‘Dirty John’ Dramatizes a Suburban Case of Marriage to Murder in ‘The Betty Broderick Story’
It is a story classic in the annals of crime in any country. In the very early morning hours of November 5, 1989, Betty Broderick snuck into the home of her ex-husband in San Diego and killed him and his new wife. Was Betty insane? “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story” poses that question but surprises in the way it refuses to pass simple judgment. This is the second season of this USA anthology series based on a hit true crime podcast of the same name. It requires a certain level of patience from viewers, but slowly builds to a morally complex crescendo.
The season begins as Betty (Amanda Peet) is in the midst of an intense separation from husband and powerful attorney Dan Broderick (Christian Slater). Using his legal prowess, he is essentially leaving Betty with little of what used to be a lavish suburban life. The show then goes back in time to when Betty and Dan were college students (played by Chris Mason and Tiera Skovbye) in South Bend, Indiana. Betty is a proper Catholic girl not prone to many risqué experiences with men. For her a boyfriend means marriage which means true freedom from her controlling parents. Dan seems like a fun catch. He is funny, sharp and ambitious. But as soon they tie the knot another side begins to manifest. No longer so loving or compliant, Dan begins to be both controlling and selfish. He refuses to use contraception and when Betty gets pregnant barely acknowledges her fear of getting fired from her day job. Other pregnancies will follow as Dan focuses more on his ascendance as a malpractice attorney yet demands a pristine, perfect home. In later years the two grow more and more distant with Betty becoming ever so colder. Eventually Dan finds a new girlfriend in Linda (Rachel Keller) who he meets at the office. The story hurtles through divorce and breakdowns towards that fateful night when Betty, armed with a gun, makes her way towards Dan and Linda’s bedroom.
Great true crime, from “In Cold Blood” to Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story,” is never really about the crime but the lead up. That is also the main approach showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, who barely lets the show linger over the bloody details. This was also the case with the first season of “Dirty John,” which told the story of conman John Meehan (Eric Bana). “The Betty Broderick Story” charts Betty’s life from youth through what would be a very public downfall. The first few episodes take some time to get to the key point of the story because they slowly immerse us in Betty’s suburban nightmare. This is another one of those shows about how postcard-perfect American lives are masks for lying, misogyny and violence.
Played with empathy by Amanda Peet, who has to swerve from lucid to crazy, Betty is a victim of both her choices and social conditioning. Being a strict Catholic, she is expected to make a home and babies, putting aside her career ambitions for Dan. He in turn is free to do as he pleases at school, then at work, acquiring lavish comforts, sleeping with his legal aid (Linda) and falling asleep at the hospital after Betty suffers a miscarriage. She even uses the moment to take advantage and announce she wants to get her tubes tied. In this age of women with more agency on TV and film, viewers might wonder why Betty doesn’t just walk out of this hellhole marriage. It is the ‘70s and ‘80s, Betty is both addicted to the posh lifestyle Dan provides, replete with society friends and access. She is also aware that without Dan she has few avenues of influence or monetary stability. She simply believed he would always be there to support her. Once divorce proceedings begin her attorney looks like a ball of frustration because Betty never relents or compromises. When she finds out Dan is taking Linda to an event she pounds at their house door to shout and throw insults. Betty makes the classic mistake of thinking attacks and hostility might bring Dan back. He counterattacks by getting sole custody of their five children.
Christian Slater and Peet both take material that could have easily become wild melodrama and give it a sharp, dramatic depth. Slater’s Dan is a perfectionist tyrant, determined to overpower everything and everyone. His tunnel vision is so enclosed he cannot comprehend while Betty loses it when she finds out about Linda. The writers do not need to exaggerate many details anyway since some Betty’s most memorable outbursts are all based on fact, including scenes where she calls Dan’s office to leave obscene messages or sets a pile of his expensive clothes on fire in their backyard.
The final episodes of “The Betty Broderick Story” are somber in recounting the details of Betty’s final implosion. She gets a key to Dan’s house from her daughter and shoots Dan and Linda in bed. The ensuing trial in the show, as in real life, turns Betty into a controversial public figure. Was she psycho or the perfect example of atomic family oppression driving someone to their wit’s end? Women write her letters in prison to express praise. The show does not try to lionize her or make excuses. In her cell Betty is tormented by hallucinations of Dan, she knows she has carried out a terrible act. But “The Betty Broderick” story wants to explore the various forces that drove her to murder. Life is never just black and white.
“Dirty John” delivers a weekly true crime fix both challenging and entertaining. As long as the show keeps casting this kind of talent, its selection of tabloid cases will resonate with richer psychological context. Betty Broderick is currently serving a life sentence at the California Institution for Women. The most powerful suggestion made by this show is that with different choices, Betty would not be there right now.
“Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story” premieres June 2 and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on USA.