As Sunday’s finale of Dirty John, the television adaptation of the true-crime podcast, begins, Connie Britton’s Debra Newell is scared for her life but trying to remain upbeat around her daughters, an appropriate response for TFW one’s deranged con-man ex is on the loose. Poor Debra is talking restraining orders and police investigations with a furrowed brow, but the girls, Ronnie (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner), are full of their usual sass as they laze around and let their mother serve them beverages. When Debra suggests takeout, her daughters practically bark their orders her way. As twentysomethings, Ronnie and Terra are adults, but they revert to bratty adolescents in the presence of their mother, and not even a psycho stalker’s gonna change that.
The scene encapsulates what was, perhaps sneakily, the best thing about Dirty John: Temple and Garner’s relentless and highly entertaining portrayals of two spoiled Orange County princesses. In a different series, Ronnie and Terra might have been loving and devoted daughters—and completely forgettable, with no real edge. Lucky for viewers, in the show we got, older daughter Ronnie is all edge. Her hair is blown out to blond perfection, her walk is prim, and she doesn’t like John Meehan (Eric Bana), aka Dirty John, from the first second she meets him, a fact she makes clear through GIF-worthy dirty looks and petty asides. She’s horrible to her mom, horrible to John, and even a jerk to a cute ride-share driver in the finale, whom she then has to convince to do her a favor—and of course, it’s all extremely fun to watch. Who doesn’t love a mean girl? It’s rare to see such an openly snotty character, someone who can manage to be withering in a pink bustier and unicorn horn, outside of a teen comedy, but Temple’s performance works: You get the sense that she reserves particular bitchiness just for her mother, a suggestion of the frayed relationships Debra has all around her. Ronnie may be the second coming of Regina George, but she’s not fully a villain. Temple’s choice to play her as stuck-up and righteous makes the circumstances of the show both more believable and more interesting: We want for Ronnie, with her safe full of designer purses, to be wrong, but we can also see John’s red flags stack up and Debra’s desperation to ignore them. Ronnie, in a crude way, is trying to protect her mom, and she is also a proxy for viewers who know something’s up.
Of the two sisters, Terra is the sweeter one. She loves dogs, and she’s less openly hostile to John. But she’s also sheltered and naïve and, being Ronnie’s sister, prone to giving off attitude and exuding a similar sense of millennial entitlement. When she FaceTimes her mom after a breakup, she ugly-cries like a child midtantrum, expecting her mother to drop everything and comfort her. In the same way it’s hard to side with Ronnie at first because she’s so harsh, it’s hard to side with Terra because she seems so wounded about her mother prioritizing anyone over her, especially John. Viewers are meant to doubt Terra, too.
Temple, 29, and Garner, 24, play characters close to their ages, notable in the era of the 30-year-old TV teen. They act like real twentysomethings, which is to say sometimes they seem a whole lot younger and more immature than their years. They also both affect accents for the parts, filling their speech with California uptalk similar to the mode of speaking one of the daughters’ real-life counterparts employed on the original podcast. These accents inevitably led to complaints on social media, which reek of a familiar bias: Uptalk is associated with young women, so it’s looked down upon, but one of the big themes of Dirty John is that young women are much stronger than they are often given credit for. The voices are deliberate—both actresses discussed them in a bonus episode of the Dirty John podcast about the making of the TV show—and strike me as perfect for their characters, whose young, feminine, and privileged markers function as a kind of decoy for the ultimate role they’ll play in the end.
Viewers are supposed to underestimate the sisters, especially the sweeter Terra, who through most of the series is less prominent than Ronnie. That’s why it’s so perfect, both in real life and the show, that John ultimately meets his end thanks to Terra. She may seem like a clueless teenager with a high-pitched voice, but she fights off John, and she didn’t hesitate to defend herself even when it meant literally stabbing him. True, right after the fight, Terra almost reverts to a baby, barely able to speak. She never looks younger than the next time we see her, waiting in a hospital bed, trying to explain to a detective what happened. But in Garner’s capable hands, the reunion with her mother and sister is strangely gripping, the embraces pointing to bonds more convincingly deep than we might have expected from a soapy Bravo adaptation of a podcast. (Though Ronnie does get a zinger in: “What are you questioning her about? You should give her a goddamn medal.”)
One can imagine what a neater ending to this series might look like, one that might not entail Eric Bana getting stabbed in the eye, but ultimately this isn’t a neat story. Watching Terra take down John isn’t really played as inspiring; it looks horrific. Garner and Temple’s performances don’t paint this as a fully happy ending and show that “winning” can also be harrowing and painful. For daughters learning to see their mothers as imperfect and the world as a place that’s fundamentally unfair and scary, growing up can be that way—though, thankfully, it’s usually not quite so bloody.