The second season of USA Network's anthology series, this time about one of the most contentious divorce cases ever (and the tragic double murder that followed), has not stuck to a linear structure. The premiere began with San Diego housewife Betty being served divorce papers, and subsequent episodes have explored the history of and the dissolution of her relationship with her husband, Dan Broderick (Christian Slater). They've also touched on Betty's murder trial and the fact that she ended up killing her ex and his new wife, Linda (Rachel Keller).
But what the show hasn't explored, and what it touches on in "Scream Therapy," is the obsessive spiral Betty went on as her seemingly perfect life crumbled before her eyes. Past episodes showed subtle cracks in the foundation of Betty's relationship with Dan (and a few obvious-in-hindsight red flags, like the fact that she not only cared for their four children nearly single-handedly, but she also helped him all the way through medical school and then law school), allowing viewers to understand what she'd sacrificed for the marriage, and what Dan had refused to give up. This episode reveals what happens when Betty's simmering rage boils over — and how she refuses help in dealing with it.
It's Christmastime, and Betty's bitterly telling her girlfriends about how she's upset that Dan is taking the kids on their annual ski trip and she isn't. But she says that she had to let Dan do it, otherwise the kids would never understand that it was their father who ruined their perfect life.
When she gets home, she sees a bouquet of flowers at her doorstep — but they're from Dan, wishing her a Merry Christmas. Cut to Dan and Linda cleaning up a mess in their home: Apparently Betty had destroyed every single Christmas present wrapped under the tree. Maybe he shouldn't have sent those flowers.
Later, Betty's served legal papers: They're informing her the results of the hearing in the premiere. She's officially divorced, and now she and Dan have to go through mediation to split their assets. Plus, she can't get back custody of the kids without a psych evaluation. When she calls Dan to complain, Linda has recorded the new answering machine message from "the Brodericks."
To add insult to injury, Dan sends a message to Betty telling her that he's docking her alimony check every time she retaliates in a way he deems inappropriate (everything from calling him to leaving rude voicemails to trying to spend unscheduled time with her young sons).
In another rage-filled lunch with her girlfriends — where, by the way, she's aggressively chewing and talking with her mouth full, which is interesting to note because the real always-trim Betty gained weight during the divorce proceedings — they ask her why in the world she keeps calling Dan in the first place. It's because she has no other recourse, Betty tells them. Cut to: Betty leaving more swear-filled voicemails, stealing Dan's car antenna, vandalizing his house, and occasionally threatening to kill him. Finally, Dan has her arrested, but she just sits around the station until the cops let her go.
Dan's next tactic: Sending Betty a bill for $1300 (her infractions exceeded her monthly support check by that much), knowing full well she has no other source of income. (This actually happened, per the LA Times coverage of the Brodericks' divorce.) At a divorce mediation session, she reads a statement saying that she's too mad to discuss custody of her children until her financial security is ensured.
Finally, she hires a lawyer — a woman her friend recommends. But the lawyer's facing an uphill battle even outside of Betty's poor behavior: Dan Broderick has just been sworn in as president of the San Diego Bar Association. The lawyer tells Betty that she'll do her best to secure her desired settlement, which would include enough money to facilitate her lifestyle (since she facilitated his in their early years), and custody of her kids. The lawyer makes Betty promise not to call Dan, and seems to make progress at their first hearing: The judge yells at Dan for using the court to penalize Betty, and Betty agrees to undergo a psych evaluation so she can get back occasional custody of the kids.
While speaking with the court-appointed psychologist, Betty explains how she lost custody of the kids and admits to threatening Dan all the time.
It's clear Betty's still obsessed with her kids, sneaking over to help one son with his homework and picking up the other when he gets sick at school. So when she's granted custody of them for Easter weekend, and Dan changes his mind, she seems to lose it even more. She binges the kids' Easter candy as her older son calls to beg her to stop acting that way (in what truly feels like the least believable speech ever — in what world could a little boy pick up on the nuances of his parents' behavior and then tell his mother exactly what to do so she can get back custody of him?). Betty blows him off (in what world would the loving mother shown in previous scenes snap at her child and ignore what he's saying?) and seems to be paranoid that the call is being recorded. (She's right, as Dan logs another tape of complaints to submit to the court.)
Betty won't submit to the psychologist for second visit because she wants to stay mad at Dan so he'll pay for what he did. If she gets custody back, she won't have that anger to fuel her. Much like the past lawyers, this one doesn't fare well either: Betty fires her after learning that she'd contacted Dan to figure out how to get her paid (though you can't blame a woman for not wanting to work for free).
But at the next hearing, before stepping down, the lawyer goes on record saying she believes all the contempt motions are being served to delay the trial and further deplete the Brodericks' community property, giving Betty less in an eventual settlement. The judge seemingly agrees, reminding Dan of what he'd ruled about the contempt motions before and telling him to get Linda off the answering machine, and sentencing Betty to 25 days in jail (six served, 19 stayed) after she apologizes to the court.
As Betty sits in jail, Dan explains to his precocious older son that mommy is like a kid who kicks and scream when she doesn't get her way — she can't control herself and everything that is happening to her is her own fault. Later, he proposes to Linda (who accepts).
They won't stay happy for long — Betty walks out of jail with a determined look on her face.
When season 2 premiered, Dirty John creator Alexandra Cunningham told Refinery29 that she wanted to show how society has reframed the idea of what constitutes abuse, and how the kind of manipulation Dan employed would've affected Betty.
"At the time that Betty went to trial, the conventional societal wisdom about domestic abuse was black eyes. If there was no evidence of that, then there was no domestic abuse and there was no such thing as coercive control," she said.
This episode clearly shows that dynamic at play — but it also shows how, at the end of the day, Betty was still responsible for her own actions.