9:15am PT by Emma Dibdin
‘The Act’: Hulu True-Crime Series Dissects Female Violence
There’s no shortage of prestige true-crime storytelling on television in 2019, but the new Hulu miniseries The Act has a unique spin on the genre in that both its central criminals are women. Amidst a seemingly endless array of stories about male serial killers and abusers, the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard stands out as a disturbing and nuanced psychological horror story between a mother and a daughter.
As originally chronicled by Michelle Dean in a 2016 BuzzFeed article, Dee Dee (played in the show by Patricia Arquette) was known in her Missouri community as a devoted mother and full-time caregiver to her sickly, wheelchair-bound daughter, Gypsy (Joey King). But after Dee Dee was murdered, it emerged that she had fabricated Gypsy's illness and subjected her perfectly healthy daughter to a string of unnecessary and invasive medical procedures, keeping her prisoner both physically and psychologically. Gypsy had orchestrated her mother’s murder after two decades of this abuse, and is currently serving a 10-year sentence for second-degree murder.
"I’m interested in female interpersonal violence, and the ways it operates differently from male interpersonal violence, but is equally as vicious," Dean, who serves as co-showrunner and executive producer of the Universal Content Productions series, told The Hollywood Reporter at the show's New York premiere. As Dean wrote in her original article, Dee Dee’s behavior is indicative of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a disorder seen predominantly in women.
"It is not exclusively but mostly mothers, and I think it comes out of the pathology that we put on mothers," Dean said. "We say, 'You must care for your child, you must keep them from harm.' At a certain point that anxiety, in someone like Dee Dee who had pre-existing issues from her own family background, it curdles into this sour thing that actually ends up harming the child."
As depicted in The Act, a key part of Dee Dee and Gypsy's twisted bond is their shared love of Disney movies, which symbolize both Dee Dee's infantilization of her daughter and Gypsy's sheltered view of the world. "That's the stuff that little girls are fed," Dean noted, "and Gypsy did live out a Prince Charming fantasy about how she was going to get out of this situation." It was only after meeting her boyfriend, Nick Godejohn (Calum Worthy), that Gypsy saw a way out for herself and ultimately enlisted him to kill her mother.
"It didn’t seem to occur to her that she had the agency and power to walk away. She needed a savior," Dean said. "It's interesting to see how she digested [the Prince Charming fantasy] and spit it back out and tried to live it, and it just didn't work, because it's not a real paradigm."
Co-showrunner and executive producer Nick Antosca said he was drawn by the unexpectedly universal heart of the story: "This is the most disturbing coming-of-age story that I've ever heard; it's about finding out who you are, struggling for independence and defining yourself. Part of growing up, for a lot of us, is figuratively killing our parents, and this is the extreme version of that."
For Dean, too, there was a universal quality to Gypsy's arc. "On some level, what happened between Dee Dee and Gypsy happens between every mother and daughter," she said. "Obviously this is an extreme version of it, but the idea that you grow up and learn your mother doesn't know everything, and have arguments with her about expressing your sexuality? That’s universal."
In researching the role, Arquette said that she spent hours watching video interviews with mothers who had been diagnosed with Munchausen by proxy, and was struck by one in particular. "After a few minutes, it became clear that this woman was really mentally ill, but it's hidden enough in normalcy that you can see how she would get by in life," Arquette said. "There's a part of her that's completely disconnected from her behavior — it’s like a fugue state."
That disconnection was key to informing her performance, Arquette said: "Dee Dee's living in a mental reality that is not really there. She has all these forces which she thinks she has to protect [herself] from, but they aren't really coming from the outside, they're all coming from within."
The series begins with the discovery of Dee Dee's body before jumping back several years to depict the events that led to that tragic end. For both Antosca and Dean, the appeal of writing a fictionalized version of the story was digging deeper into Gypsy's psyche.
"We wanted to explore the subjective experience of what it was like to be inside that house, and what it was like to be in Gypsy's head: lying to the world, lying to herself, and then lying to her mother using the same skills of deception that her mother taught her," Antosca said, adding that the show's writers saw Gypsy's decision to kill Dee Dee as an act of mercy on some level. "The fact that she still loves her mother when she kills her is one of the most interesting things about the story to me."
That reasoning for the murder also resonated with King. "Her logic was that she wanted to run away, she wanted to get out of her situation, but she knew her mother was afraid of going to jail, and she also knew that if she ran away, her mother would have been emotionally destroyed," said the actress. "So she thought, 'I should just get rid of her, it'll be the kindest thing I can do.' It’s crazy to me, but that’s how she rationalized it."
Even so, the question of why Gypsy resorted to murder rather than asking someone in her community for help remains a haunting one in the series, represented by the Blanchards' bewildered neighbors (Chloe Sevigny and AnnaSophia Robb).
"For both Nick and me, it was important to dramatize what kind of captivity this was," Dean said. "That it was psychological — it wasn't just locks on doors or being tied to the bed, although some of those things happen. The fact was, Gypsy was sitting in that wheelchair to please her mother. She believed that her mother could not survive a situation in which she got out of that chair and was honest with her friends and neighbors."
Though Dean spoke with Gypsy for her article, she has had no contact with her during the production process ("She chose to no longer be in touch with us," Dean said). Still, the show takes place largely from Gypsy’s perspective, and its visual style evolves accordingly as she matures over a seven-year span, moving from pastel pinks and blues to vivid primary colors.
"She’s in this rage of having her sexuality and her adolescence and womanhood knocking at the door, with all the needs and desire that implies," explained Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who directed three of the series' eight episodes. "We go from pastels to aggressive colors, and from the doll's house to the haunted house."
The Act premiered Wednesday, March 20 on Hulu. New episodes will stream weekly.