detachment. Yet, while portraying lives lived in seemingly gilded privilege, Peet’s central performance elevates the story into something much more universally relatable.
It starts off a tale as old as time. After Betty’s tough early years of supporting her husband, financially and emotionally, through medical and law school, Dan (Christian Slater) starts making money – and lots of it. The family move from the chilly east coast to the sunshine of La Jolla, where they are living the American dream – a life of fancy houses, expensive clothes, and exclusive country club memberships. Then, Dan meets a younger woman, and starts planning to leave his wife, taking the money – and the lifestyle – with him.
While ‘Dirty’ John Meehan was an almost pantomime villain, Dan Broderick is all-too-recognisable – a duplicitous man trying to hoard his fortune from the wife he plans to divorce. It is Betty’s reaction to this generic betrayal which sets her story apart. In the first series, Debra Newell’s naivety and sweet-heartedness in the face of hardship could sometimes be frustrating. But Betty Broderick is a ball of pure fury, as she gradually discovers deception after deception. This fury is constantly used against her by her conniving husband, yet she finds catharsis in it, and finds herself trapped in a compulsive cycle of impotent anger.
The injustices come thick and fast for Betty, who struck a chord at the time of her crime with women around the United States, who found they could identify with the way in which she’d been treated. But she also fought hard against the notion that she was a woman scorned, motivated by jealousy and greed. This dramatisation doesn’t shy away from the fact that she is often her own worst enemy – whether she’s refusing to turn up to court dates, leaving long, abusive messages on Dan’s answering machine, driving her car into the front of his new house, or breaking in to smash up his belongings with a hammer. But it presents these acts not as rages motivated by jealousy, but as subversive attacks on injustice. She’s smashing up property, but she’s also smashing down the edifice of what is deemed acceptable behaviour – both her own and her husband’s.
The series is dominated by the fantastically nuanced performance of Amanda Peet, whose face, often in close up, betrays every emotion as it happens, sometimes within the same shot – going from hope to despair to sheer, unadulterated rage. Shining through the 1980s soundtrack, the blue eyeshadow, frosted lipstick and flicked hair, she brings a gravity and humanity to her character, becoming something of an Everywoman. As Dan Broderick, Christian Slater doesn’t have much to do, other than be occasionally weaselly, occasionally superior – two emotions which he consistently taps into with great success. Chris Mason does a spookily accurate impersonation of Slater’s distinctive rasping voice in flashbacks to the Broderick’s early marriage, and Tiera Skovbye plays a younger, more innocent version of what Betty would become.
But the programme belongs to Peet, who portrays Betty’s constant self-sabotage as heroically human. It’s a hard act to pull off, and she never shies away from the character’s brittleness and unlikeability. Yet by the end, what could just have been a surface retelling of an infamous 1980s morality tale is reframed for a new audience who are perhaps more adept at spotting the injustices and power imbalances of the past, and the murderous effect they can have.
Dirty John is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.