Netflix’s ‘Dead to Me’ killed off James Marsden. In Season 2, he steals the show
The following story contains spoilers from the second season of Netflix’s “Dead to Me.”
The first season of “Dead to Me” ended with James Marsden’s character dead in the water — face down, eyes open, blood coming out of his head. The lying, cheating, money-laundering Steve Wood was a floating corpse in a pool, and Jen Harding and Judy Hale — played by Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, respectively — were trading panicked glances when the finale cut to black.
What really happened that night is revealed throughout the second season, which premiered Friday on Netflix. While the 10 episodes are sprinkled with flashbacks of a cold, harsh Steve, they also include scenes with his warm, semi-identical twin brother Ben, also played by Marsden.
Yes, having an actor re-enter a show as a previous character’s never-before-mentioned twin is a tired soap opera trope. But anyone who dismisses this season because of it would be missing a standout performance by Marsden, one that defies expectations after a career playing suave, powerful men.
As Ben, the 46-year-old actor is comically awkward and square, fumbling over his punchlines and dropping “coolio” and “wigging out” into conversations. He’s had his share of pain; it’s made him kind and sensitive. Soon, Jen is falling for him, while the audience has forgotten that Steve and Ben are played by the same person.
The Times spoke with Marsden and “Dead to Me” creator/showrunner Liz Feldman about transcending the trope and leaving viewers with another bloody cliffhanger. The following has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Liz Feldman, creator and showrunner of Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” explains how the coronavirus outbreak has reshaped her life — and her thinking about the show.
There’s no question: Steve is dead. How did Ben come to be?
James Marsden: Season 1 was a massive hit. That’s great! But then I was like, “Oh ... I’m dead. I’m floating in a pool, fully, fully dead, with blood coming out of my head.” I emailed Liz to congratulate her on the extreme success of the show, and I said, “P.S. Is there any way to survive a head wound slash drowning? Even if it’s in a funny way? Like I can only move my left hand and the right side of my face? Because it’d be so great to keep working together.”
Liz Feldman: I couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with James Marsden again. Sometimes you get the right combination of writer and actor, and I loved writing for him. After I got his email, I thought, what if there was a way to keep him on? I definitely didn’t want to make it that somehow Steve had survived — that just seemed like a bridge too far.
I was pacing around my house and thought, “Is it crazy to make him a twin?” Once I allowed myself to think that, I started laughing out loud by myself and I just couldn’t stop laughing. It was so ridiculous! But once I started to really delve into who this character could be — what kind of person would be the twin brother of a person like Steve — Ben started to form. And it started to seem really compelling that Jen would have to repeatedly look at the face of the man she killed.
Were you nervous about making Ben distinct from Steve in the audience’s eyes?
Feldman: We knew that in order to pull this off, we had to make it grounded and real for the people who were experiencing this, and we had to three-dimensionalize Ben. It is certainly a risky choice, but I’m glad we did it.
Marsden: I’ve never played a character who was a twin, and I’m fully aware that stepping into this kind of thing could be very tricky. You don’t want it to come off like a gimmick. I’ll be honest, I was nervous. The whole season kind of hinges on this. I remember going into my first day of work, and the first words out of Christina’s mouth were, “Wow, so, twin? OK, well, no pressure!” And in a separate conversation, Linda was like, “Twin, huh? Don’t sink our ship!”
Feldman: We did all this research and found that it’s fairly common that one twin is more dominant. I thought, what if Ben had a health issue he was born with that maybe made his life more challenging, that things didn’t come as easily to him? How would that inform what kind of man he becomes? It was important to create a believable inverse of Steve — not just a polar opposite but a nuanced, textured character who is believable in his own trauma and pain, because that’s one of the threads that all our characters share.
Marsden: Ben couldn’t be more different from Steve. It’s that nature-versus-nurture thing: these guys had the exact same start and they look similar physically, but they’re completely different people inside — meaning, in their hearts and minds and souls. He was always the one who was maybe not as charming or smart or cutthroat or good at sports. He doesn’t always get the girl, he’s never been a top dog or a hot shot; he was always living in Steve’s shadow, his whole life. But I think that created a better human being, a character who was more sympathetic, more honest, a better man. And even though his heart was complicated physically, he has a much more pure heart.
