Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Season 3 of the Netflix series, Dead to Me.
With each new season of Dead to Me, stars Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are routinely praised for their masterful performances as the show’s dual protagonists, Jen and Judy. While Applegate and Cardellini are absolutely meriting of the attention they receive, James Marsden’s work on the show as twin brothers Ben and Steve Wood has been seriously underappreciated. Bountifully charismatic and richly expressive, Marsden has long been one of Hollywood’s most underrated movie stars. Dead to Me’s final season gives Marsden the emotionally rich room needed to prove he’s often the best part of anything he’s in.
Marsden’s multifaceted performance is exemplified from the moment his character appears in Season 3, shortly after Ben drives away from drunkenly crashing into Jen and Judy. Not knowing he hit them, Ben arrives at their house looking for Jen. Still drunk and bleeding from the nose, Ben finds Jen’s son, Charlie (Sam McCarthy), and the two bond before Charlie drives him to the hospital. Marsden’s scenes in the first episode require him to carefully balance three distinct axes of performance. Marsden continues to play Ben as the good-natured and corny character he established in the show’s second season. Additionally, Marsden concentrates Ben’s essence through a drunken lens. Marsden convincingly plays drunk by focusing his character’s inebriation into his expressiveness in addition to his body. Through a series of brow movements, misaligned looks, and mouth shrugs, Marsden communicates Ben’s inebriation without painting over Ben’s amiable nature.
Bringing an Emotional Depth to His Portrayals
Most impressively, Marsden effectively layers the first two axes with a range of complicated feelings. In these scenes, Ben experiences multiple significant revelations in quick succession. When Charlie asks him how he ended up in this state, Ben remembers that the news of his brother’s death motivated his drinking. Marsden breaks his character’s contemplative glare with a short outburst of tears before pulling it together to reciprocate Charlie’s sympathies. Later, at the hospital, Ben runs into Judy and discovers he crashed into Judy and Jen’s car when he was drunk. Marsden’s expressive eyes carry the weight of this revelation. Marsden stares slightly downward, breaking eye contact with Cardellini, and his eyes twitch subtly back and forth as they well up. As Ben works up the courage to tell Judy he was the driver, a cop walks by them, stunning him with fear. Now fearful, Ben changes his mind and tells Judy about Steve’s death. Again, Marsden’s expressive eyes communicate each thought as his character makes a decision that shapes Ben’s narrative for the rest of the season.
Ben’s emotional angst allows Marsden to execute some of the season’s most affecting moments. After hearing Jen tell her younger son, Henry (Luke Roessler), that she was in a hit-and-run, Ben escapes to the bathroom to avoid breaking down in front of her. Marsden’s restrained performance heart wrenchingly expresses Ben’s guilt. At the moment Ben loses control, Marsden slaps his hand over his mouth and allows only muted cries to break through. After gaining composure, Ben looks into the bathroom mirror to find his reflection replaced by the image of his twin brother. Sinisterly stoic, Marsden delivers Steve’s only line in this scene, “You’re a real piece of shit, you know that?” with menacing calm. Not only does Marsden play his dual role well in this moment, but the scene also reminds audiences just how incredibly Marsden has distinguished his role as Ben from that as Steve. Powerfully, the scene ends with Ben agreeing with his imagined brother’s statement in a close-up that demonstrates just how remorseful he is. Marsden looks directly forward, and gently nods as he holds back tears. In one of the season’s most powerful scenes, Marsden communicates the emotional history between both of his characters, while keeping them distinct from one another.
James Marsden Still Keeps Ben’s Goofy Side
Though Ben has far more emotional complexity in Season 3, Marsden’s performance is particularly exceptional because of his ability to still provide a goofy counter to Jen’s acerbic personality. After his brother’s funeral, Ben helps Jen out of a locked room that houses his mother’s terrifying twin doll collection. When Jen asks why they exist, he responds, “we grew out of dolls, and my mom…didn’t.” Marsden pauses before the last word, emphasizes it, and lingers on the vowel for hilarious comic effect. Later, when Jen models her coping mechanism for Ben — listening to death metal at full volume in her car — Marsden’s wide eyes and shifting glances humorously express Ben’s terror. Marsden’s comedic timing allows Ben to be just as funny and charming as he is emotionally nuanced.
From his first appearance in Dead to Me’s third season, Marsden adds even more new dimensions to his performance as Ben and Steve Wood. He brings layered emotional depth to his character’s alcoholism, empathetically captures the nuanced complexities of guilt, and charmingly counterbalances Applegate. Marsden’s role is expanded in the show’s final season and his greater presence further cements how much his work has contributed to the series, and just how incredible he is as an actor.