Content warning: This article discusses suicide and mental illness.
To many, the 2010s are a source of nostalgia — Bieber fever, gaudy Instagram filters and an abundance of tacky fashion trends. But the case of Michelle Carter and her shocking involvement in the suicide of Conrad Roy left a dark stain on American culture. With her pitch-black penciled eyebrows and distraught disposition, Carter’s face made headlines in 2014 — for all the wrong reasons. She was the average, cell phone-obsessed teenager that was a fan of the television show “Glee” and a student at a suburban Massachusetts high school. However, Carter’s life had a more sinister underbelly, one perfectly depicted in Hulu’s newest series, “The Girl from Plainville.”
Investigating the Case
In the summer of 2014, the body of 18-year-old Conrad Roy III was discovered in a Kmart parking lot. He had passed away, in his truck, from carbon monoxide poisoning. The situation seemed like a tragic, cut-and-dry suicide, yet upon further investigation into Roy’s text records, something seemed very off. A thread of texts sent by Carter leading up to Roy’s suicide show he was pressured into taking his life. One of her texts chillingly stated, “You’re so [hesitant] because you keep overthinking it and pushing it [suicide] off. You just need to do it Conrad. The more you push it off, the more it will eat at you.”
Carter put on a facade as the innocent mourner, hosting a softball fundraiser for mental illness awareness despite not knowing Roy’s family personally. The two teenagers met while on family vacations in Florida and continued their relationship almost exclusively through text, despite living an hour away from each other. Her presence after Roy’s death was a chilling anomaly, especially since she was a stranger to the family.
Carter even requested some of his ashes during his wake and asked to look through his belongings. But, for someone who was allegedly grief-stricken, she still attended senior prom and went to Disney World while awaiting her manslaughter trial. Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the suicide of Conrad Roy but only ended up serving 12 months behind bars, with five years probation.
The series “The Girl from Plainville” begins with that fatal summer day where Conrad, or Coco (Colton Ryan), took his own life. Chloë Sevigny’s depiction of Conrad’s mother, Lynn, is heartbreakingly genuine. Upon the news of his passing, the raw, visceral reactions to grief hit hard: She nearly collapses in anguish upon looking through his possessions in his bedroom.
Enter the infamous Michelle. Elle Fanning’s depiction of the teen is unnerving: Viewers see the actress, known for her roles in “Maleficent” and “The Great,” as cunning and ungenuine. She’s saccharine and sensitive around friends and family but can switch to unfeeling on a dime. Upon learning of Conrad’s suicide, Michelle runs into her living room and whimpers to her parents, “Conrad’s dead.” “Who is Conrad?” respond her parents, completely clueless about their relationship.
The online dynamic of the two teens is interestingly navigated in flashbacks — the text conversations are portrayed in “real life,” seen, for example, in one scene where Michelle receives a phone notification while playing basketball and Conrad materializes behind her. The awkward social disconnect of how the texts are read aloud parallels how strange it was that Michelle, too, suddenly materialized into the lives of the Conrads. The cinematic choice of face-to-face “texting” conversations feeds into Michelle’s twisted perceptions, almost fooling the viewer into believing that the two spent a frequent amount of time together. “The Girl from Plainville” keeps a delicate balance, depicting both Michelle’s delusions while simultaneously exploiting them as disturbing.
Viewers know she has a warped perception of reality, but also get a glimpse into her mind. Her obsession with the beloved campy sitcom “Glee” highlights this. The real Michelle Carter basically worshiped “Glee,” particularly actress Lea Michele, who played the character Rachel Berry. According to journalist Jesse Barron, Carter would frequently quote the series in texts to Roy. Her disconnect from real life manifested through high-school television tropes, with Carter putting on her own twisted performance at the cost of Roy’s life.
Deception is one of the main themes in “The Girl from Plainville.” Conrad’s mother, Lynn, upon learning of the teenager’s relationship, finds Michelle incredibly “emotional,” but a sweet girl nonetheless. Michelle basically leaps into her arms at the funeral service, crying from emotional pain. What viewers see at the end of the first episode, though, is almost a chilling betrayal of trust. She is shown rehearsing her heartbroken act as she stares at herself in a mirror. With tears running down her face, she states, “I loved him, and he loved me.” But, in a quick turn of events, she stops her act to reveal an unphased disposition and opens her computer to reveal she’d been copying Lea Michele’s exact monologue from a “Glee” episode.
When a television series depicts a real-life, tragic event, there is bound to be a question of ethics. The Roy family lost their child due to Michelle coaxing him to take his own life. “The Girl from Plainville” revolves around Carter, and because of this, Roy’s mother, Lynn St Denis, expressed her concerns in an interview with People magazine. She stated, “There may be an attempt to defend some of [Carter’s] needless and evil actions.” People have been picking up on the potentially insensitive nature of the series, with one Instagram user stating, “The documentary on this was enough, I don’t think this woman deserves any more coverage on the tragedy she helped make.”
While the show is exploitative in some respects, as it depicts this tragedy for Hulu’s monetary gain, viewers cannot help but feel ill when observing Michelle’s theatrical fakeness. Michelle is depicted as someone who is self-fulfilling and attention-hungry — desperate for pity from her friends by tokenizing Conrad’s death. We are not led to sympathize with her and instead are discomforted by her heartless nature. A key example is the show’s portrayal of the aforementioned real-life softball fundraiser, called “Homers for Conrad.” Fanning’s character plans the event in her hometown, as opposed to Conrad’s — making it more convenient for her friends, yet inconvenient for his family. Michelle’s behavior is spine-chilling, almost baby-talking to Lynn on the bleachers, then abruptly cutting off the conversation to pose for a group selfie.
Conrad Roy’s death is a heartbreaking tragedy. As viewers across the globe watch “The Girl from Plainville” for entertainment, Roy’s mother is taking strong action to change the future of the American justice system. St. Denis is fighting for “Conrad’s Law” to be passed, a bill that would set a maximum five-year prison sentence for anyone who coerces a person into taking their own life by manipulating their emotions and fears. When watching the new Hulu series, viewers should remember the real people and the trauma behind the scenes. In an interview with People magazine, St. Denis said it all in just a few words: “I just want my son to be proud of me.”