Why 'The Act' Creators Chose That Disturbing Final Shot

Showrunners Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca discuss the show's ambiguous closing scene and unbroken six-minute murder sequence.
Courtesy of Hulu
[This story contains spoilers for the season finale of The Act on Hulu.]
 
Hulu’s true-crime miniseries The Act ends on an image so haunting that it almost eclipses the brutal — albeit off-screen — murder that has played out just moments earlier.
 
Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King) is in prison for orchestrating the murder of her mother Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette), who has held her psychological prisoner for years, keeping her wheelchair-bound with unnecessary medical treatments and imaginary illnesses in a textbook case of Munchuasen by Proxy. The show depicts the years of abuse in such meticulous, awful detail that Gypsy’s desperate decision to enlist her boyfriend, Nick Godejohn (Calum Worthy), to kill Dee Dee is completely comprehensible. Yet when Gypsy returns to her prison cell, she imagines Dee Dee sitting beside her, a silent and comforting maternal presence. 
 
“Gypsy would often still speak of her mother in the present tense,” Michelle Dean, who spent years reporting on the case and wrote the 2016 BuzzFeed article upon which The Act is based, told The Hollywood Reporter. The final shot suggests that Dee Dee’s death did not set Gypsy free — she is not just physically imprisoned, but emotionally still deeply tied to her mother. It’s a disturbing and poignant ending, encapsulating the contradictions that make The Act so powerful. 
 
Dean and Nick Antosca, who served as showrunners and executive producers on the UCP series, discuss the finale’s key moments, how the show evokes fairy tales, and why they chose to depict Gypsy’s experience of the murder through an unbroken six-minute tracking shot.
 
 
Dee Dee is long dead at this point in the narrative, but she’s still a huge presence in the finale. The show even ends with Gypsy imagining that her mother is with her in prison. How did you decide on that final image?
 
MICHELLE DEAN Back when I was reporting the story, Gypsy would often still speak of her mother in the present tense. She would say repeatedly "My mother was my best friend, she was my best friend." The need to remind people of that suggested to me at the time that she simply couldn't let go of her mother that easily. There were, for Gypsy, certain experiences with Dee Dee that were good, and they were good in what any psychologist might call a twisted or unhealthy way, but that doesn't lessen the feeling she had of security and comfort in those experiences. 
 
NICK ANTOSCA That final moment in her prison cell, we thought that was the key image of the show. That’s what really leaves you with the question of “Is she ever free?” It was important to have that scene with Mel (Chloë Sevigny) leading into the final flashback, where she asks, “Who are you? Who are you now that your mother’s gone?” That’s the question that the audience is left with, and that Gypsy's left with.
 
DEAN I think we would all recognize the sentiment of “Your mother is always there,” even absent mothers. It’s developmental, it's there with you from when you're a tiny child. And there’s this fairy-tale myth of “If you push the witch out of the castle, she falls and there's no body and there's no aftermath, there's just happily ever after.” For us, keeping Dee Dee alive in the finale was really important, just making sure that we had Gypsy constantly returning to memories of her, and showed how Dee Dee permeates the way she looked at the whole world. 
 
 
The murder plays out off-screen in a six-minute, unbroken tracking shot, following Gypsy as she picks up the murder weapon, hands it to Nick, and then hides in the bathroom while he murders Dee Dee. How did you approach that scene?
 
ANTOSCA The whole show is built, in a sense, around what happened that night. What was important to us wasn't the murder itself, it was Gypsy's experience of the murder, and what was she going through in that bathroom while she waited for her mother to be killed? We put a lot of thought into how to capture that subjective experience, and how to bring the audience into what that night must have been like for her.
 
DEAN From the beginning, Nick and I knew that the murder was only going to play out from Gypsy's perspective, which is to say, she didn't see it. She only heard it. It was very important to the way that Gypsy oriented herself to this final act of violence, that she kept away from it in some sense — even though she couldn't, because she could hear the screaming and she could hear her mother calling her name. In the writers room, once we got to breaking the scene, the very first thing that all the experienced writers in the room said was “This is a oner.” There was just instant consensus on that.
 
Was it really one unbroken shot?
 
ANTOSCA Yes. It is unbroken. It's Joey and Calum and Zack Galler, our DP, and Steven Piet, our director, just practicing it over and over and over. There are moments in a production when everyone holds their breath and goes “Oh my God,” and you forget for a second that you’re making something, because you're just in the emotional experience of it. That was certainly one of those moments. It was scripted as a single shot, always. Even from when we pitched the show, I imagined it that way. Steven also directed episode five, which leads up to the night of the murder, and so we shot that finale sequence at the same time that we shot episode five, so that the actors could stay emotionally in the moment.
 
DEAN Because it was an inescapable experience for Gypsy at the time, that inescapability was something we thought needed to be replicated for the audience. The fact that once she set that in motion, it was just gonna happen. You couldn't hit pause, you couldn't cut to a different take in real life. What was happening was happening. So that plan for the scene was there from the very beginning.
 
