There’s a scene in Hulu’s new true crime anthology series, The Act, where the Blanchards are meeting their new neighbors for the first time at a block party.
The pair had recently moved to the area from Louisiana and are just getting to know the other residents that make up their quiet cul-de-sac in Springfield, Missouri. The party is suddenly cut short when Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) witnesses her daughter, Gypsy Rose (Joey King), take a bite from a cupcake; Gypsy has a lethal sugar allergy, Dee Dee explains, as she rushes her off to the hospital for treatment.
After the Blanchards leave, the party goes quiet. “That woman has been kicked around, beat up, and gone through honest-to-god shit,” one neighbor, Shelly, observes.
That observation is precisely what Dee Dee wants everyone to believe, and it makes up the fragile sheen that The Act spends its time deconstructing.
The Act is a twisted tale of murder and Munchausen syndrome by proxy that focuses primarily on the warped relationship between Dee Dee and Gypsy. So much of the series is heartbreaking and hard to watch, especially given the true events that the story is based upon.
But what separates the show from other recent true crime series is that it remains tethered to humanity throughout the show’s duration. The Act is thoughtfully written, with an all-star female cast, and its depravity is enveloped in very human and relatable motivations. At its core, The Act is about how women lean on and show up for one another, and how even the best of intentions can go terribly wrong.
When the series begins, Dee Dee acts as Gypsy’s sole caretaker, juggling treatments for Gypsy’s seemingly endless list of illnesses: anemia, paraplegia, epilepsy, childhood leukemia, a heart murmur, a condition that required the removal of her salivary glands, and that alleged deathly sugar allergy.
Dee Dee makes it clear that Gypsy’s dad is not in the picture; she has taken up the noble cause of attending to Gypsy’s round-the-clock needs, and she has done it alone. She is constantly trotting Gypsy out as a way to garner sympathy and money; even at the block party, she is sure to put out a donation jar, ostensibly to collect money for Gypsy’s eye surgery.
One of Dee Dee’s new neighbors, Mel (Chloe Sevigny), finds herself immediately suspicious of the Blanchard duo, even more so after she witnesses Dee Dee shoplifting while using her own paraplegic daughter as a distraction. “Sooner or later, everybody knows everything about everyone in this neighborhood,” she tells Dee Dee, almost as a warning.
Even when her daughter, Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb), takes a liking to the new neighbors, Mel remains reluctant. “You go around, going out of your way, trying to be kind to everybody, people are going to try to take advantage of you,” she says. Given that Dee Dee and Gypsy have made a career out of taking advantage of people’s kindness, Mel is certainly not far off. Yet, when she witnesses Dee Dee’s meticulous devotion to Gypsy, particularly during Gypsy’s sugar emergency, even Mel begins to soften towards the Blanchards.
Mel and Lacey act as a foil to Dee Dee and Gypsy. We watch as Gypsy silently studies their dynamic; despite Mel and Lacey’s frequent fights, there doesn’t seem to be anything conditional about their relationship, something Gypsy can’t fathom. Mel doesn’t pressure Lacey to be perfect, like Dee Dee does Gypsy, nor does she infantilize her. (“Your mom lets you watch Desperate Housewives?” Gypsy asks Lacey in one scene, completely aghast.)
Despite Dee Dee’s best intentions to remain politely aloof, the Springfield neighbors slowly begin to intrude on the Blanchards’ lives. Mel shows up at the hospital to bring Dee Dee her forgotten wallet, Lacey comes over to do Gypsy’s makeup. Lacey becomes a sort of confidant for Gypsy, an outlet where Gypsy can talk about boys and secrets and the normal teenage mundanity that Gypsy is so rarely afforded.
It becomes clear that Lacey finds certain things that Gypsy says to be slightly off-kilter or abnormal, but she good-naturedly writes it off to Gypsy’s many ailments and developmental delays, though she makes a mental note of the exchanges and ends up reporting them to the police in a flash-forward.
For her part, Dr. Lakshmi Chandra, too, begins to notice something is off with Gypsy’s scattered medical history and Dee Dee’s hard-to-follow stories. She commits herself to finding out the real story, perhaps the first doctor in Gypsy’s lengthy medical repertoire to do so. But even Dr. Chandra is limited in the ways she can show up for Gypsy. Whether Gypsy likes it or not, Dee Dee considers herself the only person qualified to look after Gypsy, and she will continue to do it in her own twisted way.
Ultimately, The Act eloquently portrays the real-life downfall of Dee Dee and Gypsy’s relationship without turning their story into blatant true crime sensationalist fodder. The series takes parental fallibility to the next level, and shows how easily Dee Dee manipulated her neighbors’ “it takes a village” mentality to serve her own benefit. So many women in this story tried to show up for Gypsy; but unfortunately, their efforts only made it more difficult for Gypsy to save herself.