If you haven't been watching Hulu's true crime drama The Act, you've been missing out on a dishy guilty pleasure that's become one of the season's buzziest new shows. Based on a now-legendary Buzzfeed article, this first season of the series has followed the “almost too crazy to believe” true story of Dee Dee Blanchard (played by Patricia Arquette) and her daughter Gypsy Rose Blanchard (played by Joey King). For years, Dee Dee convinced her friends and neighbors that her daughter was stricken with a variety of illnesses including leukemia, muscular dystrophy, and a severe sugar allergy. When Gypsy comes to realize that her mother has been lying about her supposed ailments, she acts out and begins an online relationship with a man, Nick (Calum Worthy), whom she convinces to kill Dee Dee. With the season's final episode hitting Hulu this week, we thought we'd bid adieu to this modern-day Mommie Dearest by taking a look back at some of the key moments where the series revealed itself to be the year's wildest and most disturbing TV drama.
While we have a sense from the get-go that something sinister is going on in the Blanchard house, it’s Gypsy's first act of rebellion against her mother that sends the first real signals of what's to come. At a housewarming party to celebrate their arrival into the neighborhood, Gypsy is tempted by a plate of cupcakes on the table after being repeatedly told by her mother that she is allergic to sugar. When she starts to scoop some frosting onto her finger and tastes it, her mother catches her and completely freaks out, rushing her to the hospital while partygoers look on. It’s the first time we see a chip in Dee Dee’s armor, where the genteel, saintly Southern mother shows all her neighbors the evil hidden underneath.
One of the most anxiety-provoking episodes finds Gypsy sneaking off from her mother on one of their frequent mall trips to buy a laptop so she can create an online dating profile. While she successfully precures the laptop and begins her foray into the world of online dating, Gypsy’s efforts are thwarted when Dee Dee discovers the computer, and smashes it to pieces with a hammer while screaming at Gypsy. When Gypsy stands up to her mother and tells her she'll just buy a new one, we think maybe this will be the beginning of the tables finally turning on Dee Dee. But then Dee Dee tiesher daughter to their bed like a prisoner, and we see Gypsy start to realize she has absolutely no way out.
We fall further down the rabbit hole with Gypsy when she begins losing her teeth. While at first it seems perhaps this could be result of the sugar she’s been sneaking, we later find out it’s because Dee Dee has had Gypsy’s salivary glands removed, which apparently leads to the rotting and losing of teeth. After going through a painful teeth extraction, Gypsy must rally and attend a Child of the Year award ceremony in which she is being honored. Thinking she’ll be seen on stage with no teeth and swollen mouth, at the last minute Dee Dee offers her a pair of dentures, as a way of reeling her back in. When she gets onstage, Gypsy delivers an impromptu, acapella performance of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” The moment is uncomfortable to watch on so many levels. As audience members, we are seeing a public display of affection that is so incredibly dishonest and corrupt. It’s painful to see Gypsy stoop to this level to please Dee Dee, thinking a serenade in front of hundreds of people will reclaim her mother's love.
Any self-respecting film or television viewer knows that Margo Martindale makes anything better. On The Act, she seems to be channeling her cruel, self-centered mother character from Million Dollar Baby to play Dee Dee’s mother, Emma. While Emma does take care of her family, she rarely possess any sense of warmth, nor -- as we come to learn -- any sense of humanity. Over the course of one episode, Martindale shows how Dee Dee became the monster she is, herself a victim of a mother who is overly possessive and extremely insecure. There’s a horrifying moment when Dee Dee is arrested for check fraud and Emma actually runs inside to get infant Gypsy so she can watch her mother being taken out in handcuffs, all the while blaming Dee Dee for up making Gypsy upset. It’s a small but crucial moment that illuminates the cyclical nature of abuse and how the people who are supposed to love us can do the most horrible things.
Those familiar with the true-life case know Dee Dee’s murder was carried out by Gypsy’s online boyfriend, Nick. But what you may not know is the extent of Gypsy and Nick’s involvement in BDSM. Now, of course there’s nothing wrong with consensual adults doing whatever they please, but knowing how warped Gypsy’s relationship to her body and autonomy is, it gives their scenes of webcam roleplay a dark subtext. While Gypsy’s experience of desire and sexuality should be a good thing, you can’t help but wonder how in control of the situation she actually is. Is she really feeling empowered, or is this just another example of her submitting herself to the wishes of another person? Their virtual sexual exploration culminates in a quickie in a movie theater bathroom, with Gypsy in a full Cinderella costume and her mother lurking around the corner. While the moment is thrilling and monumental for Gypsy, for viewers it’s another heartbreaking example of just how deep the dysfunction in this story goes.
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Stephen Hladik is a freelance culture writer and actor. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_hladik