There’s no shortage of shocking, lurid true crime stories that are ripe for adaptation, but the murder of Claudine “Dee Dee” Blanchard by her daughter Gypsy Rose and her obsessive lover Nicholas Godejohn in 2015 might take the prize for having so many twists and turns it puts most convoluted soap operas to shame. Hulu’s The Act (2019) is an eight-part miniseries that strives to get the central themes and characters right rather than a fact-for-fact telling of the tale, leaving that for the news articles and documentary. Based on a popular Buzzfeed article covering the case, The Act has a disclaimer that while it’s based on a true story, there are parts that have been fictionalized which seems to be very apt for a story where the lines between truth and deception are blurred.
Starting with the aftermath of the murder and working backwards, The Act truly begins with Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) and her chronically-ill, wheelchair-bound daughter Gypsy Rose (Joey King) have moved into a home built by Habitat for Humanity in a close-knit suburb in Missouri. The Pepto Bismol pink house complete with a winding handicap ramp might as well be a character of its own, as it represents the façade the two show to the community. In reality, Gypsy can walk and Dee Dee has fed her and everyone around them an elaborate lie. Believing her child is deathly ill, a condition called Munchausen By Proxy, Dee Dee has kept her daughter isolated and moves her from place to place before any doctors or neighbors can catch on all while Gypsy is kept as both victim and co-conspirator.
A young woman kept in a perpetual child-like appearance, Gypsy cuts quite the sympathetic figure. Wearing glasses that cover most of her face, a perpetually-shaven head and beaming hopefully in a high and squeaky voice all while her mother pushes her around in a wheelchair, the two appear like they’re the epitome of the feel-good story people share on social media all the time. Dee Dee appears to be perfect, almost saint-like, and the lie of Gypsy’s condition opens up the hearts and wallets in all of those around them.
But Gypsy is beginning to think there is something wrong with their deception and yearns for more out of life. In particular, she has sexual desires that have not been allowed to be explored and can only look on as her next-door neighbor Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb) and her normal life with a twinge of jealousy. Lacey has the kind of normalcy Gypsy yearns for: a circle of friends, a boyfriend, and a contentious relationship with her opinionated mother Mel (Chloë Sevigny) who thinks she has everyone figured out. Inspired, she sets out to find some of her own happiness and starts an online relationship with Nick Godejohn (Calum Worthy) that starts out with some harmless roleplaying and bondage before boiling over into murder when Gypsy has had enough and decides that’s the only way she’ll be free.
The Act knows that the complexity of the case isn’t nearly as important as the toxic relationship between mother and daughter, the source of the entire web of deceit. Patricia Arquette plays Dee Dee Blanchard as a disturbingly-believable manipulator and abuser. With a voice that sounds like southern sweet tea, she fools everyone around them with the sheer conviction of her lies. She weaponizes sympathy and medical jargon while shuffling Gypsy from doctor to doctor and pockets any donations that come along the way. She’s a manipulator who also has fallen to her own self-constructed narrative and keeps Gypsy in a well-constructed, psychological prison.
Joey King has the unenviable task of bringing to life Gypsy Rose and her various facets and does some amazing acting (no easy feat against the domineering Patricia Arquette). King does justice to Gypsy as we see her conflicted feelings about her mother while she continues not only the deception of fooling those around them, but also Dee Dee as she hides a second life away from her online. Freed from her mother, she has an online affair with the disturbed Nick. Dressing in vampy outfits, Gypsy develops the persona of Ruby to satisfy her sexual lusts while Nick has an alter-ego named Victor with violent tendencies.
Over the span of all eight episodes, we see the transformation of Gypsy from victim to victimizer as not only her anger at her mother grows but also her need to be her own person intensifies. The dynamic between the two actresses is the anchor of the miniseries and for good reason. These are two great performances with King and Arquette going all-in on their respective characters and that really carries the entire show.
The Act is stretched to a length that might be pushing it at times, bookending the murder and subsequent trial between the long stretches of Dee Dee’s and Gypsy’s volatile relationship and there are side characters that are built-up to have some more importance but turn out to be irrelevant and the trial and media circus is saved almost entirely for the last episode. Still, it’s entirely appropriate the series ends with Gypsy having to perform as the sympathetic victim once more to save herself from the death penalty.
The Act is a riveting docudrama that keeps you hooked from start to finish with its laser-like focus on the melodrama mined from an incredibly bizarre true story in which there might not be an objective truth to any of the events portrayed and the foolishness of trying to suss one out. There are only the lies we tell each other and how we justify it to ourselves.