This week, I binge watched Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story. This is the second season of the Netflix series, which I had never heard of until I noticed so many people hitting my reposted review of Nanette Elkins’ book about Kim Broderick. Netflix decided to turn Betty and Dan Broderick’s sordid story into an eight part series. Amanda Peet stars as the older version of Betty, while Christian Slater impressively portrays Dan Broderick.
I found the show pretty compelling, and weirdly comical at some points. The fact that Betty and Dan’s story has turned into entertainment should probably disturb me. I have to admit that Betty Broderick is a fascinating character, though. Lots of people have held her up as a heroine to divorced women who get “shafted” when their powerful husbands dump them for someone younger. In Dan Broderick’s case, it was Linda Kolkena, who had been Dan’s pretty secretary. In Dirty John, she’s played by Rachel Keller. Funnily enough, Rachel Keller wasn’t even born when this crime happened, back in 1989.
I’m not sure why this story out of so many was chosen to be highlighted on Dirty John, but people are obviously intrigued by it. Based on what I’ve read about the Brodericks, both Dan and Betty seemed to be self-absorbed and unkind to each other. Here was Dan Broderick, a brilliant doctor turned lawyer, who made lots of money after his first wife worked to put him through school. And Betty was a great housewife and mom who went nuts when Dan decided he loved someone else. And here was Linda, a so-called “homewrecker”, carrying on with an obviously married man.
On one hand, I can see why Betty Broderick went a bit crazy. She put everything into her marriage and her image… and it seemed like it was all suddenly taken from her. On the other hand, there is absolutely no justification for her decision to kill her ex husband and his second wife, even though it does seem like he abused his powers as an attorney. Or, at least that was how it was portrayed on the show. But let’s think about this. Betty Broderick did some legitimately crazy things. She harassed her ex husband and his wife. She drove her car into his house, ruined his clothes, and mashed Boston Cream Pie all over the bed.
My husband was married to a woman who never went as far as Betty Broderick did, in terms of being destructive to objects. However, she did her very best to ruin his relationships with other people, and she told outrageous lies about him, and me– a woman she’s never even met in person. So, when Rachel Keller as Linda Kolkena says, “What I’ve seen, I don’t like.” as Betty’s friend tries to get her to give up Betty’s wedding china, I can definitely relate. Being a woman in that position is infuriating and nerve wracking. Granted, Linda had an affair with Dan, while I didn’t start dating Bill until a year after he was divorced, but I still can’t say I condone the way Betty behaved. It was crazy! Even her children thought so, which you can hear in Oprah’s interview above. And no matter what, she had no right to commit murder.
But… as I watched the Netflix series and saw the courtroom antics and the heavy fines Dan tried to levy on his ex wife, I can also see how frustrated and angry she became. It might have seemed like there wasn’t another choice. I know from personal experience that mental illness can really screw up your thinking. I don’t think Betty would have committed murder if she wasn’t legitimately sick. I don’t know what she’s like today, having been locked up for so many years. It’s also hard for me to tell if she was always a little bit disordered or this was something that came on suddenly, in the wake of Dan’s betrayal. The movies and books make it seem like it was kind of a sudden thing, but I have a hard time believing that this kind of behavior came out of nowhere. Only the people who know Betty well can say for sure, though.
Listening to Betty’s children on Oprah’s show reminds me of Bill’s conversations with his daughter. There was a time when she was the most estranged of the three kids Bill claimed as his– as Ex’s eldest son was actually her first husband’s child. But now, she is the only one who talks to Bill, and the more they speak openly and honestly, the clearer the picture becomes on how everyone is treated in Ex’s family. If you see what she puts online, it looks like she’s this very positive, affirming person. But if you know her more intimately, the truth emerges. I suspect that a similar dynamic was present in Betty’s family. Especially when I read and hear about some of the really over the top things she did, like leave her children at Dan’s house in a rage.
As everybody knows, people like to armchair quarterback things. Lots of people take sides of an issue in the media based on their own experiences. I’m probably more sympathetic to Dan and Linda because they turned out to be murder victims and I am married to a man who was extremely alienated from his children after a divorce. Of course, in Bill’s situation, the divorce was initiated by his ex wife. And it turned out she hadn’t actually wanted to divorce; it was just a ploy to gain more control and humiliate Bill. She never expected that he would agree to splitting up and decided to punish him (and a lot of other innocent people) for it.
In Betty’s case, it was Dan who decided to divorce, and after he’d had an affair. I know I would be hurt and angry if Bill ever did that to me. It’s very disrespectful, especially given that Betty’s help was a large part of why Dan eventually became so successful. I don’t think Dan Broderick was a saint at all. He definitely did a lot of “dickish” things. But he didn’t deserve to be murdered, and neither did his wife, who had never made any vows to Betty. I think the worst thing Linda did was not insist on waiting until Dan was divorced until she had a relationship with him. Of course, if she had done that, she might never have married him, since Betty was very much an obstructionist when it came to the break up. And when you’re in love, sometimes you don’t make the best decisions. I suspect that if Linda hadn’t been murdered, she would have wound up divorced from Dan, too. It’s been my observation that a lot of people who have affairs repeat them in subsequent marriages. Dan seemed to be very concerned about his image and appeared narcissistic to me. He probably would have wanted a younger woman as Linda aged.
Anyway… I feel a little bad having enjoyed Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story. Two people died for that story. Maybe we shouldn’t turn such tales into entertainment for the masses, complete with songs by Cyndi Lauper, Laura Branigan, and Howard Jones. I did really like the soundtrack and even downloaded a couple of Lauper’s albums. I think Amanda Peet did a good job playing Betty. She was more sympathetic than Meredith Baxter was thirty years ago, when she played Betty in the two made for TV movies about her. I also really enjoyed watching Christian Slater. It’s hard to believe he’s the same guy who played Binx in the 1985 film, The Legend of Billie Jean (a truly ridiculous but entertaining movie). But then, it’s also hard to believe that Bradley Whitford, who plays Commander Lawrence in The Handmaid’s Tale, also famously played Elisabeth Shue’s jerky boyfriend in the 1987 film, Adventures in Babysitting. It’s always nice to see actors evolve over the years!
I guess now that I’ve seen the second season of Dirty John, I’ll go ahead and watch the first. In just five days, I’ll be all set to emerge from the COVID-19 quarantine cocoon. I hope it doesn’t blow my mind.