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2020 Performer of The Year - Staff Choice Most Outstanding Performer of 2020 - Linda Cardellini

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This article was written by Ellys Cartin, Jessica VanWinkle, and Matthew Fulton. The article was edited by Donna Cromeans (DJRiter). The open and close of the article were written by Ellys Cartin. Prepared for publishing by Aimee Hicks.

Dead to Me spins a fast-paced tale of a singular friendship forged among the ashes of grief, anger, and the occasional murder. Two everyday women must figure out how to dispose of a dead body while clinging to their unlikely bond that is now their best hope for healing and redemption. Judy Hale, one half of this show’s beating heart, is brought vividly to life by the perfection of Linda Cardellini’s performance. She tempered Judy’s kind quirkiness with a simmering fury, a charismatic combination that made it a wonderful experience to be caught up alongside Judy in each of her predicaments. Cardellini relished the escalating challenges of the show’s many twists and turns; her zeal for the role combined with her instinctive graciousness have surely shaped the development of her character, which simply means Judy Hale wouldn’t exist without Cardellini. She is just as likely to leave the audience hysterically breaking down in laughter as she is to reduce them to sobbing furiously on Judy’s behalf. For taking us on Judy’s adrenaline-packed roller coaster of love, laughter, despair, and countless hijinks, Linda Cardellini has been chosen as SpoilerTV’s 2020 Staff Choice Performer of the Year.
Continue reading below to find out our thoughts regarding her performance. After reading, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Dead to Me is a smorgasbord of genres, everything from a domestic thriller to a relationship comedy to a madcap drama. As such, Linda Cardellini’s Judy Hale jumps from protagonist to foil to antagonist and back again, often within the same episode. What are your favorite examples of how this is a role only Cardellini can pull off?

Ellys: In the opening scene of Season 2, Judy and Jen (Christina Applegate) are frantically assembling a normal breakfast for Jen’s sons. It’s a necessary facade for them to pretend they didn’t hide a body the night before. They make a mess of things, completely out of sync both in the cooking and their emotional states. Jen’s hysterically blunt responses only land due to Cardellini’s perfect catching skills; every reaction she delivers is golden. The sincere “you need to take care of yourself” she offers up gently from down on the floor where she’s scooping up a fried egg she dropped. Her happy smile when Jen’s oldest son, Charlie (Sam McCarthy) asks if Judy and Jen will be friends again, a smile that scrunches into disappointment when Jen squashes the idea. And the lightning-quick moment Judy turns aside to fight back tears when Jen reveals that she burned Judy’s stuff. While Jen’s actions and responses often propel the story forward, it’s Judy’s reactions and attempts to positively interpret Jen’s intentions that give the show its signature madcap energy.

Jessica: Judy is an extremely complicated character. She’s done some terrible things, but she’s showed throughout Dead to Me that she wants to be good. In Where Have You Been (2x2) she spends the episode lying to Ben (James Marsden) about what happened to his twin, Steve (also James Marsden), but at the end she helps Jen’s son with his bird. She was so sweet here. Throughout the season she keeps lying to Ben and Detective Perez (Diana-Maria Riva), but she does care about Ben, and she did care about Steve even though he was abusive to her. She also loves Jen. Because Cardinelli’s acting is so impressive, it’s easy for the viewers to feel empathy towards Judy even though characters who have committed multiple crimes aren’t usually considered the “good guys”. Very few actors could succeed in playing a character with this many layers.

Matthew: I think that Judy Hale is a character that could have been portrayed as a mere sad sack in a less capable performer’s hands. Somebody else might just play into either only the dramatic elements or solely the dark comedy of the character and forgo a middle ground. What Cardellini manages to pull off with Judy is a deft mix of the dramatic and comedic aspects that feels truer to a show that likes to bounce between genres. One example of this that comes to mind is in If Only You Knew (2x7), where Judy is confronted by Detective Perez at the candlelight vigil for Steve. The back and forth between the two grants Cardellini the opportunity to display her range of dramatic and comedic prowess. She goes from comedy with Judy’s obliviousness to being the center of the cases Perez reminds her of, to drama when Judy snaps over being told she’s going to be watched, and finally back to comedy when Judy interrupts her own breakdown to run and pick up paper bags “because I don’t want a seal to choke.” You never know when Judy will make you laugh or cry, and that is something solely Cardellini could pull off.

