Grief, loss, friendship all hit home for Linda Cardellini with the end of ‘Dead to Me’

Linda Cardellini in the light.
“She really goes out of her way to do the right thing and inevitably does the wrong thing,” Linda Cardellini says of her “Dead to Me” character, Judy.
(Erica Devin Snyder / For The Times)

In the third and final season of Netflix’s pitch-dark comedy series “Dead to Me,” the show’s many twists and turns give way to one that few viewers likely saw coming — and sent the acclaimed show out on a stirring and poignant note.

Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), two mismatched women who develop a deep and unlikely friendship after Judy accidentally kills Jen’s husband in a hit-and-run, tangle with their share of moral, ethical, criminal and emotional issues. And, though Jen had a history with breast cancer, Judy’s physical health was rarely a factor. That is until she learns she has late-stage cervical cancer.

In a case of life echoing — if not exactly duplicating — art, in 2021, while filming Season 3, Applegate was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So, in the show, as Jen was tending to the ailing Judy, off set, Cardellini was supporting good friend Applegate as she navigated her newfound illness.


The warm and expressive Cardellini recently spoke by phone from her Los Angeles home about the joy of playing Judy (for which she earned an Emmy nomination in 2020) and the series’ powerful themes of grief, loss and friendship.

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini in a hospital scene from "Dead to Me."

It often happens over the course of a TV series, but I think it’s especially true to say that Judy and Jen went through some really quantum changes. Did you have any sense of Judy’s wild journey when you began?

Reading the pilot, I wasn’t sure of anything. And then, when that twist [that Judy caused Jen’s husband’s death] happens at the end, you think, “Oh, who is this person?” It became evident that she is much more than you think. She wasn’t just trying to manipulate somebody for her own gain, she was just this person trying to fix an unfixable mistake. And trying to seek out love in the meantime.

Since her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, Christina Applegate doesn’t anticipate joining a new series anytime soon. That’s why her SAG nomination — and her loving friendship with Linda Cardellini — mean so much.

Feb. 7, 2023

Judy is just full of surprises. How did she surprise you most?

The most fun thing was sort of [discovering] all of her bad decisions, because she makes them with her heart completely in the right place. She really goes out of her way to do the right thing and inevitably does the wrong thing.


As an actor, how did you approach bringing this complicated but endearing character to life?

To find out that Judy can’t say no to anybody and that she has a hard time getting angry informed me a lot. I don’t think Judy necessarily does what she likes; I think she does what other people like. I think she feels fulfilled by connecting with people, and I think she longs for it so much.

One of the fun things I decided early on was that Judy’s never trying to lie — even when she is on the verge of telling the truth and her face almost belies what she says. [But] she’s actually a brilliant liar because, in the moment, she’s connecting so deeply with somebody that she just goes with whatever feels good — for the other person.

Linda Cardellini.

Were you ever concerned that the audience would be kept at a distance from Judy at the start because she killed Jen’s husband? That’s a tough thing to get past.

Of course! And mostly, I just wanted the friendship to work, because the truth of the show is really about their friendship. It’s a mountain to climb to start it somewhere where the audience knows you’re lying to somebody who’s in an incredibly vulnerable state. I really wanted the audience to believe our friendship despite all of those imperfections.


The irony of Judy’s demise in the show is that, in reality, Christina Applegate became the one dealing with a life-altering health issue. What was that development like for you as actors and as friends?

We knew the script before Christina’s diagnosis happened. [But] I think, as it happens with anything, sometimes when you’re working, your real life creeps into things, and certain things you say or do hit certain buttons. We’re very lucky that we have a really caring and supportive relationship so that, whatever came at us, we were able to help each other through.

There were definitely bigger challenges on this third season, so it’s a massive reward that we get to have it out there.

In the final episode, the dying Judy disappears, presumably via sailboat. It’s a bit ambiguous — but also fitting and beautiful. How do you interpret what’s happened to her?

If everybody can just imagine that Judy floated away into the sunset, like you would imagine Judy might like to do, and then keep it open-ended, maybe that feeling allows for other people to sort of move forward with their lives. I think that’s the most powerful part about the show because I feel like, in the great moments of grief, when I’ve lost somebody traumatically, there’s just a hole where that person used to be. But they leave sort of an indelible mark.

If Judy could say anything to Jen from, well, “beyond,” what would it be?


You’re doing great.

Linda Cardellini photographed at the Netflix offices on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, CA on April 24, 2023.