[Caution: The following story contains mild spoilers about Dirty John and discusses domestic violence.]
In October, University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey was found shot to death by the ex-boyfriend she ditched when she found out he was a registered sex offender. As heinous as the crime was, the lapses that let it happen are worse: university police didn't know he'd fled a halfway house, while the Department of Corrections didn't know her ex, who'd repeatedly gone back to prison for violating parole, kept harassing her after she broke up with him.
McCluskey's death was tragic and shocking but sadly not unusual. In an average month, 50 American women are shot and killed by an intimate partner, according to research done by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. More than half of the women murdered worldwide last year were killed by intimate partners or family members, according to a new United Nations study. That's about six an hour. A month after McCluskey's death grabbed headlines, a man started shooting inside a Chicago hospital, killing Dr. Tamara O'Neal, a pharmacist, and a police officer. The shooter, it turned out, was O'Neal's ex-fiancé, a man a previous girlfriend sought an order of protection against and a man who was kicked out of the firefighting academy for threatening a female cadet.
Though it takes some creative license, Dirty John tells the true story of how a well-to-do California woman, Debra Newell (Britton), falls for ruggedly handsome anesthesiologist John Meehan (Eric Bana), whom she met online. Granted, Newell — who'd been divorced four times already, not that it matters — opened herself to this guy way too fast, moving in with him after just five weeks and marrying him within two months. It is certainly plausible to believe that if Newell had paced her relationship a bit more thoughtfully she might have discovered sooner that her new man had been to prison, that he wasn't really an anesthesiologist, that he had pled guilty to stalking, that he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. But Newell's poor decision to rush into a relationship is not a public safety issue, nor is it a failure to do a job.
By the time Newell made the discovery that her new beau had a history of violent, threatening behavior against women, she was already married to him — not that this legal formality would've prevented him from harassing and terrorizing her as he'd done so many other women before her. Eventually, John attacked Debra's daughter Terra (played by Julia Garner in the Bravo show) with a knife, and very likely would've killed her, Debra or both if Terra hadn't put a stop to his madness first.
Critics of the series contend that the Dirty John podcast, which sprung up from a Los Angeles Times article, does a better job of captivating the audience as well as capturing the depth and nuance of the situation. That may be; Dirty John has the melodramatic timbre of a classic girl on the run from crazy man yarn, a Lifetime-y B-movie with its central drama ripped from the headlines. But what's most important to see in Dirty John is not Connie Britton making panicked what now?! faces (which are gold, by the way). Dirty John is about the ways multiple systems of supposed checkpoints fail to keep women safe from dangerous men and societal toxic masculinity that lets the danger thrive.
By the third episode, viewers will see Debra discovering hard evidence that her man is capable of the worst. Having pled guilty to stalking and been prohibited from owning a firearm, John Meehan should have never been able to prey on another woman, should have never had access to another dating site. Of course, police need evidence of a crime to lock a person away, and the intricacies of what constitutes harassment is legal stuff way over this writer's head.
But what Dirty John lays bare is the fact the big holes in systems that should be protecting people — the gaps that let criminals continue to pursue women after restraining orders, moving away and on and on — continue to persist. In flashbacks, Dirty John shows who John was before he met Debra, which is to say the same person. John is seen scaring the bejesus out of a partner who cut him off; she's terrified for her children, her job and her safety. So what, exactly, is a woman supposed to do after she's got a restraining order, called the police, or moved to a new place? In a recent CBS News feature, nearly all the women surveyed said they eventually came to believe their partner would kill them. Watching Debra make the realization that her life is in jeopardy is chilling, but it's also infuriating because it's a reminder that John should have never been able to find Debra and that women like Lauren McCluskey or Dr. Tamara O'Neal will die for exactly the same reasons.
One of the most impactful but easy-to-dismiss moments in Dirty John comes when we see footage from John's previous marriage, in which his groomsmen start talking about him on-camera. They joke that John was the last guy they'd expect to get married. They laugh at how John treated women horribly and lied for sport. Those scenes reveal just one, albeit major, crack in the glass that should've protected Debra from John: an orgy of toxic masculinity that treated John's clear disregard for women's lives like a punchline. Hopefully nobody will watch Dirty John and see himself in John Meehan. But if just a few men watch it, consider how they contribute to a culture that makes violence against women a norm and realize the need for urgent change, there may hopefully be a day where we'll never see another another series like it again.
Dirty John airs Sundays at 10/9c on Bravo.