Patricia Arquette and Joey King are both so fantastic as mother and daughter in The Act, Hulu’s new true crime anthology series, that it’s easy to overlook how this tragic story has (already in only a few short years) received a few tellings, including an HBO documentary called Mommy Dead and Dearest. HBO’s recent Sharp Objects (an adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel) further stoked audience fascination with Munchausen by proxy, and Hulu’s first-season take on Gypsy Rose Blanchard’s plight explores the exceptionally twisted mother-daughter relationship at hand. The series succeeds on that level by proving itself to be frequently difficult to witness, yet true crime fans won’t be able to resist this dramatization of a real-life horror story.
I wouldn’t exactly call this series a rewarding watch. It’s a tough one, but it provides an engrossing experience that will make you feel thankful for your own “normal” childhood (assuming that you had one). A spoiler warning about the content isn’t necessary, either, given that the series doesn’t hide how this story will end and shows the crime scene in the show’s opening moments. Indeed, the target audience for this series likely already realizes that Gypsy is serving a 10-year sentence for conspiring in the 2015 murder of her mother, Dee Dee. What’s more interesting than the actual crime, though, is the obsession-fueled nightmare leading to the deadly act. Also haunting: How the story swiftly moves from the bloody introduction into surreal shots of the Blanchards’ Cinderella-esque home, as Dee Dee gleefully basks in a media circus of attention.
Early on in the series, Gypsy is still brainwashed and very much believes that she suffers from leukemia, a severe sugar allergy, and a host of other ailments that (supposedly) make her unable to leave a wheelchair. Quite quickly, however, the series spirals into a portrait of a child abuser who’s struggling to maintain control while the walls close in. Gypsy grows older, and it becomes more difficult for Dee Dee to keep a lid on things while doctors, social workers, and neighbors all grow suspicious. Throughout, Gypsy cannot free herself from chains (both physical and otherwise) even when she’s got a clear path towards escape. It’s portrayed in as gut-wrenching and heart-crushing a manner as possible, and the series digs deep to examine the psyches of both women, neither of whom wins any sort of battle.
Indeed, there’s no mistaking that Dee Dee is a monster, and Gypsy is a victim in the truest sense of the word. Yet the series is so cleverly layered and edited that there are a few moments when one could be tempted to feel sorry for this terrible mother before everything gets jerked back into full view. The supporting cast is more than adequate — including Chloe Sevigny as a neighbor and AnnaSophia Robb as her daughter — and serves as a barometer to show us how frighteningly possible it is to overlook a situation that’s clearly not right while also being stunning to behold.
That brings me to a necessary point here, which is that as much as I’d love to liven up this review a bit, this series is relentlessly dark stuff. Even slight opportunities for levity weigh upon the viewer, including when Gypsy performs a Jackson Five song (“I’ll Be There”) at an event. She does so to endear the public to her tight relationship with mom, but of course, this (unintentional?) choice of songs rings especially eerie, given that Leaving Neverland has made it impossible to listen to Michael Jackson’s music without thinking of child abuse. And Gypsy truly suffers through things that no one should have to endure, including the forced use of a feeding tube and medical/dental procedures that seriously don’t seem legitimate. She was actually a perfectly healthy kid, other than suffering from Stockholm syndrome, which makes her situation all the more tragic.
Joey King drives Gypsy’s anguish home, making it possible to understand how she felt desperately imprisoned as well as vulnerable to outside influence. This leads to her falling in with harmful influences, including Nick Godejohn (Calum Worthy, unrecognizable from his Disney Channel days, though American Vandal and Supernatural viewers know him well), and while that portion of the season drags a little bit, it’s telling to watch Gypsy willingly dart from one prison to another. It’s impossible to say exactly how much of the melodrama here is real, although Gypsy’s case is well documented. What’s clear is that viewers will feel haunted by this story that proves, like so many other shows that are currently available to stream, that reality can not only be stranger but far more chilling than fiction. We are truly living in a true crime lover’s paradise, and The Act will satiate that audience while moving them to tears as well.
‘The Act’ debuts on Hulu on Wednesday, March 28.