Ben says and does and wears things Steve never would, but he’s also specifically awkward in a way that’s endearing. How’d that happen?
Marsden: Ben can’t feel like the same guy, and it can’t feel like “James Marsden is just parting his hair on the other side, and wearing a vest and an Eddie Bauer shirt.” There’s got to be a lot more to it.
Feldman: In the hands of a lesser actor, it might never transcend the trope. ... As soon as he started playing Ben, it was delightful from the get-go. He would do these super dorky gesticulations — like, the way he used his arms and hands to, you know, put the period at the end of a sentence.
Marsden: The fun part with Ben is he’s not that sharp or quick, socially. He tries to be funny in a self-deprecating way, and most of the time it falls flat. I have to credit Liz for really being my guide throughout the whole season. She’d say, “Let’s dial up the dorkiness here,” and “Be careful when you say this, because — and I’d never thought I’d ask this of you — you can’t be too charming, that’s not Ben.”
Let’s talk about those dance moves. The worm! That “Magic Mike” moment!
Marsden: Oh, God. [laughs] I remember reading the script and it said, “Ben does a little tap step,” and I don’t know how to tap. But I can joke dance, you know? I don’t usually get to play characters with this quality of unabashed goofiness — “Enchanted” was probably the closest — but I honestly think I’m better at playing those guys that are more goofy than I am playing somebody who’s super cool.
Feldman: It’s very hard to tap dance and I have a lot of respect for people who do it, but there’s something about this middle-aged guy saying he could tap dance that seemed like “peak dorkiness.”
Marsden: Then we immediately do a 180 and I start talking about my brother Steve: the regret and guilt I have about the last time I saw him, how I said awful things to him and I could never see him again and won’t be able to repair that. I haven’t seen the episodes yet, but I just made an absolute fool of myself on that kitchen floor and then, a minute later, Ben is fighting back tears about his brother. I’m glad Liz believed in me that I could pull it off — without pulling a hamstring.
Ben becomes a romantic interest for Jen, which sounds surprising but works on screen.
Marsden: He genuinely wins Jen over by just being attentive and affectionate, along with how all his attempts at being funny just fall flat. Jen is kind of like, “Strangely, his twin brother is making me restore my faith in love.”
Feldman: Jen had been in this relationship with her husband that was really fraught: He wasn’t making her feel like a lovable, desirable woman. We wanted to see what it’d be like if a good, kind man who actually understood and related to her in a pretty deep way, how it could soften her and reveal sides to her we hadn’t seen. That’s the fun of bringing them closer together: They could be a great couple, if only she hadn’t murdered his brother!
In that last episode, is what Ben hears on that phone call written in the script?
Marsden: No. Liz gave me a brief idea of what the call was about; we started shooting and I just needed more. I asked if she would walk away from the monitor, stand off-camera and talk to me as the person on the other line. That flipped the switch. It felt real.
I don’t remember exactly what she said; there weren’t any real details. Something along the lines of, “I’m sorry to tell you that your brother is not with us anymore” and “We found him.”
Feldman: That scene was really important for us to get right. I don’t want to say exactly what I said because it’s stuff we could potentially address, should we be lucky enough to get a third season.
The final frames show a drunken Ben driving away from his car crash with Jen and Judy. Does he realize who he’s hit? Why does he leave, and where does he go?
Marsden: I will preface this by saying this is complete speculation: No, I don’t think he knows who he’s hit. I think he’s blackout drunk, and I’m imagining that he drove away because his body just went into survival mode.
He might have driven to the beach to try to sober up, he was too scared to drive home. He probably won’t remember any of it, and the only thing that will be a reminder that it happened is his dented car and his bloody, broken nose or something.
Feldman: I don’t know if all of that’s true, but what I will corroborate is that he is definitely extremely drunk and leaves the scene out of survival, absolutely. But you’re gonna have to wait until a potential Season 3 to find that out!
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