While this is a show anchored by two equally powerful leads, the second season finds its catharsis in the penultimate episode It's Not You, It's Me (2x9). Why is this scene and Cardellini’s performance in particular the moment the entire season built to?

Ellys: Judy spends much of the second season carefully muting her own responses to what’s happening around and to her. She deems herself guilty for multiple deaths that aren’t her fault in the least, but Jen has been all too willing to let Judy share in that guilt. When Jen confesses the truth about Steve’s death, a powerful, devastating scene follows as Judy processes this information. Her face almost horrifically twists in on itself as she fights to hold in panic, terror, anger, and grief. Against all odds, Judy does compose herself. She reaches for Jen, ready to hug her, ready to forgive, ready to assign blame elsewhere. Jen, so caught up in her own self-loathing, lashes out at Judy, devaluing their friendship and Judy as a person. Judy flees, unwilling to play Jen’s game, even as Jen follows and continues to try and goad Judy into reacting. Neither Jen nor the audience is quite ready for how Judy responds then, with a broken, forceful scream for Jen to stop. In that moment, Cardellini absolutely smashes every bit of her character, as Judy collapses, crushed by the partially subconscious realization that she absolutely can’t fix this newest problem, that she has reached her limit. The subsequent moments in her car where Judy breaks into wails and beats her own chest are equally heartbreaking, not only because of how forceful Cardellini lets her character's anguish be, but also because of how true to who Judy is these reactions are.

Jessica: This is an immensely powerful episode and felt like a turning point in the series. The scene where Judy breaks down in the car was two years in the making. She’s been through so much, and she couldn’t hold her emotions in any longer. Cardellini’s performance was outstanding, and it made me feel for Judy after everything she’s done and everything that’s happened to her.

Matthew: I think that this specific scene works for multiple reasons. The first being that, obviously, it is the result of Jen finally revealing her secret regarding Steve’s death to Judy after the show dangled Judy’s potential reaction to said secret for eight prior episodes. However, I think that another reason that this scene really works is because it’s the payoff to the subtle exploration of Judy’s mental state this season. Throughout Season Two, the audience is shown scenes of Judy by herself reacting to the various predicaments she finds herself in. For example, in You Know What You Did (2x1), we have the scene of her crying by herself after being rendered homeless, as well as her anxiety attack in The Price You Pay (2x5) after accidentally telling Ben about Jen and Steve’s meeting right before his “disappearance.” In each of these scenes, Cardellini dials up Judy’s reactions until finally letting it all out in this specific scene, allowing her to fully unleash Judy’s self-loathing and despair. The combination of writing and acting from Cardellini are what transforms this into the season’s turning point, especially since it is after this scene that Judy and Jen are finally able to form a truly united front in the following episode.

Judy has the most interaction with other characters, experiencing a unique dynamic with everyone she encounters. What were the standout scenes that Cardellini shared with her supporting costars?

Ellys: Among all the shenanigans of the season, Judy forms a real love connection with Michelle (Natalie Morales) after the latter brings her mom to the care facility where Judy works. (This connection puts a wonderful new wrinkle in Judy’s fun dynamic with Riva’s Detective Perez as well). One of the most organic, endearing romances to play out on screen for a long time, the love story with Michelle lets Cardellini introduce a version of Judy that’s unfamiliar to us, one who is content and comfortable in her own skin.

