Bravo’s Dirty John
Season 1, Episode 4: “Shrapnel”
Directed by Jeffrey Reiner
Written by Alexandra Cunningham & Sinead Daly
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Remember It Was Me” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Lord High Executioner” – click here
Go back 20 years. Arlane Hart (Jean Smart) tried to comfort her daughter’s husband Bobby, with whom she’s close, over the collapse of his marriage, and at the same time she talked with her daughter Cindi (Katrina Bowden), discovering things she didn’t know about their relationship like the fact her husband was incredibly controlling. But Arlane was close to wilfully blind. She quoted the “Book of Proverbs” for her daughter and advised she trust in the Lord.
But God had nothing to do with what happened next. (And you could never anticipate what Arlane would do later after Bobby did the unthinkable.)
Cut to the present. Debra Newell (Connie Britton) and her oldest daughter Veronica (Juno Temple) are trying to figure out how to get her free from John Meehan (Eric Bana). They find John’s been able to manipulate the system pretty well without much hassle. Veronica doesn’t take any shit from the cops, either. Problem is, Dirty John’s so good at what he does, there isn’t much the cops can do. Until he… does something. In the meantime it’s left to Debra to move around and not be an easy target for her psychopath husband to find. And John’s calling, constantly texting. He tries to shame her into contacting him back. She spends her time trying on wigs and writing up her Last Will and Testament, just in case anything horrible should happen to her.
The parallels between the possessiveness of men in the lives of these women is horrific. We jump back to a couple decades prior. Arlane was teaching piano lessons. She got a call from Cindi and they were meant to have lunch together. When the time came mom was left alone for lunch, a bit pissed off not having heard a word from her daughter. She would eventually get a visit from two police officers who’d tell her Cindi was shot in the head and killed by Bobby, before he shot himself in the chest— though he would go on to survive. All she could think to do? Drop to her knees and pray to God. After that she had to explain to a young Toby what happened.
In present day, Arlane partly blames herself for making it tougher for her daughter to “see who he really was” through the admiration she had for John. But Debra’s unwilling to let her mother take that blame— she was just as blind. The two women do have a laugh over things, yet it borders on tears, too. No matter how blind any of the women in their family have been over the decades, it’s ultimately the men who are to blame, and their family’s been damaged so brutally by horrible men that it’s tragic. Only thing that’s kept Arlane hanging on is her intensely strong faith.
Toby (Kevin Zegers) talks to his Aunt Debra about what he and Veronica found out about John when they went digging into his past. He feels bad for his aunt becoming one of the many women who were a “project” to John. More and more, Debra feels stupid for what happened, instead of feeling angry at the man who conned her. She feels like, in some way, it was her fault, despite the fact Mr. Meehan was essentially a professional con artist. Toby compares what happened to his mom to what John does, feeling it’s easier to understand, whereas John’s con game is nebulous in motive, like it really is all a game, albeit a dangerous one.
After Bobby went to prison for killing Cindi, he was visited by Arlane. They talked about the family. She asked if he was still suicidal, like directly after the murder. She hated that he took her daughter. At the same time, her Christian faith somehow allowed her to forgive him. She inexplicably showered Bobby with the love of Jesus Christ after he deliberately killed Cindi so brutally.
And just as inexplicable is the way Debra went back to John. She went to the hospital where he was lying in bed, reuniting even after all that’s happened and all she’s discovered about him. In the podcast, Christopher Goffard says what we’re all thinking when he’s talking to the real Ms. Newell, noting that this is the hardest part of the true story to actually believe is that she went back to him. Here, she asks John to tell her the truth about why he’s in the hospital. He admits to being an addict, and he then tries to say he lied about himself because he was trying to impress her. Everything she asks he answers quickly. He’s told these stories so many times they’re like lines in a play. He says guys with”a similar name” are to blame for some of those supposed charges on his record Debra saw in the papers she found. He claims he couldn’t afford a lawyer to get these mistakes cleared up. He’s a slick, rotten human being. His entire act hinges tragically on the desire of the women he targets to be loved and not believe they’ve been fooled by a sociopathic grifter. Deb even asks about the cyanide John was found with by the police once, which he rolls into explaining away his lies and the injury he said was from Iraq and everything using his drug addiction. Nasty piece of work.
“I told you it was shrapnel— but I’m the shrapnel.”
Watching the parallel of Debra going back to John and seeing Arlane go into court to testify ON BEHALF OF THE MAN WHO SHOT AND KILLED HER DAUGHTER is stunning. We already know from seeing Bobby briefly in an earlier episode that he’s free, so even without listening to the podcast prior to seeing the TV series there’s this gradual sense of awareness of what happened. The back and forth in this episode between past and present perhaps gives some kind of insight into Debra’s current predicament. Or maybe it doesn’t for some. Either way, it’s valuable to watch if only for Arlane’s perspective. Somehow she continued to love Bobby. Just as impossible to understand, for most, as how Debra could allow herself to stay in the orbit of John Meehan.
Dirty John has gotten better by the episode. The storytelling’s been fantastic.
“Lord High Executioner” is next time.