Dostoevsky and Dead to Me

I recently finished watching the last four episodes of the new Netflix series, Dead to Me. The night I finished, my husband had to listen patiently as I provided a high-level summary of the show, my voice a bit high and over-excited. “Jen’s husband gets killed in a hit and run,” I began. “And then she meets Judy.”

It took me a while to fall asleep; the last episode wound through my head like an argument. When I  woke up, I was still thinking about the show: it occurred to me that it had some basic plot similarities with Crime & Punishment, which I’d read this past year with my students. The novel’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, is a poverty-stricken former law student who murders a local pawnbroker. His motives are ambiguous, and his response to his crime and to his guilt are also confused, especially when he begins to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with police (or perhaps it’s the police who engage in the game); and when he puts his own interests and affairs second to those of other poverty-stricken people around him; and when he challenges the engagement between his sister and the awful, egotistical, appearances-obsessed Luzhin; and when he permits himself friendships, of a kind, with the warm-hearted Razumikin and the saint-prostitute Sonya.

Like Dead to Me, the novel’s centerpiece is not the murder (or, as Judy would point out quickly, in her case, the manslaughter). The audience becomes aware of the precise nature of the acts early on, and neither the book nor the show are murder-mysteries. Instead, what drives the stories are the key characters’ responses to the crime. In the novel, Raskolnikov’s emotions are laid bare over and over again and Dostoevsky offers little respite from R’s internal debates: both the emotional ones that seem to be about guilt, and the intellectual ones that concern avoiding discovery, and the debates that fall in between that concern, mostly about poverty — his own and others’. In the show, Judy tries to find the right way to account for her crime, other than confession and punishment; Jen finds that her grief is bound together with guilt.  

The Dead to Me Characters get to grapple with these questions without the annoyance of the poverty that plagues the characters in Crime & Punishment. Poverty barely plays role in Dead to Me. It’s hard to worry about the poor as we watch well-dressed characters interact poolside, or in sparkling white kitchens, or in front of the gorgeous backdrop of the Pacific. But the show is interested in an emotional poverty — grief and loss of many kinds — and almost all the characters suffer from it. We witness this most with Jen Harding and Judy Hale (despite their names, they are not hale and not hardy/hearty), but they aren’t alone. It’s present in Lorna Harding’s medications and cold attitude toward her struggling daughter-in-law; in Steve’s house, where every room but one is steely, stark, gray; in the kind but impotent participation of Nick, the detective, in Jen and Judy’s lives; and even in the grief support group, which, paradoxically, is depicted primarily as a location of confrontation and setbacks. In Crime & Punishment, the characters’ economic poverty drives their decisions, their desperation, their madness. In Dead to Me, the characters are driven by their internal emptiness, and a desire for connections with others.  

Judy most exemplifies that desire: she’s been with Steve for years, even though he’s clearly wrong for her; by the end of the season, her greatest joy comes when Jen describes her as a member of Jen’s family. We cannot hate Judy, or Raskolnikov; their illegal actions aside, they are too much like us — they are amplified versions of our desires and fears. The nastier side of Raskolnikov is still us, too. This is the side that is egotistical and narcissistic — it’s kind of Judy, who barrels through life single-mindedly and often without much regard for the feelings of others. This is the cool part of Dead to Me: to the extent I can make the connections between it and Dostoevsky’s most famous novel, the argument relies on the idea that Jen and Judy together serve as Raskolnikov’s literary genetic offspring. In Russian, raskol means split, or schism, and the character’s dual personality has been noted.  

Several characters from Dead to Me split up Raskolnikov. Judy is Raskolnikov insofar as they both fear discovery and punishment. Raskolnikov’s fear, however, is laced with disdain for the police, and his bizarre horror-pleasure to engage with them is mirrored in Judy’s sexual relationship with Nick. But  Nick is part Raskolnikov, too. Like R, he’s left his job and put others’ interests before his own: as Judy’s sexual partner, he satisfies her needs but, it appears, never his own; as Jen’s volunteer-detective, he offers time and resources to help find her husband’s hit-and-run driver despite the odds. And Jen is part Raskolnikov: her isolation from others, especially women, and especially from those who want to help her, is manifested in Christina Applegate’s face as she engages with them: impatience, distaste, sheer anger (the same emotions that we see over and over in Raskolnikov’s interaction with others). And when Judy begins to cut through Jen’s isolation, she is also Sonya and Razumikin, the friends who worry, who recognize Raskolnikov’s potential for love and friendship.

The show is interested in female friendship. Jen doesn’t play well with others, especially women. She’s not your typical woman: she worked while her husband took care of the kids. Her personality and anger with the world (like Raskolnikov’s), as well as her grief, however, are beginning to impact her work as a real estate agent. It’s entirely possible that if Judy hadn’t been motivated by guilt, she wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with Jen. The two are very different, from the colors they wear to their responses to others, and Jen often observes Judy’s kumbaya spirituality with disdain. (Jen is also disdainful of organized religion, as is Raskolnikov through much of the novel.) But they both enjoy wine, speak the common language of grief, and come to rely on each other in their new world without men.

Dead to Me is a smart soap opera. It realizes that the best characters — the ones that captivate us the most, that keep us talking and thinking for generations, like Raskolnikov, Hamlet, Hedda Gabler, Jane Eyre — act in ambiguous ways, inconsistently, incoherently, just like the rest of us. The guilt in Dead to Me draws natural lines from Crime and Punishment; but really, it’s merely a starting point. Crime and Punishment isn’t a story about guilt, or at least it’s not only about guilt. Both texts seem to want to examine the nature of guilt in context, and its relationship to the other things that matter in our lives: poverty, loneliness, isolation, grief, friendship, and love.