The painful truth about Debra’s sister’s death is revealed in episode 4 of ‘Dirty John,’ putting her family’s fears into chilling perspective.
Episode 4 of Dirty John begins with a flashback, 20 years in the past, at the home of Debra’s mom, Arlane. Sitting at the table is a man crying his eyes out. It’s her son-in-law Bobby and he’s heartbroken because Arlane’s daughter Cindi (Debra’s older sister) wants to separate. “You’ve just got to give it time,” Arlane urges. In another scene her daughter tries to explain why she’s beyond ready to leave her high school sweetheart. “Years of not listening to me, of trying to control everything that I do,” Cindi tells her mom. “I finally say that I want to leave, that I am leaving, and then he wants to go to counseling…”
Cindi then pleads her case to Arlane; Bobby won’t let her wear a bikini on the beach or go grocery shopping – or do anything – alone. It doesn’t matter to Arlane, a deeply religious woman who believes in remaining true to your vows. Her advice to her daughter is to stick it out because – if she breaks her promise – it could “haunt” her for the rest of her life. Quoting from the Bible, Arlane tells Cindi, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…”
But, while Arlane’s urging Cindi to stay in the marriage, Bobby’s going to his friend’s house and convincing his pal’s wife to lend him a gun. He’s a store manager now, he tells her. There have been “three muggings in the last five weeks,” and he wants to protect himself. There’s a sense that this whole plotline, which is based on a true story, is going to end horribly wrong.
Fast-forward to the future and Veronica and Debra have gone to the Newport Beach PD to urge the cops to do something about John who is currently lying in a hospital bed wondering where his wife is. They speak to a detective who seems stunned by John and Debra’s whirlwind romance. “So it just all happened pretty fast then once he got out [of prison] – you guys meeting, getting together, I guess?” he asks. Veronica accuses the detective of victim-shaming her mom. He points out that his hands are tied because, there’s not much he can do. All he has, he says, is “a bad guy with a bad history” who hasn’t broken any laws in Newport Beach.
Even Debra admits the same thing to her mom when she sees her. While Arlane fears that she could have made things worse for her daughter by liking John so much, Debra seems to second-guess her decision to leave her husband and go into hiding. “[Nobody’s] without sin and everybody can be saved,” she tells her mom. “You say it all the time. Nobody’s perfect.” No. Arlane is convinced that Debra made a lucky escape. “Thank God you’re away from him,” she cries, “because I couldn’t lose another daughter.”
And, in a flashback, we see the very moment two cops turn up at Arlane’s front door 20 years earlier to tell her that there had been a shooting. That her son-in-law Bobby shot her daughter Cindi, before turning the gun on himself. Bobby survived. Cindi didn’t. Shocked, Arlane shakes, she goes around in circles, falls to the floor, on her knees, in front of the officers and prays for God’s help. Then she takes a deep breath and says, “I can do this. I’m not alone.”
It’s that fervent faith that directs her actions after Cindi’s death. When she tells her 11-year-old grandson Toby that his daddy killed his mommy, she reassures him that “Jesus will help us…” Arlane refuses to shun Bobby. When she visits her son-in-law at the Orange County Jail and tells him that effectively she hates the sin but loves the sinner, even he is stunned. Arlane testifies on the stand for the defense during Bobby’s trial. “Bobby did a terrible thing. The worst thing,” she says. But he wasn’t “in his right mind” when he did it. She forgives him because “his heart was full of love” and he “just lost his way.”
With this storyline going on in the background, it doesn’t seem so bizarre when – despite the restraining orders, the lies, the prison time, the addiction to painkillers, the attempt to build a gun piece by piece – Debra takes John back. She comes out of hiding, takes off the dark wig and visits him. John has an excuse to explain away all the horrible things he’s done. Lying in a hospital bed, he looks pitiful. She looks in love and ready to forgive.
That’s when we see in a flashback exactly what happened to Cindi two decades earlier. She was sitting at her kitchen table, going through paperwork. Bobby walked up behind her, pointed a gun at the back of her head and shot. And, as we all know from the first episode of Dirty John, he’s a free man now and even attends the same church as Arlane, who forgives him, loves him, and hugs him when she sees him.