There are TV finales, and then there’s the season 1 finale of Dirty John, “This Young Woman Fought Like Hell.” At face value, the twists of the Bravo season-ender are shocking. After episodes upon episodes of expecting to see villain John Meehan (Eric Bana) attempt to kill his estranged wife Debra Newell (Connie Britton), we realize Dirty John was tricking us all along. John actually plans to viciously murder Debra’s daughter, Terra Newell (Julia Garner). But Terra turns the tables on John, and kills him instead. It’s a bloody tragedy.
Then, you remember this entire awful situation is real. The real-life Terra Newell killed John Meehan in self-defense in August 2016, ending his reign of terror for good. In the lead-up to “Young Woman’s” Bravo debut, Newell’s real-life mother Debra Newell was unsurprisingly unexcited to watch one of her greatest family tragedies play out on the national stage for John’s millions of viewers to see.
Yet, her message about the finale, the series, and what it all means for fans at home, is far more optimistic than anyone would guess.
“‘Surreal’ is the best word to describe it,” Newell told Refinery29, ruminating on watching the bloody season finale of Dirty John, which would premiere days later. Newell had seen “bits and pieces” of the episode at this point, including the final scene, where Debra calls L.A. Times journalist Chris Goffard, who would eventually go on to create the Dirty John podcast. Newell likes “that part,” but knows getting through the full 43-minute installment will be “difficult.” The series’ Wondery podcast inspiration may have been listened to by over 30 million people, but it didn’t depict every facet of her life — and the moment her daughter had to take someone’s life — in painstaking visual detail with the help of Hollywood darlings like Connie Britton and Eric Bana.
“Young Woman,” is certainly a painstaking look at Terra and John’s final confrontation. Viewers see John pounce on Terra in a parking lot near her home. He begins slashing at her and seems to have the upper hand until Terra peddle kicks at her attacker, flinging his knife into the air. In an instant, Terra picks up the weapon and begins slashing at John in return. She stabs him 13 times, with the final blow going through John’s eye. Terra is covered in blood and in immediate shock. Eventually, she calls her mother sobbing.
Terra isn’t triumphant for vanquishing the monster — she’s devastated by the fact that she nearly died and had to kill someone else. This is exactly what happened in reality.
Although the real-life Terra Newell is doing “great,” all horrors considered, she is still recovering from her John-inflicted trauma, according to her mom. “Terra is trying to do her best with PTSD,” Debra said after an event for Oxygen’s Dirty John companion piece, documentary Dirty John, Dirty Truth. “She’s having some triggers right now because of everything happening with the series. But she’ll get better … She’s had very intensive therapy for about six months, and she’s back in now.”
While Terra is currently taking care of herself, Debra is happy to share the dark end of her family’s brush with Meehan with the world. “It’s a story to tell others to make them aware of what could happen to them,” she continued. “You almost have to remove yourself a little bit.”
This kind of cool maturity about her situation is what led Newell’s therapist to say she doesn’t even need therapy. “I said, ‘Really?’ I went for a while, but they felt like I’m able to process it.” Newell, a self-described “naturally happy person” recalled. “That had so much to do with being able to be healthy again. I had a lot of guilt at one point. I had to learn [the mechanics of] what had happened to me.”
Now, Newell says she is a survivor of “coercive control,” a form of psychological and domestic abuse where a partner may not physically assault their loved one, they do use tactics including monitoring, isolation, gaslighting, and manipulation to control them. Criminal behavior analyst Laura Richards, an international expert on the subject, confirmed during the Dirty Truth event that Meehan inflicted all the markers of coercive control on his wife.
Still, when thinking about the Dirty John finale, Newell is the picture of content and composure. Even when she talks about the woman who had to bring her terror to life once more, Friday Night Lights shining star Britton, Newell can only dole out compliments.
“She got my voice and my mannerisms down perfectly," Newell confirmed. "I was in a dangerous situation, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for Connie to show the lighter side of me — I'm not always that nice or serious!”
Dirty John, The Dirty Truth premieres Monday, January 14 on Oxygen.