• Wed, 15, Jan, 2020 - 5:00:AM

TOP 30 OF 2019 - 10. We need to talk about the women of Dirty John

Connie Britton / Wikimedia Commons

First published on Thursday the 21st of March, 2019, this piece comes in at number 10 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2019.

There was a moment in Dirty John’s final episode that really made the show for me. It had so far been a cracking good ride, but this little interaction pushed the true-life crime drama into classic territory. Veronica Newell, an L.A. girl with Hollywood curls and a Kardashian accent, has just made her Uber driver chase the eponymous dirty John. After they lose him, she demands the driver rush to her little sister’s apartment. She’s going to camp outside until it’s light out. And she wants the driver to stay with her.

An eyebrow raises. She brings herself close to him. “Hey!” she drawls, eyelashes aflutter, “If you’re not gonna be a dick about waiting with me, then I will let you…” the driver looks up, “tell me your top five favourite chillwave albums.”

Played by the marvellous Juno Temple, Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Newell had my heart from the jump. As the audience we have a leg up – we know there’s something wrong with John, it’s there in the name of the show. It’s excruciating, therefore, to watch Connie Britton’s Debra fall for his tricks. Even worse to see her marry him, on a whim in Vegas, within a few months of meeting. Ronnie provides an outlet from the moment we meet her. She hates her mum’s new relationship, and she isn’t shy about letting either of them know it.

A weaker show, perhaps a fiction, would have portrayed Ronnie and Terra as angels. Dirty John is all the better for portraying the sisters as they are – Les Enfant Terribles.

In the Mean Girls universe, they’d be Plastics. They bark orders, they roll their eyes. Their worst crime, to us watching at home, is the way they treat their mother. But what they lack in warmth, they make up for in resolve.

Terra is the more agreeable of the pair. Also an Orange County princess, she’s younger than Ronnie. Thanks to her mouse-like squeak of a voice, one could easily mistake her for a child. But this is a decoy, as we later discover. It’s only when the surprise twist hits that we remember what she was talking about when we first met her.

We’re not used to seeing these types of women as heroes. In romantic-comedies they’re the other women. In teen-comedies they’re the bad girls. But in this story not only are they warriors, they save the good girl too.

The good girl, in this case, is their mother.

But Debra possesses her own strength. In a hyper-meta moment at the end, she responds to a request from a reporter. He wants to tell her story. This of course becomes a podcast and then the show we are watching. Debra has thought it over, and responds; “I think I’d like to get our story out there. It probably won’t make me look very good. But I’d like it to help other women.”

It’s true, she doesn’t ‘look very good’. Search ‘Debra Newell’ on Twitter and you’ll get plenty of tweets calling her a ‘dumb bitch’. She must have known she’d be received that way, but she told her story anyway.

Dirty John is a complex show. It makes you wonder how such a trusting, acquiescent woman could raise two stone-cold bitches. It also makes you wonder how a woman could trust a man as shady as John Meehan. We’re forced to constantly detach ourselves from what seems obvious to us – He’s stealing from you! He’s lying to you! He’s gaslighting you! – and try to see things through Debra’s eyes.

Dirty John is about women, and the way they respond to toxic masculinity. In intermittent flashbacks we see how Tonia, John’s first wife, escapes him. In separate flashbacks, we see Denise, John’s sister, banish him from her life. In a b-plot we watch Debra’s mother Arlene forgive another man for something most of us would find unforgivable.

But this show isn’t about unforgivable men. It’s about women, in all their complexity, deciding whether or not to forgive them. 


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