"There's nothing more liberating than to realize you don't have to live up to anything anymore," Betty Broderick chillingly states in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, the second season of USA's true-crime series. The line comes toward the end of this podcast-turned-series that aims to reappraise the discussion around women like her -- your typical doting, upper-class housewives and moms who become cold-blooded murderers.
Compassion for Betty isn't easy, and Dirty John doesn't portray it as such, if that is what showrunner Alexandra Cunningham is trying to do at all. She previously explored the duplicity of suburban women on Desperate Housewives and Bates Motel. But here, she attempts something trickier: contextualizing what led to a mother of four (Amanda Peet) horrifyingly shooting her ex-husband (Christian Slater), Dan, and his wife (Rachel Keller) in their sleep, with the pastel-tinged '80s era as a backdrop.
Cunningham pulls off this element of façade -- the happy and privileged Reagan-era housewife masking a broken woman -- quite intriguingly throughout the series, even at the height of Betty's madness. Gliding back and forth in time, Dirty John peels back Betty's many layers to unravel a life that had for a long time been controlled, first by her conservative parents then by her college sweetheart-turned-husband.
This gradual but steady build-up to the shocking night works best in the first few episodes of the series when we are still getting to know Betty. It goes from the 1960s flashbacks when she's a college student (Tiera Skovbye, in these younger years) eagerly suppressing her love of science to act as the intellectually inferior woman on the charming Dan's (Chris Mason) arm to the perfectly primped yet overwhelmed housewife in the 1970s. Intermittently, the story jumps to the years-long courtroom saga deliberating whether Betty's murders are brought on by being a victim of her husband's emotional abuse, like when he called her crazy for (rightfully) accusing him of cheating, or whether she is just pissed because the man she gave her entire youth to traded her in for a newer model and took all her credit cards away.
As the episodes progress, it becomes clear that Dirty John is saying that both can be true and leaves it up to the audience to determine our own moral commitments as they pertain to her case. The most pointed question it does raise is whether her ultimate punishment -- 32-years-to-life in prison -- is justified, considering all the details we learn about her and Dan's marriage throughout the series.
What is she entitled to after everything she (willfully) sacrificed to be with him? Dirty John wants us to interrogate how much of Betty's treatment by Dan (and subsequently what she went through throughout the legal process) was brought on by an overwhelming patriarchal standard without offering us any information to do so. It assumes viewers are just equipped with this understanding, which makes her vicious act even more incomprehensible.
While there are certainly gendered issues at hand, Dirty John is far more successful at painting a portrait of a woman who in many ways had been living on the brink of sanity for years -- muffled by, sure, the patriarchy but also her desire to lead a perfect life of financial means. How much of that is imposed on her and how much is actually true? The series doesn't seem to know either way, which makes it a little less provocative and merely more of a retread of its '90s Lifetime movie counterparts.
For what it's worth, that works fine as well, though it's far less interesting and doesn't do the scorned woman genre any favors. Similar to shows like Snapped, it takes no time for Dirty John to get soapy -- down to its female lead breaking into her soon-to-be victims' home, shattering their dishes and tearing up their walls like a madwoman. Its pastel cinematography and fantastically '80s soundtrack, featuring Cyndi Lauper's "When You Were Mine" as the series' theme song, coupled with the ubiquitous shoulder pads and double-breasted suits, give it an even schlockier look.
But it is Peet's performance that ultimately incites even a smidgen of compassion for Betty, not so much because she is her husband's victim but because she's a longtime hostage of her own delusion. When one piece of her veneer is stolen from her, however unceremoniously -- whether it is the luxury vacations, perfect marriage, wonderful family or paper-thin country club friendships -- she, well, snaps. And that's often as painful to watch as it is deeply disturbing.
Peet's career-best performance is perfectly paired with Slater's appropriately stoic and conniving portrayal, effortlessly delivering a grade-A depiction of gaslighting, sometimes to the beat of a fun Neil Diamond song. Skovbye and Mason as their younger counterparts, as well as a pitch-perfect wide-eyed Keller, are also riveting to watch as they round out a series that is ultimately shallow, but you simply can't look away.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story premieres Tuesday, June 2 at 9/8c on USA with back-to-back episodes.