Warning: Dead to Me spoilers coming.
Imagine a man so lovely that when his character is killed off a television program, the writers invent a surprise identical twin so that everyone may continue working with and watching him. Open your eyes now. Did you envision James Marsden? Alternatively, you should have been. Because this is essentially what transpired in Dead to Me.
In the first season of Liz Feldman’s Netflix comedy, Marsden played the intolerable Steve Wood. Judy’s (Linda Caredellini) ex-husband was an arrogant, verbally abusive narcissist who pushed her to depart after she hit and murdered Jen’s (Christina Applegate) husband. On the one hand, without Steve we probably wouldn’t have a show. On the other side, he was a horrible individual who pushed Jen too far in the Season 1 finale, resulting in his face floating in her pool. In contrast to Steve, James Marsden was an absolute pleasure. So, he suddenly returned to the screen in Season 2 of Dead to Me as Ben, Steve’s sweet, cheesy, emotionally accessible identical twin brother.
Throughout the series, Marsden exhibited incredible variety as he portrayed two totally different personas. And the third and final season of Dead to Me reminds viewers why he was the ideal choice to portray the Wood brothers.
Ben Wood had just crashed into Jen and Judy’s car while intoxicated and fled the scene when we last saw him in Season 2. He arrives on Jen’s doorstep in Season 3 with a bloodied head and a concussion, delightfully slurring “You’re bleedy!” I’m terrific!” before falling out in front of her son Charlie on the front yard. When Ben regains consciousness, he becomes sober and rejects his charm. When he remembers that he was traveling to visit his brother’s found body, he cries and tells Charlie that he is an example of how not to enjoy life. After moments of earnestness, his humor creeps back in, and he urges Charlie not to tell his mother what happened since it may be “very terrible news bears” for him.
In the opening moments of Season 3, James Marsden displays an astonishing range of emotions that sets the stage for a stellar performance throughout the season.
Throughout the final ten episodes of Dead to Me, Marsden is able to excel on-screen as a funny good man. He sings along to Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, presents thoughtful gift baskets, enjoys the prospect of a candlelight bath with lavender body wash, and actually sweeps Jen off her feet in an enchanted manner. Few guys as breathtakingly attractive as Marsden could carry off Ben Woods’ fondness of puns and corny sayings such as “Later, gator” and “Get your plumb,” but he manages to get it off.
However, as those initial moments demonstrated, Marsden also succeeds at bringing out the darker aspects of Ben’s personality. In Season 3, Ben battles drinking and sadness at the loss of his brother. When he recalls their last meeting or the remorse he feels for his own hit-and-run, he spirals into feelings of humiliation.
Ben, however, unlike Steve, accepts responsibility, feels regrets, and desires assistance. Even when Ben is not at his best, Marsden infuses his dramatic, tear-filled Season 3 sequences with hints of hopelessness, desperation, and fragility that make you actually feel for him. And on occasion, Marsden portrays a disappointed Ben while simultaneously releasing Steve’s rage.
Due to many Season 3 flashbacks and an inventive mirror sequence in Episode 2, Marsden fights with himself as Ben while assuming the role of Steve. Name another show in which a preppy, arrogant James Marsden tells a dirty, gloomy James Marsden, “You’re a terrible piece of sh*t, you know that?” You can’t! Dead to Me is excellent. In Season 3, Marsden does everything. He is the jovial leading man in a rom-com, the villain, the joker, the person whose spirits need raising, and everything else. His wit and emotional range make him an ideal complement to the group. And never forget: had the show cast anyone else, we likely would have never seen Ben in the photo.
All three seasons of Dead to Me are currently available to watch on Netflix.