There are obvious reasons Bravo’s Dirty John is scary. Debra Newell (Connie Britton) finds her con-man love interest John Meehan (Eric Bana) via internet dating, making all swipe-rights seem like a life or death decision. She ignores every warning from her very correct daughters (Juno Temple and Julia Garner) about the dangers of John. Within weeks, Debra has opened up her life, home, and emergency cash fund to a man she doesn’t actually know. And it all really happened.
While viewers watch John infect every corner of Debra’s life, a threat hovers above the destruction: “This could happen to you.” That threat is what makes Dirty John so truly dirty — the reveal that you can be a powerful, successful, thoughtful woman and still end up married to a mob-obsessed career criminal with a drug habit. It could really happen to you.
Sunday night’s third episode, “Remember It Was Me,” proves Debbie and John’s dark dynamic wasn’t merely an accident. Rather, John’s entire M.O. is attaching himself to the strongest women he could find and wrecking their lives.
Throughout Dirty John’s first few episodes, we hear about John’s “crazy ex.” We, like Debbie, are supposed to believe this mystery woman is the reason none of John’s stories about himself line up. Everything from the “doctor’s” subtle refusal to pay rent to his request to put thousands of dollars in Debbie’s bank account are blamed on his first wife.
Then, we meet Tonia Sellers (Sprague Grayden) in “Remember.” Surprise, surprise, she isn’t the money-hungry shrew John, a lifetime liar, has painted her as. Tonia is a sweet, thoughtful, and talented nurse with a family who loves her. She is the kind of woman who is so good, John’s friends were shocked she would marry their pal, a man they call “Filthy John.” It’s Tonia who puts John on the path to nursing school and supports him the whole way through that difficult journey.
John repaid Tonia for her relentless support by cheating on her and stashing stolen drugs in their home. Towards the midpoint of “Remember,” Tonia heads to a medical conference where she strikes up a conversation with one of the accomplished speakers, a beautiful and successful pediatric neurosurgeon named Maggie (Gillian Alexy). Maggie explains she has been dating a man for about 10 months and thinks he might be life partner material. They’re even talking about kids. By the end of the conversation it becomes clear Maggie’s boyfriend of nearly a year, the prospective father of her children, is John Meehan.
When Tonia confronts her husband, he only has one response: Not only is Maggie wealthy, “she even looks expensive.” That is why the master manipulator chose Maggie as his next target — she is attractive precisely because she is a woman operating at the top of her game. You would expect a neurosurgeon, one of the most educated people in the world, to see through John’s litany of lies and, yet, she does not. As we see through John’s interactions with Debbie, he is an expert at realizing the kinds of fears an accomplished single woman may have and then using those fears against her.
It seems likely the tricks John used to trap Debbie were honed during relationships like the one he had with Maggie.
As the Wondery-L.A. Times podcast Bravo’s Dirty John is based off of confirms, John’s game isn’t dramatized for Bravo. The actual Meehan tricked a gynecologist, a nurse anesthetist, and a PR professional over the years, among other victims. The anesthetist told the Times’ Christopher Goffard that all of these women may be wildly capable individuals with lots of brain power, but “the heart is a different organ.”
Pop culture has a habit of enforcing the idea that men tend to only prey on society’s most marginalized women. On The Deuce, pimps play a game of finding doe-eyed, lonely young women in New York City transit centers and manipulating them into sex work. The nightmare plot of The Handmaid’s Tale hinges on the ability of powerful men to kidnap fertile women and strip them of their rights. On Grey’s Anatomy, we learn Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), was a homeless teen who lived out of her car before finding herself in an abusive marriage. It is heavily suggested Jo’s ex-husband Paul Stadler (Glee’s Matthew Morrison) entered a relationship with her because she was already vulnerable.
Dirty John serves as a reminder to Bravo’s extremely affluent viewership that the monsters aren’t only outside of the gates. They can find their way inside of any ivory tower too — and are probably looking for a faulty back door right now.
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