Hulu’s “The Act” Thrills in Story of Sickness and Trauma
Starting on March 20, Hulu began releasing weekly episodes of “The Act,” starring recent Oscar winner Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee Blanchard and Joey King of “The Kissing Booth” as her daughter Gypsy Rose.
Based on a real story, the show chronicles the poisonous relationship between the two women — one that ultimately ended in Dee Dee’s murder in 2015, ordered by Gypsy and carried out by her boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn (Calum Worthy).
For years, Dee Dee claimed that Gypsy was seriously ill. We learn from Gypsy’s father Rod Blanchard that Dee Dee claimed Gypsy had sleep apnea from the time Gypsy was only three months old.
In the first episode, she lists a litany of symptoms to her neighbor Mel: Gypsy has paraplegia, muscular dystrophy, seizures, the “mind of a seven year old” and a severe sugar allergy.
In the same episode, we see Gypsy try the frosting off of a cupcake; Dee Dee immediately knocks the cupcake out of her hand and stabs her with an EpiPen, necessitating an emergency room visit.
This act is just one example of Dee Dee’s intense control over Gypsy. Dee Dee also shaves Gypsy’s head as Gypsy sits in the sink like a child, makes her sleep with a mask, undergo various surgeries and, perhaps most dreadfully of all, confines her to a wheelchair.
But after Dee Dee’s death, the public learned that Gypsy didn’t suffer from any medical issues at all.
Her mother, it seems, suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental illness whereby parents deliberately make their child sick in order to curry sympathy and attention from others. For example, in one episode, Gypsy wins “Child of the Year” and their house — a hot-pink nightmare of a place, filled with stuffed animals — is a gift from Habitat for Humanity.
But I believe Dee Dee wants more than just the attention and goodwill of others: it also seems that Dee Dee wants to freeze Gypsy in a permanent state of childhood so that Gypsy will need her mother forever.
For instance, she refuses to let Gypsy wear makeup, talk about boys with her neighbor Lacey (Anna Sophia Robb), or experience any sort of sexual desire. She also lies to Gypsy about her age, telling her she was born in 1995, when her actual birth year is 1991.
The first time Gypsy runs away — pursuing a fantasy to live with the deadbeat Scott (Joe Tippett), a man she met at a Comic Con-esque event — Dee Dee yells at Scott that she’s only a minor, despite her actually being 19.
“The Act” documents Gypsy’s dawning realization that she does not suffer from the illnesses her mother describes and her slow liberation. Inspired by Lacey’s statement that she met her boyfriend online, Gypsy purchases a laptop and creates a secret Facebook account under the name Emma Rose, through which she meets Nick. (In a morbid twist, Gypsy and Nick will ultimately use Facebook to announce her mother’s death.)
From the outset, it is clear that Nick is deeply troubled. He tells Gypsy that he has multiple personalities, including an ancient vampire named Victor. But Gypsy, who has never had a boyfriend before and harbors dreams of escaping from her mother, does not want to lose him.
Though “The Act” is often hard to watch, it is always compelling. King infuses Gypsy with soul and humanity. We feel her anguish and longing for freedom, her growing resentment toward her mother and her burgeoning desires.
Arquette similarly does excellent work as Gypsy’s mother, crafting a thoroughly human monster.
The show also expertly demonstrates Gypsy’s complicated loyalty to her mother; when a doctor offers Gypsy a Coke, saying her ordeal could “all be over,” Gypsy responds, in her pipsqueak voice, that “my mom is my best friend.”
The two are profoundly, toxically co-dependent — when Dee Dee learns she has diabetes in episode four, she ominously tells Gypsy, “I’m going to need you now. Every single day.” But from its start, “The Act” puts the mother and daughter on a crash course to fall apart.
With six episodes already out since its March 20 release date, “The Act” will run for eight episodes and conclude this spring on May 1.