My hope is that the paragraph above tips you off to one simple thing: “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story,” the second installment of USA’s anthology series, is not cheery viewing. It’s very good, but it’s not a fun, zany ride—well, except for the costuming, which will blow the minds of anyone who was or had a mom in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some watch or listen to true crime or stories of the based-on-a-true variety because they’re a sort of macabre comfort food, but that’s not what this season of “Dirty John” aims to do. There’s no suspense with regard to what happened, who did it, or why; even without its judicious use of flash-forwards, this story would clearly and inexorably march toward its bloody end. It’s far more interested in the why than the when, how, or who—and in two whys, really. There’s the why of Betty Broderick’s story, an answer that could include jealousy, gaslighting, mental illness, emotional abuse, and what you might call ‘patriarchal bullshit,’ depending on the scene, the episode, and your own perspective. And there’s the why for the series itself. That one has a concrete answer, and it is Amanda Peet.
In a career-best performance, Peet plays Betty Broderick, who as of this writing remains in a women’s correctional facility in California. (Like the first season of “Dirty John,” this season is based on actual events, though a disclaimer after each episode reminds viewers that some elements are fictionalized.) The story steps back and forth in time throughout Betty’s marriage to Dan Broderick (Christian Slater; Tiera Skovbye and Chris Mason play Betty and Dan in their younger years), the gradual dissolution of their marriage, and the aftermath. This means we see Betty, fearful of when her job will find out about her first pregnancy and fire her, and Betty, furious over yet another manipulation, driving her car straight into her ex-husband’s front door. Their life changes dramatically—no kids to four, no money to loads, a small apartment in New York to a sprawling home in California, med school to a legal practice—but one constant remains: the whole time, it’s infuriating.
Creator Alexandra Cunningham isn’t out to bestow sainthood on Betty Broderick. Nor is this a story about a poor, helpless woman driven out of her mind by a big bad man (though rest assured, anyone looking for an outlet for a little rage will be able to vent some of that rage right at Christan Slater’s smug face.) Like the timeline, Cunningham’s perspective is ever-shifting, and she takes full advantage of every flicker that races across Peet’s face. Cunningham asks the viewer to consider many facets of Betty’s circumstances, choices, and inner life; both the story and its central figure are riddled with fascinating contradictions. That would be true in the hands of many an accomplished performer—Cunningham and her writers are too deliberate in their choices for it to be otherwise—but it’s difficult to imagine the showrunner finding a better collaborator for this story than Peet.