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Amazon’s six-episode limited series adaptation of David Cronenberg’s 1988 feature Dead Ringers isn’t a perfect series, but in at least three key ways it’s a perfect piece of intellectual property mining.
First, series creator Alice Birch (Normal People) has a clear reason for wanting to tackle Cronenberg’s twisted tale of identical twin gynecologists, using the added narrative real estate of television and the passing of 35 years as fodder for an examination of reproductive freedom and the fertility industry that’s entirely its own. It’s a spectacular thematic vehicle.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Britne Oldford, Poppy Liu, Michael Chernus, Jennifer Ehle
Creator: Alice Birch
Of equal importance, Dead Ringers is a spectacular acting vehicle, and in Elliot and Beverly Mantle, Rachel Weisz has the best role, or dual roles, of her decorated career, a mixture of uncompromising intensity, bleak humor and extended heartbreak that’s as satisfying to watch as it clearly was to play.
And, finally, and this might be directed mostly at David Cronenberg obsessives, this Dead Ringers will do absolutely nothing to your memories of the original film. Minus the initial premise — itself adapted from the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland — and a few quoted images and snippets of dialogue, this Dead Ringers is its own thing. It’s weird and unsettling and nightmarish, but completely on its own terms, leaving Cronenberg’s unmistakable version of body horror safe and sound and, if you’ve watched it lately, reasonably undated. Weisz is sensational, and her Elliot and Beverly Mantle don’t borrow anything or take anything away from Jeremy Irons’ should-have-been-awards-inundated performance in the movie.
Isn’t it nice when that happens? Isn’t it rare?
We meet Elliot and Beverly hard at work at a Manhattan hospital. They look exactly alike and share a sterile apartment, maintained by the mysterious Greta (Poppy Liu), but they’re very different people. Beverly is withdrawn and socially anxious, but full of great compassion for her patients. Elliot is outgoing and hilarious, but more interested in groundbreaking research than interacting with emotional expectant mothers. They dream of a clinic that will change the country’s relationship with childbirth, but that shared dream comes from two very different perspectives. Elliot wants to advance the science in an environment that lets her break the shackles of FDA oversight and mundane ethics. Beverly wants to foster an environment in which reproduction is normalized and bespoke, rather than being treated as an illness and run through a hospital assembly line.
The Mantle twins get their opportunity thanks to an investment from billionaire Rebecca (a wonderfully icy Jennifer Ehle), part of a not-very-veiled Sackler-esque family, and her wife, Susan (Emily Meade, a nicely earthy counterpoint to Ehle), whose own family legacy comes into play in the season’s memorable fifth episode. Achieving this dream exposes fissures in the relationship between the Mantle twins, as does Beverly’s relationship with TV star Genevieve (Britne Oldford in a variation on the role played by Geneviève Bujold in the movie), the first relationship that the twins haven’t “shared,” so to speak.
The difference between versions of Dead Ringers can be encapsulated in the difference between their respective Mantles and how they approach their profession.
As men, Cronenberg’s Mantles are fascinated by gynecology, but they’re fundamentally voyeurs. They’ll always treat women and their bodies as alien terrain to be excavated first (with special equipment!) and understood second. It isn’t Cronenberg’s purest exploration of gynophobia — The Brood, with its roots in the director’s own divorce, has always cut deeper for me — but its alienated mirror on shifting, or mutating, gender roles is a prime late-’80s snapshot.
In Birch’s vision, this is personal and immediate, bloody and visceral. It’s less than five minutes into the series before Beverly has her first, graphically depicted, miscarriage. If Cronenberg’s film asks, “What is the worst thing you can imagine in this milieu?” from a man’s perspective, Birch’s series scoffs, “Dudes, you have no idea.” AMC+’s recent dark comedy This Is Going to Hurt glimpsed into a world of forceps and C-sections and breach births and prolapsed everything, but Dead Ringers makes even the most harrowing images in This Is Going to Hurt look like Bluey.
But this Dead Ringers isn’t just a gross-out examination of the dehumanizing way that Western medicine treats childbirth. In that aforementioned fifth episode, directed with uncomfortable flair by Karyn Kusama, the show traces the roots of modern gynecology back to the exploitative experiments of J. Marion Sims, as if to say, “Is it any wonder how things got that way?” The show reflects on the commodification of fertility processes in which the experiences of actual women are superseded by profits and artificial restrictions. There’s real empathy here.
Plus, it’s a direct assault on eons of archetypes suggesting that for a woman to be both ambitious and maternal requires duality. Elliot and Beverly may start the series each representing one side of that binary, but it isn’t a surprise that their arcs shift direction, though prolonging that inevitable psychological reversal over six hours isn’t always smooth. For a closed-end limited series — and please, Amazon, don’t think there’s a second season in this one — Dead Ringers is surprisingly episodic, each installment built around a fundraising retreat or a drug-fueled party or an ill-fated journey to a clinic opening.
For all the distressing medical procedures showcased by the series’ directors, starting with Sean Durkin, Birch mines her theatrical background to make the protracted dinner scenes that anchor several episodes into the show’s most horrifying moments. Systemic medical dehumanization is scary, but the more intimate dehumanization of sitting in cramped quarters with strangers or even loved ones and trying, without success, to find common ground or common joy can be far worse.
The series is confident on the points it wants to make, but it isn’t as sure about where it’s going and how to justify that destination. The finale, which has three or four different endings, is a miasma of disorienting techniques, misdirects and intentionally off-putting and gore-driven beats. It doesn’t undermine some of the more expansive insights of the penultimate episode, but it definitely overwhelms them.
The finale only borders on being unwatchable, because you won’t want to take your eyes off of Weisz. The visual effects doubling the Oscar-winning actress are seamless, and her delineations between the characters are as well. Aided by the somewhat-too-obvious decision to have Beverly spend 90 percent of the series with her hair up and Elliot with her hair down, Weisz maintains the autonomy of both characters exactly as much as the show wants her to. As Elliot, she’s full of manic energy and blessed with a crackling sense of dark humor, while Beverly’s internalized yearning can be painful to observe. And when the traits of one slip into the traits of the other? Well, Dead Ringers would be worth tracking just for the acting exercise of it all.
Especially in the early episodes, Rachel Weisz and Rachel Weisz are dynamic scene partners, easily helping the show obscure how thin some of the supporting characters and performances are. I wish the series gave Oldford more to do, but she’s an effective embodiment of hope. I wish the show gave Liu more to do, but she gets to play some powerful notes in the finale.
A number of guest stars have the chance to be more memorable, including Susan Blommaert as an unhoused woman with the soul of a beat poet, Suzanne Bertish as the twins’ mother and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as a journalist who would be exclusively a plot device in lesser hands.
Whatever my frustrations with the Dead Ringers finale, it didn’t wipe away the provocative notes of the penultimate episode, and it left me with that feeling of simultaneous disassociation from and hypersensitivity to the outside world. It’s a feeling that I often get from David Cronenberg movies. This was appropriately similar, but distinctive. Just like the series itself.
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