Three times divorced, Debra Newell (Connie Britton) feels like she has finally found the real thing when she meets John Meehan (Eric Bana). He’s successful, intelligent and attractive and treats her like a queen. Debra is head over heels in love and John has an answer for everything so all the early red flags and her children’s disapproval seem unimportant.
As the relationship moves ahead at breakneck pace, Debra’s daughters, Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner) become progressively more worried that John is not who he says he is. Now they will have to convince their mother that John is a monster posing as her knight in shining armour before someone gets seriously hurt.
At the same time the series explores John’s past from his childhood through his first marriage and his various other relationships and run ins with the police, painting a very dark picture indeed,
There are lots of elements at play in Dirty John. The first is around coercive control, gas lighting and how one person can manipulate another into believing their version of reality. It also looks at how hard it is to break away from this kind of control. Despite the fact that Debra is a beautiful, intelligent, successful woman she keeps turning back to John no matter how much evidence she has that he is shady AF.
There is also an examination how of how someone can mercilessly play the system and other people for their own benefit and to feed their addictions. John is so slippery and astute that he manages to escape the consequences of his actions at almost every turn. He is ruthless in using everything at his disposal to destroy anyone who might be getting in the way of his goals. From accessing their devices remotely to leaving dodgy yelp reviews, nuisance calling their places of work and raising questionable lawsuits.
Family dynamics also under scrutiny. Debra’s family is close knit to the point of almost creating claustrophobia but this is ultimately what saves Debra’s life. Their duty of care to each other means that they take care of each other no matter how bad the circumstances get. Although some of Debra’s mother’s attitude towards relationships and men are very unhelpful. John, on the other hand, does everything he can to keep his family away from his victims as they know his true nature. He uses and abuses them when he needs to but there is no love or loyalty anywhere in his life.
Connie Britton is outstanding as Debra, She completely embodies this softly-spoken, gentle, yet strong woman who always wants to believe the best of everyone. Bana is just as good as John. He’s never been my favourite but he pulls off every facet of John’s character and makes him extremely believable. He goes from charming to menacing in a flash and you can see why Debra fell for him… when he’s not making your skin crawl.
Both Temple and Garner are really good as Debra’s daughters but I had moments where I found them both very annoying. I think because they are both fairly spoiled and high maintenance but their love for their mother shines through. Sprague Grayden also turns in a strong performance as John’s first wife, Tonia.
Apparently the intention is to make this into an anthology series where a different “Dirty John” is examined in each season. I think that could go either way but if you are looking for a story contained within a single season and based on real happenings, this is a great one. If you have ever been the victim of coercive control though it is likely to be extremely triggering so approach with caution.