[Warning: The following post spoilers about Episode 5 of Dirty John ahead. This story also discusses domestic abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, you can visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website here or call 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.]
One of the reasons Dirty John has been so engrossing thus far is the frustration of watching Debra Newell (Connie Britton) cast aside basic discernment and sound judgment to stay with a man who's clearly bad news. You want to yell at the screen as Debra purrs and coos at John (Eric Bana) to mend his fragile ego after her children (rightfully) put him in his place, or when she marries him (in Vegas!) on a whim without once pausing to consider her business or her children's future. It's been infuriating, and yet still not enough to be mad at Debra for her choices — until now. If Debra Newell's naïveté stretched patience in Episodes 1 through 4, wait until you watch Episode 5, because you ain't seen nothing yet.
Sunday's "Lord High Executioner" accomplishes a lot: It shows, via flashbacks, how John was groomed to be a lowlife by his father; it shows how fully and deeply John infiltrated Debra's mind; and it shows how Debra's choice to stay with this guy cost her the acceptance of her own family. But all that is small potatoes to the most shocking thing it reveals, which is Debra returning to John, again, after she's already discovered that John is a lying ex-con who's been convicted of stalking, violating a restraining order and was attempting to assemble a gun since he wasn't allowed to have one.
The episode shows how Debra, who was so understandably shaken after learning the truth about her husband was she was briefly hospitalized, went back to John after learning that he was not only a liar but dangerous too. You may have wanted to scream at Debra before; now, it is temping to write her off completely. We shouldn't though, because while Debra may be behaving like a fool in love, she has done nothing immoral or illegal. And her decision to stay with him, frustrating though it may be, hardly makes her unique.
John has yet to physically assault Debra, but she is most certainly in an abusive relationship. His monitoring and micromanaging of her daily affairs and finances, scolding her for having an opinion he didn't assign to her, and the intentional distance he creates between her and her loved ones counts as abuse. It's easy to shout "Just leave him!" at the screen, but leaving an abusive relationship can be enormously difficult. It's said that women in abusive relationships try leaving an average of seven times before it sticks, and John is a prime example of how attempting to leave could put her in immediate physical danger. Where would she go? And why should she have to? Her business, her children, her whole life were rooted in her community, and Dirty John makes clear that Debra's wealth (she has something like 80K worth of petty cash stashed in a duffel bag in the house) can't even provide an easy fix.
Debra makes some telling remarks too, especially when she tells her incredulous daughter Terra (Julia Garner) why she returned to him after finding out about (just some of) his menacing past. Following John's successful attempt to convince Debra that everything she's learned is a lie, she tells Terra, "I took a vow. For better or for worse, and this is the worst." Debra is probably ashamed of her short-sightedness and embarrassed to be in another failed relationship (even though John is not her fault at all). She is also doing what so many intelligent, accomplished women do, which is acquiesce to the toxic mythology of "standing by your man" no matter what. We should not be frustrated with Debra; to do so misses the point. Debra is not the problem. John, as we learned in flashbacks, veritably got an advanced degree in toxic masculinity, with lessons beginning when he was just a boy.
In Episode 6, when Debra starts to take action that includes wearing disguises, she finds herself sheepishly lamenting her choices to an attorney helping her, played by Jeff Perry. She tells him she is scared and humiliated. Don't be, he tells her. "You know how many times a woman goes back to a situation like yours before she gets out for good, if she ever does? A lot more times than once."
If you believe you might be in an abusive relationship, you can get help. If you have reason to believe your internet activity might be being monitored call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224. If you can use the internet without placing yourself in danger, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline's website here.
Dirty John airs Sundays at 10/9c on Bravo.