Jessica: Cardellini excels with all her costars in Dead to Me especially Applegate. One of my favorite scenes is Judy dancing with Jen in Between You and Me (2x4) because they looked happy. It was one of the first times we got to see Cardellini portray the fun side of Judy. All the scenes of Judy and Jen scheming and leaning on each other were great, too. I also enjoyed Cardellini’s work with Morales. Judy finally got a glimpse at what a healthy relationship looks like, and I would love to see more of Judy and Michelle in the future. They had great chemistry, and I especially loved their date at the cafĂ© where they cooked dinner together. Cardellini’s scenes with Riva were always interesting as Judy could never be sure how much Detective Perez knew. Cardellini is just a versatile actress, and I enjoyed her interaction with everyone on this show.

Matthew: As I alluded to above, I think that Cardellini’s scenes with Riva as Perez are a major highlight of this season. Cardellini and Riva play off each other very well, and the decision to give them a shared lover in Michelle was a great choice on the writers’ part. I like that Perez actively dislikes Judy and never shifts from said disdain, even when she helps Judy out at the end of the season. I also like that Judy constantly tries to get Perez to like her. Such as when Judy, despite being rebuffed, still returns to check on Perez’s wellbeing after Michelle’s mother Flo is put on life support, as well as giving her framed art she made of Flo in the following episode. I also think that another highlight is Cardellini’s scenes with Katey Sagal as Judy’s mother Eleanor in the final two episodes of the season. These scenes provide an insight as to how Judy became the woman she is today. We see Eleanor repeatedly attempt to manipulate and guilt Judy into helping her get out of prison. She even used her daughter’s obviously painful memory of testifying against her mother against her. This provides a context for some of the roots of Judy’s anxiety and mental health issues and allows for Judy’s ultimate refusal to help her mother be a powerful moment of character development. On top of that, these scenes are wonderfully played by Cardellini and Sagal. Sagal infuses Eleanor with enough cunning to cloud Judy (and the audience) as to her true intentions until the end, and Cardellini can fully display her dramatic chops in these scenes.

No discussion of Dead to Me would be complete without breaking down the fireworks between Cardellini and Christina Applegate. They are truly a TV pairing for the ages. How does their chemistry form the show’s foundation?

Ellys: Applegate and Cardellini will go down in TV history as one of the greatest pairings ever, for movies or TV shows. They are lightning and thunder, chocolate and peanut butter, sweet and bitter all at once. I am infinitely thankful that Dead to Me’s crazy world exists within this exploration of female friendship, rage, careers, love, and infinite power to destroy and rebuild. Each actress’s performances would not work without the woman opposite them.

Jessica: Cardellini and Applegate play off each other perfectly. The two of them are the reason Judy and Jen’s relationship is special. Their scenes together are always emotional: either funny, hysterical, dramatic, or sad. The casting of Judy and Jen was vital in Dead to Me’s success because the audience needed to feel like Judy and Jen were connected. Cardellini and Applegate have succeeded in making Judy and Jen’s relationship believable.

Matthew: A lot of the show hinges on what the characters can provide for each other. Judy often must push Jen to open herself up and be able to make new discoveries, something we see literally in You Can’t Live Like This (2x3) where Judy pushes Jen until she discovers that the reason for the disturbance with her freezer isn’t Steve’s body pulling a “Tell-Tale Heart”, but rather a rat infestation in her garage. On the flip side, Jen often grounds Judy and provides a comforting presence for her when she finds herself spiraling, something seen in the same episode where Jen immediately tends to Judy when Judy sees that Jen had been testing the cleaning chemicals by dissolving some of the rats in the garage. However, Judy and Jen do sometimes switch positions in this dynamic, such as in Between You And Me where Judy spends most of the episode closed off after the women bury Steve in the woods and it’s up to Jen to get Judy to open about her feelings. Such a supportive, sometimes bordering on co-dependent friendship would fail without the chemistry between Cardellini and Applegate and their combined talents bringing it to life.

