One of the most important things about a divorce is learning to pick your battles. For Betty Broderick, a California socialite, that proved impossible. In the engrossing eight-part series Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, Amanda Peet (Brockmire) and Christian Slater (Mr. Robot) portray Betty and Dan Broderick, an affluent San Diego couple whose bitter divorce in the ’80s resulted in unfathomable verbal and mental abuses, rage-fueled assaults (Betty drove her car through Dan’s front door) and ultimately, and tragically, a double homicide.
Peet, who grew up in New York City, was unfamiliar with the story and the 1992 made-for-TV movies about Betty starring Meredith Baxter, but was immediately drawn to the material after reading the script.
“I thought [their story] was very compelling because they appeared to have all the trappings and accoutrements of a normal suburban life and marriage,” Peet says. “Part of the reason it’s so captivating is because they seemed so normal. The run-up to the divorce was just so normal and relatable. There didn’t seem to be a lot of evidence of mental illness or deep psychological issues until it was too late.”
Dirty John creator and writer Alexandra Cunningham begins this ill-fated story roughly three years before the homicides, introducing us to a well-dressed and sharp-looking Betty as she prepares for a divorce settlement meeting. Through flashbacks, we see an innocent and rule-following Betty who was intoxicated with the smitten and wickedly smart Dan. They married in 1969, and while Dan completed both medical and law school and built a successful career, Betty supported him and mothered their four children.
“I think Alexandra did a really beautiful job of portraying this girl from the ’50s who grew up with the social norms of that era, and her entire identity was wrapped up in her marriage to Dan and in being a mother,” tells Peet. “Even though she was very, very smart and educated, that part of her life fell by the wayside as soon as she was pregnant, and I think that there are probably just a lot of women, including my mother, who can relate to the era in which women were really told either overtly or subliminally that once you’re a mother, that becomes your identity, and everything else is swallowed up in the sphere of domesticity. For some women, I think that had devastating results, ramifications.”
For Betty, Dan was her everything, and when he left her for his new assistant — the beautiful and bright 20-something Linda Kolkena — she was left feeling betrayed and helpless. Betty’s attempts to fight back only fueled her rage and slowly destabilized her, while Dan’s cold confidence and calculating legal savvy made him somewhat immune to just how irrational Betty had become, until it was too late. On an early Sunday morning in November 1989, Betty drove over to Dan’s San Diego mansion, used a key she stole from her daughter to get into his house, snuck into the bedroom Dan shared with his new bride Linda, and pulled out and fired her .38 as they slept.
So much was lost in this battle.
For Peet, who is the wife of Game of Thrones co-creator and writer David Benioff and mother to their three children, getting into Betty’s headspace was extremely difficult.
“It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she concludes. “It was difficult to let go of my judgment of her, but I think most actors probably find it thrilling to explore mental illness and to explore why somebody snaps, and I know I do. I find it deeply compelling. What is sanity, and what causes someone to cross the line? How much of it is nurture? How much of it is nature?”
No one will ever really know.
Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story
Tuesdays beginning June 2
The Real Betty Broderick
If Betty Broderick’s name rings familiar, her highly publicized story was the subject of two CBS films in 1992 starring Meredith Baxter — A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story and Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter, along with several books. Her high-profile case split American public opinion in half, as some sided with Betty. While Betty’s first trial ended in a mistrial, in 1991 she was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. Now age 72, she is still incarcerated at the California Institution for Women. She was denied parole in 2010 and 2017.