The title of the Dirty John finale hints at the true story's dramatic ending: "This Young Woman Fought Like Hell." Ever since the last episode, John Meehan (a terrifying Eric Bana) and the Newell women have been on a collision course. Until now, John — expert con-man and ex-con — had the clear upper hand. But thanks to one young woman's fighting like hell, the threat of "Dirty" John Meehan is vanquished from the Newells' lives forever.
For Eric Bana, the ending couldn't be more perfect. "There's a kind of poetic genius in what happened in the final episode, and what happened in real life," Bana told Refinery29 on a recent phone call.
On August 20, 2016, John Meehan ambushed Terra Newell in the parking lot outside her apartment complex in Irvine, CA. Terra, who was a foot shorter, 33 pounds lighter, and 32 years younger than Meehan, was wholly unprepared for the fight. But she had an unexpected weapon in her arsenal: intimate knowledge of The Walking Dead.
Just from watching the show, Terra picked up on practical survival skills useful for the zombie apocalypse — or for a knife fight with Meehan. For example, Terra automatically knew how to hold a knife securely. She also knew exactly what it would take to kill Meehan. As Christopher Goffard of the L.A. Times narrates in Dirty John, "An important feature of zombie combat is that the enemy is undeterred unless you get it in the head." Terra had to aim for Meehan's head.
The final episode of the Dirty John podcast briefly switches genres and becomes an action show. Goffard narrates, in extreme detail, the play-by-play of Terra's fight with Meehan. How Terra's sister warned her to watch out for Meehan's white Camry — but since he switched cars, Terra wasn't watching for the right person. How Meehan wrestled Terra to the pavement and stabbed her pocketbook with his knife, eventually piercing her skin. How Terra pedal-kicked the knife from Meehan's hands and stabbed him 13 times, including a devastating blow to his eye that pierced his brain — her "zombie kill." Around them, Terra's Australian shepherd, Cash, barked and nipped at Meehan's ankles.
Thanks to Terra's input, the Bravo show could depict an accurate, if slightly streamlined, version of these events. "Terra spoke to the stunt coordinator and gave really good detail," Bana explained. "She was able to provide some really specific marks of what happened." Including, Bana adds, the dog's movements.
Terra incapacitated Meehan with the knife, but she was still in danger. Skylar Sepulveda, a 14-year-old resident of the apartment complex, witnessed the fight from her window and ran down to help Terra. Though the fight was on full display, Sepulveda was the only bystander to get involved. "There was a gash where you could see blood and muscle and tissue. For sure it was the deepest cut that I’ve ever seen in real life," Sepulveda describes in the podcast. Both Terra and Meehan were taken to the hospital, where Terra recovered. Meehan died four days later, on August 24. His organs were too ravaged by drug use to be harvested. He was 57.
After a day and a half of filming (and getting pretend stabbed in the eye), Bana completely understood the mechanics of Terra and Meehan's fight. What Bana was less clear on was Meehan's reasoning in going after Terra in the the first place.
"John's motivations are always a mystery to me," Bana said. "I don't think there was a very clearly defined through line in his motivation for a lot of things, other than this is what he does, and he’s not capable of being any different. He's addicted to the drama and the mayhem."
Bana allowed his character to remain an enigma. "I wasn't interested in understanding a possible solution for him. He would’ve been one of those people who could've gone to therapy for 40 years and never gotten to the bottom of his problems. The thought that we’re going to get to the bottom of them is ridiculous," Bana pointed out. Rather than understand Meehan, Bana's aim was to create a compelling character that would both fascinate and repel audiences. Bana wanted to "keep [audiences] tagging along and witness the shocking behavior of his."
In the Dirty John podcast, Goffard speculates as to why Meehan went after Terra. Meehan was raised by a father that bragged about his (unproven) lineage to a famous mafia boss, and imparted mafia tactics to his son. "They didn’t go after the enemies themselves; a dead enemy couldn’t suffer after all. You went after the loved ones. You went after their families," Goffard explains. Meehan wanted to hurt Debra for leaving him and seeking legal action. So, he went after what she loved most: her children.
Luckily, Meehan didn't succeed in his plan — though as the episode shows, he came terrifyingly close. Currently, Terra and Debra are alive and thriving. According to Goffard's reporting, Debra is close to her children and is no longer pursuing relationships. She's "over John" and understands, now, that he was "some kind of sociopath."
Terra has taken steps to recover from this traumatic ordeal. She's in therapy, and she quit her job at the dog kennel because she found the sound of dogs barking too triggering.
Bana, too, has left Meehan behind — though not before getting even closer to the real life Meehan than he had while playing the character. Once Dirty John wrapped filming, Bana finally met Meehan's family. "I’ve learned over the years that you've really got to protect yourself in terms of what it is you're trying to do and what perspective you're trying to bring to a character like that. I was trying to come up with my own version of John. But it was nice to meet extended family at the pilot," Bana said.
As for the rest of us? Bana hopes viewers never forget John Meehan — and everyone else in the world still likes him (as in Eric Bana, the actor). "That's one of the great things that comes out of the show’s popularity. It makes people aware. Hopefully people speak up if they feel like somethings wrong with someone's partner. Sometimes it’s hard for the person they're close to to see the truth," Bana concluded.