The final season of the Netflix show, which is now streaming, wasn't typical for the seasoned actresses. Applegate's real-life multiple sclerosis diagnosis threw a big wrench in it. The pair had already developed a close friendship playing best friends with secrets in the show, and only grew closer as Cardellini took on the role of advocate on set for Applegate.
"I think what you see in the show is that Christina is absolutely as brilliant as she’s ever been, and she is just an incredible actress," Cardellini told the Hollywood Reporter. "She can really do it all, and I can’t wait for people to see how amazing she and the season are."
Applegate has said that she started experiencing minor symptoms of MS — an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system — in January 2021. Four months later, when Dead to Me began production on its final season, her symptoms had escalated drastically and she didn't yet have a diagnosis. Soon after, she was told she had MS and the show went on hiatus for five months so she could begin treatment. Showrunner Liz Feldman gave Applegate the option of not returning, but she insisted. She had to use a wheelchair on the set, be physically propped up in some scenes and take naps to get through the long work days.
"I just wanted her to do what was the best for her," Cardellini, who plays Judy to Applegate's Jen, said. "I said, 'It doesn’t matter about the show. Do what’s best for you. Nothing else matters but you.' Our health, our lives, that’s the most important thing. Jobs always come second. [We] have both been in this industry long enough to realize things like that can come and go." However, Applegate "was really determined to want to do it."
She said getting through it together is "what friends do. I’ve definitely been helped through things and I just wanted to be a friend to my friend. If she wants to work, then I’m going to help with that. If she wants to stay home, then I’m going to help with that. Whatever it takes to be a good friend."
That bond between the women on-screen is one that is even tighter when the cameras aren't rolling.
"Jen and Judy are friends, and you see them leaning on each other in the show," the ER and Freaks and Geeks alum explained. "But Linda and Christina are also friends, and we leaned on each other. And, as I would lean on her, I would hope she would lean on me. I just wanted to be the best support for anything she needed. As I wanted to be the season before, I also wanted to be that this season amid extraordinary challenges. You just want what’s best for your friends, and you just want to love them. And we both mama bear each other. She’d do the same for me."
Filming their final scenes together were emotional for many reasons. Not only was the show ending, and the story of these friends concluding, but they had been through it.
"There's one line where I say, 'I had the best time.' And I think when we did that in the table read, it gutted me because we really all have had some of the best times — some of the worst times and some of the best times — together," Cardellini said. "It really resonated for all of us. When you see us cry, those are real tears of us knowing we’re saying goodbye. We’ll be friends forever, but we won’t be seeing each other on set every day. We were sitting on the bed and crying and, there was nothing pretty about it — there’s snot and we both look wrecked — and so we looked at each other and laughed."
Cardellini said it was saying goodbye to their everyday for the past three years, explaining, "We spent a lot of time together on set. Sometimes 12-hour days, five days a week. You go through years together, and you see peoples’ lives change in good and bad ways. And that’s a really important thing, having the community we have to lean on when you’re going through some really extraordinary circumstances. We had a really hard time saying goodbye. Jen and Judy, and Linda and Christina were crying some really big tears, but I think it was felt throughout."
Cardellini was able to pay tribute to her friend at Applegate's Hollywood Walk of Fame star ceremony last week. It was Applegate's first public appearance since her diagnosis. Prior to the event, the Married With Children alum expressed nervousness over the world seeing her "for the first time as a disabled person." She now uses a cane and skipped shoes for the event because MS can cause pain and numbness in the feet.
"Christina is a beautiful person inside and out" and a "champion for anyone she loves," Cardellini said in her speech at the event. "She is exactly the person you want in your corner — a fiercely loyal, honest and generous friend and person. If you are lucky enough to have her in your life, you know that you are supported to no end and that she will do anything in her power for you, and that no matter how dire the situation feels, she will also always make you laugh."