 If you could put together an award season For Your Consideration reel for Cardellini, what scenes from Dead to Me’s second round must be included and why?

Ellys: Among the scenes I would choose are: the breakfast scenes that bookend the season; the moment on the beach at Steve’s memorial when Judy sees Jen and Ben together; the first restaurant date with Michelle; the last interaction with her mother where Judy finally draws the line; and every second of the girl's trip Jen and Judy take to bury Steve’s body. All these scenes reflect how Cardellini keeps the show perfectly balanced; she always injects the pitch-perfect amount of wistful charisma to offset the rapid, twisted roller coaster ride the show takes us on.

Jessica: Obviously, I would add the scene of her breaking down at the end of It’s Not You, It’s Me (2x9). She was finally able to let Jen know how much pain she was in. The scene in You Know What You Did where she cries in the storage closet at work was also one of her best because we see how upset Judy is about where she is in her life after everything that she’s done. I also liked her scene on the beach in If You Only Knew where she tells Detective Perez that she’s a good person who is trying to do the right thing. Basically, Cardinelli excels at crying scenes. Here, we see that Judy’s right: she really does care about others and wants to do the right thing even though she hasn’t really done that so far in the show.

Matthew: In addition to some of the scenes I’ve already mentioned (Judy’s anxiety attack in The Price You Pay, her outburst to Perez in If Only You Knew, and her breakdown in It’s Not You, It’s Me), one scene that I would include in an FYC reel for Cardellini comes from You Don’t Have To (2x6), where Judy and Charlie converse in Jen’s car. It’s another opportunity for Cardellini to show her range as we get her awkwardly hilarious attempt to relate to Charlie by describing losing her virginity in a ‘78 Corvette, then tenderly describing how she believes you know if you like someone, then finishing it with some more humor by warning Charlie about STIs and how “syphilis made Benjamin Franklin crazy.” Another scene I would include is from If Only You Knew, in which Judy is forced to break up with Michelle over the discovery that she lives with Perez. It’s easy to see that Judy does not want to break things off with her new girlfriend but goes through with it anyway as per Jen’s request and Cardellini’s performance conveys the upset Judy is feeling perfectly.

What are your final thoughts on her winning this recognition for Dead to Me?

Ellys: There would be no Judy Hale as we know her without Cardellini, who relishes the escalating challenges and stakes of the role. I’m thrilled she gets to wrap up the role properly with a final season.

Jessica: Cardellini is very deserving of this award. I’ve watched her in shows in the past, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen her since ER. It’s been nice to see her again, and she’s just been amazing as Judy. I can’t wait to see her in Season Three of Dead to Me.

Matthew: Cardellini is someone who I’ve been a fan of for a long time: She is an actress who can excel in any role, whether it be a major role, such as Judy in Dead to Me or Lindsay Weir in Freaks and Geeks, or a minor one, such as Wendy Corduroy in Gravity Falls or Sylvia Rosen in Mad Men. Judy might just be the meatiest role of Cardellini’s yet, and she deserves every bit of recognition for delivering a complex performance that’s equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. Only somebody with the versatility of Cardellini could bring Judy Hale to life and make her a character rather than a caricature.

Attempting to fit Cardellini’s Judy Hale into a brief article is an impossibility. We could go on for days about the mischievous sparkle Cardellini uses to hint at Judy’s ingenuity. Judy’s muted agony at being unable to escape her optimistic nature even when crushed by someone else’s betrayal is fundamental to the show’s tone, and that quality is found solely through Cardellini’s intricately crafted performance. She brings to life the quiet fragmentation of an individual giving all her strength to someone else, while simultaneously sharing one of the most hopeful and uplifting character evolutions through Judy’s rediscovery of her own dreams and identity. Cardellini’s performance is one you want to carry with you long after the show is finished, the gift that keeps on giving.

Please use the comments to discuss all your favorite parts of Linda Cardellini’s performance throughout 2020.

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