ANTOSCA Joey King is one of the most incredible actresses that I've ever seen, and one of the remarkable things about her is that she's not method at all. She can turn it on and off, she can go to the most genuine, intense, emotional place, and then the camera goes off and she snaps back and she's cheerful and joking around. It's wild to watch! And one of the only times that I saw that she couldn't do that was during that unbroken shot. You come out of that and everybody was a little bit exhausted. That was a very powerful moment in production.
 
Gypsy’s father, Rod, comes to visit her in prison, and shows her some concrete photographic evidence of just how deep Dee Dee’s lies went. She’d always been told that he abandoned her, and her realizing that he didn’t is one of the only hopeful moments in the finale. 
 
DEAN Yeah, and in the real-life case it didn't go down exactly the way that we depicted it, although he did come to visit. He was very regretful about what had happened, and we took those elements from the real-life case and said to ourselves, “What does this meeting represent for Gypsy?” She didn't know so much of her own history, and it was hidden from her by her mother because it was a way of exercising control. Up until that point in the show, the Gypsy that we’re depicting thinks she knows what’s going on. She thinks she figured out her mother’s lie, and figured out a way to get out and have her happy ending. The arrest has shaken her, yes, but she still doesn't quite understand. And in that scene, Rod is the person who opens that up for her, because he has these very specific memories of her, and photographs to prove that they were real, and yet she doesn’t have them. That makes her look over the whole set of experiences that she's had until then and realize she doesn't really know what happened. Her sense of reality is unstable. 

ANTOSCA We wanted to highlight the moment where she really sees the depth of the lies that her mother told her, and Rod was the character that had to do it. We thought it was important to show that her father wasn't negligent. He was pushed out, and he was deceived as well. 

DEAN There is a moment of hope and a certain amount of connection, and that was true in the real-life case too, the hope represented by her reconciliation with her father. But I think more than anything else, Rod represents a certain kind — this word is going to make me sound so pretentious, but I can’t think of an alternative — an epistemological break. The world she knew, she actually didn’t know it, because her mother controlled her reality for so long. The programming runs that deep, and that’s a really hard thing for anybody to acknowledge, so we wanted to dramatize that moment for Gypsy.
 
One of the most haunting details from the case is the last thing Dee Dee said to Gypsy before going to sleep on the night she was murdered: “Don’t hurt me.” What’s your take on why she would say that?
 
DEAN In real life we don't know, because she didn't really leave behind a record of her actions, but we know that she must have known that things were deteriorating. We know that she suddenly switched doctors back to Springfield in the weeks before the murder, when she had been taking Gypsy to Kansas City for a long time, which suggests that she obviously was feeling insecure. The movie theater encounter with [Nick] was very unsettling. So she knew things were deteriorating. Did she expect this? I don't know that anybody could have expected this. In our show, we give that line some context with the nail clipping, but I think more broadly, it's something mothers and daughters say to each other all the time. "Please stop hurting me, don’t hurt me this way.” I think that ambiguity floats over that final moment, which is just phenomenal acting from Joey. The look on her face! 
 
That scene is one of several in the finale that feels like a genuinely tender moment between mother and daughter. The relationship is so deeply twisted and abusive, but as a viewer you still feel conflicted.
 
DEAN Yeah, and the tenderness, one way to look at it is it was part of the trap. Because knowing that you can still get that from your mother keeps so many of us in horrible relationships with our mothers for a really long time. That’s how abusive relationships work, is you're waiting for the drop of kindness that is generally offered as a carrot to keep going. It was a mix of both for them, and that's what made the relationship so intractable and inescapable for both of them, even though so many people will say things like “But [Gypsy] could have just gotten up out of the chair and walked.”
 
 
There’s a dreamlike, surreal, slippery quality to the finale, and in particular the sound design. How did you create that atmosphere?
 
ANTOSCA A lot of it is sound design, particularly just the sense of rising claustrophobia and dread in that one-shot sequence. But the slightly heightened, surreal quality of the storytelling is something that everybody involved talked about a lot. It’s a very fine line, because you're telling a true story, but it has the heightened quality of a fairy tale, which is appropriate to the story. You want it to live in that zone where you can be psychologically truthful and also have a heightened quality. And a lot of that is editing as well as sound design.
 
What did you want viewers to take away from the ending?
 
DEAN We wanted to leave people with the same sense of irresolution that exists in the real-life case. One of the things that sometimes happens in adapting true stories is the urge to wrap things up too cleanly, because of the demands of dramatic structure, and I think the final image of the show encapsulates a lot of what we wanted to say. People have different interpretations of it and I don't want to dictate how people react to that, but we wanted people to understand this as a really complex situation, with a lot of complex motives, not all of which really sort themselves out into a beautiful, logical explanation.
 
ANTOSCA This is such a stranger-than-fiction story, and a story that feels like “I can't imagine what that would have been like.” So we wanted the audience to come away with something like the emotional and psychological experience that Gypsy had. We wanted a very psychologically complicated ending: She escaped, but now she’s in prison. So is she free? Is she not free? We wanted to leave the audience with those questions.
 
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.