Judging Judy: Truth and Redemption on Netflix
by Jake Wojtowicz
This article contains spoilers for Dead to Me.
If you’re driving and hit and kill Ted, a disgruntled man pacing the streets after a fight with his wife, Jen, surely you would pull over and call the emergency services. Surely you would never, like Judy from Netflix’s darkly comic Dead to Me (though she was under pressure from her abusive partner, Steve) drive off and then (now despite Steve) contrive to meet Jen at a support group and dedicate your life to helping her… all while preventing Jen from finding out that you killed Ted. Surely not.
Judy might sound like a malicious and conspiratorial monster or, at best, a coward who fails to take responsibility for what she has done. Taking responsibility is tough, but in failing to face up to this, Judy seems to wrong Jen twice over: she kills her husband and then doesn’t own up to it, denying Jen the closure she deserves.
But Judy isn’t the villain of the story: Dead to Me is more subtle than that. Watching it, I don’t judge Judy as some awful monster, and when I do think of her as a coward, my judgment is certainly tempered. Judy inspires a mixture of pity, admiration, and frustration. My brief sketch might not do it justice, but by setting Judy in a broader narrative — by showing us her fundamental kindness, and the effect the domineering Steve has on the situation — the show encourages the recognition that things are more complicated than a knee-jerk moral criticism might suggest.
It shows not just that she faces some costs in admitting her responsibility, it also lets us appreciate the weight of these costs. Judy would jeopardise not just her freedom, but her new, and very close, friendship with Jen, and she would have to break out from Steve’s abusive control. It becomes easier to understand why she shirks responsibility. Yet this doesn’t let Judy entirely off the hook. At this stage, I still think she should take responsibility. I still think she wrongs Jen a second time by not confessing.
But what good would confessing do? Why does Jen want to know the identity of Ted’s killer? Would finding out even be good for her? After all, her quest seems mostly driven by her frustrations with Ted, the problems in their marriage, and their awful final moments together, which Jen reveals to Judy: “I hit him… I punched him in the face… I killed him… I drove him away. I hit him.” This leads to Judy’s eventual confession, that she hit Ted...with her car.
Had Judy confessed before then, perhaps she would have gone to jail or at least faced a trial, and Jen could have known who killed her husband. But none of that would have helped Jen; it wouldn’t have helped her come to terms with the deep problems in her marriage, her frustrations with Ted, her self-doubt, and her struggle with her role in events. Judy helped, though. She helped Jen connect with her children. She helped Jen rediscover a sense of humour and some joy in life. And, when Jen found out that Ted had been cheating, Judy supported her in confronting the (unwitting) other woman and in working through the confusion and anger she felt towards Ted.
There is something noble about what Judy does. In a clearly traumatic act, she dedicated herself to helping the wife of the man she accidentally killed. There is no doubt that Judy did something awful: she killed Ted and then covered it up. But perhaps Judy didn’t choose the cowardly and selfish route. Maybe she did what turns out to be hardest for her but the best for Jen. Perhaps her confession was all the better for the deception and avoidance that came before. Or perhaps she might have done best by never confessing at all.
Yet even these judgments might be too clean. What Dead to Me does so well is to convey how difficult Judy’s situation is, to leave me entirely unsure how to judge her. She is, at some level, a good person; but everything she might do has costs and whatever she does Judy fails in some significant way. Where I struggle is in coming to any ultimate judgment on whether Judy does the right thing.
This nuance and complexity stands in stark contrast to a familiar trope from philosophical ethics: the thought experiment. Take a classic example. The trolley rushes down the track and will kill five people, but you can switch it to kill only one. “But, what if that one person is your partner?” or “But what if that person will cure cancer?” inevitably ring out, and the philosopher inevitably replies, exasperated, with “That’s not the point…”
It really isn’t the point, and these thought experiments play a valuable role, but the objections — objections not so much to the question, but to framing it in such sparse terms — latch on to something important. These examples can only serve a limited purpose because they are so austere that they cannot capture much of what is important in everyday life. When we consider moral issues abstracted from any concrete features, we obscure the complexities that often should bear on our judgments. They make the complicated simple, sometimes too simple.
It is an art to convey the complexity of moral life. This is a problem for moral philosophers. If they want to avoid over simplification, they need to find something sufficiently complex. But it is almost impossible to do so concisely: when philosophers appeal to, say, Anna Karenina, much of what they want to convey requires you to have read the (massive) novel, and their short summaries (like my own short summary of Dead to Me) inevitably fail to transmit the depth we need to see the intricacy of the situation.
Shorter TV shows, films, and plays might at least be more accessible ways of conveying this moral complexity. Not that we should expect to find philosophical depth in just anything on Netflix. Take 13 Reasons Why. The content, especially the way that sensitive issues are portrayed, have all come in for criticism. Even when it comes to presenting a nuanced moral picture, it is a travesty. No doubt some of the characters are truly awful. But too many others are presented in black and white. The show’s gaze is one of flaws and faults and few exculpatory features. In its harsh moralistic glare, there is little room for depth and shadows. Because of this, the show just isn’t very good.
Dead to Me does not shine too bright a light on characters’ flaws, it portrays them as the well-rounded figures who are recognisable in ordinary human life. Still, when judging Judy, I sometimes forget that there is more at play than an isolated wrong. I let a simplistic knee-jerk get in the way and fail to take in the broader picture. When I consider her wrongs abstracted from the concrete realities of the situation, Judy looks like a selfish coward. But when I wade into the complexity—as the show urges—I pretty quickly lose the ability to make anything like a clear-cut judgment.
Life is not lived on the trolley track with binary choices and clearly defined costs, nor is it lived in the incandescent glare of 13 Reasons Why. An inability to come to a clear-cut judgment about Judy is a good thing: it is a testament to the realism and richness of Dead to Me, which, through an amusing trip into fiction, somehow manages to capture the subtlety of ordinary life.
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