Amanda Peet has no sympathy for her 'Dirty John' character, Betty Broderick

At the heart of the second season of this hit true crime series is a cautionary tale that every married woman should heed, writes Margaret Gardiner

16 August 2020 - 00:00 By Margaret Gardiner
Amanda Peet plays Betty Broderick, a wronged wife who takes violent revenge, in the second season of 'Dirty John'.
Amanda Peet plays Betty Broderick, a wronged wife who takes violent revenge, in the second season of 'Dirty John'.
Image: Supplied

The second season of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story was released in June. It's a cautionary tale that every married woman should heed.

In the series, based on a true story, Betty Broderick works to put her husband through college so he can become a successful lawyer, then ploughs all her energy into raising her family, being the perfect wife, decorating the home, cooking, running the house, and yes, using the benefits of her husband's success to purchase status symbols and lunch at the club.

Many women were raised to do just that, and many fall victim to the other part of Betty's story, the part where her husband falls for a younger model of her. It's almost too painful to watch as the clichés play out, and you finally get to understand that the scales are tipped against the long-suffering wife and in the direction of the young replacement from the start.

What young thing is not delighted by an attractive, fit, smart man paying her attention and empowering her through work opportunities? Which children, although initially horrified at the betrayal of their mother, don't ultimately get seduced by the better home and quality of life proffered by their father as the new wife's domain?

The first wife is bereft on every front. Women roll their eyes and say, "It's the wife's fault. Laws are different now." Well, maybe. But there's a hidden component to unequal wage earnings and power brokers that's also revealed.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story highlights that those who deal with money know how to construct and manipulate financial statements so that an equal division of property and finances doesn't translate into a 50/50 share.

The viewer watches in horror as friends advise husbands how best to leave their wives destitute so that they have enough for the second family. The wife becomes the enemy standing in the way of her former husband's happiness. Her frustrations at the betrayals become boring to her own friends and irksome to her children.

The viewer watches in horror as friends advise husbands how best to leave their wives destitute so that they have enough for the second family

I know multiple women left without options, finding it tough to segue back into the work force, once divorced, with decades missing from their resumé. These women find their standard of living reduced, their former friends now fraternising with the new wife. Husbands with hidden funds declare bankruptcy or drag out the divorce with multiple powerful lawyers while the wife, on meagre funds, finds herself in a battle she can't win. If you've ever wondered how it happens or fear something like that might happen to you, you'll relate to this series.

Amanda Peet, who brilliantly portrays Betty, shows no compassion or understanding for her character, calling her complicit in the social mores of the time. Peet says: "I was interested that Alexandra [Cunningham, the series' creator] wasn't interested in vilifying anyone." The script doesn't need to. We watch horrified as Betty slowly becomes unhinged by the stress of fighting on all fronts and begins acting out and self sabotaging — playing into her husband's game plan.

Peet notes dispassionately, "The way Betty feels about her social status, about being a good wife and mother, is the way I feel about being good in some other aspects of my life. When I was a little girl my father told my sister and me, 'Don't ever rely on a man for money. You have to make your own.' At the time we were young, we were like, 'OK, what are you talking about?' But now I feel grateful that I was brought up by a father who encouraged us to have our own lives and to cultivate the parts of ourselves beyond just being someone's partner and being a mother."

Is there a question she would ask Betty? Peet's reply befuddles. "The real question is why?" says Peet. "But we know more about mental illness now."

To many viewers it's not hard to see why Betty went to such extremes. A woman's identity is stripped from her and she is replaced; when she questions the veracity of her deductions — that her husband is having an affair — she's made to feel pathetic and unhinged. Is it any wonder she ultimately becomes unhinged?

WATCH | 'Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story' trailer.

Peet suggests that women today are no longer as vulnerable. "I think women are encouraged now, in my generation, to follow through on their education and then find something in the world outside of being a mother and a wife. Betty grew up in the social mores of the '50s — her world was quite myopic. I think she had fewer choices. She thought she had fewer choices, so Dan [Betty's husband] became the receptacle for all of her energies."

[SPOILER ALERT] So if this is such a hackneyed truth, why is it a cautionary tale? Because Betty took a gun and drove to her former husband's home and shot him and his new wife dead. The stress took her to a place that most people wouldn't understand.

It's a cautionary tale: understand your finances and get them in order, be proactive and seek help when you become mentally fatigued and overwhelmed by people who brutalise you without ever lifting a hand. Abuse is not just physical, it can often be mental, with dire consequences. Today, 69-year-old Betty Broderick sits in jail in the California Institution for Women, where she is serving a sentence of 32 years to life.

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