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Caught Up In The Act

Hulu's take on Gypsy Blanchard's story succeeds by trying to answer the unanswerable.
  • Joey King stars in The Act (Hulu)
    Joey King stars in The Act (Hulu)

    Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting hosts her very own true crime podcast The Blotter Presents, so who better to break down the just-released finale of Hulu's true crime sensation?

    The Act dropped its final episode today, an hour-long installment called "Free" that embodies the series as a whole. It features excellent acting by the leads, particularly Joey King as desperate Munchausen-by-proxy prisoner Gypsy Blanchard and Calum Worthy as her mostly hapless boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn. It drags a bit in its attempts to marshal the many details and weirdnesses referred to by previous projects on the case -- Act producer/creator Michelle Dean's original Buzzfeed piece and the HBO documentary Mommy Dead And Dearest -- that are part of what make the show so compelling.

    And the finale of The Act understands, as the series has throughout, that the other part of what makes the Blanchards' strange, dark tale so compelling is that, while we know the ending, we don't know the answer -- we've got the what, but we'll never really get the why, not all of it. Or even, in the end, the who.

    As the proprietrix of a podcast whose stated errand is to review true-crime properties (not the crimes themselves; crime is bad, that's why we don't call it "snacking"), I spend a lot of time thinking about why the genre itself is enthralling to so many, and why particular crimes and cases within the genre preoccupy us. In some cases, like the crimes of Ted Bundy, consuming everything we can about a given criminal and his hideous misdeeds gives us the illusion of controlling a chaotic evil: knowledge is power, power to avoid the same fates as the victims. Or that's the theory. But in other cases -- the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby; the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard -- it's what we don't know, can't know that keeps us circling a given story. Dee Dee Blanchard's life, and death, offer just those sorts of unknowns, and The Act (correctly) senses that what we can never understand about Dee Dee's grifts, her thefts, and her Munchausen syndrome by proxy is at least as interesting to us as what we can.

    What we can understand is also fascinating, of course. Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) is easy enough to explain, but difficult to truly "get" for civilians who don't suffer from it (much like, not for nothing, psychopaths like Bundy, whose mental processes will by definition remain opaque to those of us who experience remorse and empathy). That a mother would mercilessly exploit her child by demanding unnecessary procedures and rigidly controlling her environment the way Dee Dee did to Gypsy for two decades is mesmerizing, in both the twistedness we comprehend and the motivations behind it we don't.

    We also don't really know what a day in the life was like for either of the Blanchard women, and this, I think, is where The Act shines. It imagines the world of that Pepto-pink house, at night, first thing in the morning, when the Make-A-Wish cameras weren't around, in all of its cramped and anxious details: the blending of a piece of pizza for Gypsy to drink, the candy-colored gimcracks and Disney-princess-iana spilling over every surface, the sneaking of sugary drinks by a childlike nightlight, and the increasingly hoarded feel of the house as time passes, the big Tupperware storage containers closing in. As flawlessly cast as The Act is, the performances are backed by A-plus production design and camera work that makes the viewer long for space or escape much as Gypsy does.

    And there's another thing we can't really know, something other properties and commentaries about the case are largely reluctant to take a side on: Gypsy's responsibility. The finale makes much of Gypsy's brattily naïve disappointment that the "happy ending" she'd counted on after eliminating Dee Dee is not materializing, and of her affectless, then faintly smug surveying of the house that's been almost her entire world before she and Godejohn make their escape. To that point, our sympathies have been with Gypsy, who may have seen no other way out of her admittedly abusive situation -- possibly thanks to the stunting of her psychosocial development by her victim. But other, unscripted versions of the Blanchard case have implied that perhaps nature and nurture created another, smaller, helium-voiced con artist in Gypsy, a co-conspirator who didn't so much break free of a jailer as turn on a partner in crime.

    The Act is noncommittal on whether the apple fell far from the tree… or, I guess, whether the tree had what was coming to it when it wouldn't let the apple roll its own way? As such, it's the perfect treatment of a story like the Blanchards'. It's not a perfect series -- it likely could have gotten the same job done in six episodes, and a few sequences seem to exist solely to make us uncomfortable -- but it has a flawless eye for what draws us to the case, the answers we want all the more for knowing they aren't available.

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    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: The Act, Hulu, Joey King, Patricia Arquette