The fascinating real-life story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard is one that was destined for a cinematic adaptation. This is why Hulu’s decision to make an eight-episode television series out of her life’s events should come as no surprise to anyone who is even remotely familiar with her troubling tale.
Although perfectly healthy in early childhood, at the age of 8, Gypsy suffered an injury that, according to her mother, Dee Dee, restricted her to a wheelchair and was soon followed by the onset of a series of unforeseen chronic illnesses and disabilities, including leukemia, muscular dystrophy, asthma and symptoms of brain damage — something that gave Gypsy the marked physical impression of looking like a toddler despite her being in her early teens.
Soon enough, Gypsy’s strange story had garnered national attention and become a sensational example of resilience and motherly devotion. To the public, Gypsy was a poor child struck by misfortune, and Dee Dee was a saint come to life, sacrificing her own life in order to make her daughter’s existence even slightly tolerable. Charity efforts, welfare checks and paid trips to Disneyland are proof of the heroic symbolism that their story commanded over the national collective. It’s also what made the events that followed so puzzling to all those who had been following the story.
Dee Dee’s unexpected murder in 2015 and the equally jaw-dropping discovery that it was Gypsy (with the help of her boyfriend) who was behind it, shocked the whole word and was the juncture at which this happy-go-lucky story started to fall apart at the seams. In a previously unthinkable new development, it soon emerged that Gypsy did not in fact suffer from any of the illnesses her mother had claimed; she could walk perfectly, eat without assistance and communicate eloquently and age-appropriately.
While Gypsy is currently serving life in prison for her mother’s murder, ever since Dee Dee’s twisted fabrication was exposed as a sick fraud, the whole ordeal has remained a point of fascination to many American audiences, which explains the buzz and commercial success “The Act” has been generating.
Premiering in March of this year, “The Act” has been Hulu’s most anticipated production in a while, and subscribers have likely found themselves overwhelmed by long-running advertisements, especially the most famous one on the site’s front page that features up-and-coming star Joey King’s piercing gaze into the abyss.
Still, in spite of the morbid fascination surrounding Gypsy’s story, the pilot episode of “The Act” is testament to creators Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean’s emphasis on carefully uncovering the skeletons in the Blanchard’s closet. More so, this first chapter of the story delicately sets up the question at the heart of this disturbing tale: How much you can ever really presume to know about the stories and people you revere?
The episode takes off with the night of Dee Dee’s fateful murder, with a long shot of the hallway inside of the infamous “pink house” and police and concerned friends stationed just outside. Following that eerie shot, the show flashes back to the moment Gypsy and Dee Dee first moved into their new neighborhood of Springfield, Missouri, depicting the Blanchard’s encounters with new neighbors and introducing viewers to the close but unmistakably abusive relationship between mother and daughter.
There is a looming sense of claustrophobia that grips the entire first episode, and arguably Gypsy herself, as audiences begin to witness how every aspect of her life is tightly controlled by her hawk-eyed mother. In fact, the suffocating scrutiny that we see Gypsy endure throughout this first installment is almost enough for us to understand why the real-life Gypsy admitted in a TV interview that prison was the freest she’d ever felt in her life.
The theme of entrapment is perhaps the most successful aspect of the first episode. It becomes clear to us how Gypsy’s yearning for a taste of real life only intensifies throughout the episode’s duration as she longs for what she desperately wants but is being intentionally deprived of by Dee Dee. Kissing boys, having friends, eating real food (instead of the mush that’s being forced into her through a feeding tube) are some of the things we discern her hungering for, which makes both her inability and her initial hesitance to break free from her mother’s supervision so devastating.
King’s skillful performance and her striking resemblance to the real-life Gypsy is yet another major success for “The Act.” Not to mention, it’s a refreshing change of scenery given King’s past involvement in the nauseating teenage rom-com “The Kissing Booth.” Patricia Arquette is equally as convincing in her role as Dee Dee, despite not looking nearly as creepy as her real-life counterpart.
As babyish as Gypsy comes across, it’s pertinent to remember that the real-life Gypsy was just as, if not more, childish — and as unsettling as the performances are, they are no less reflective of a troubled mother and her infantilized daughter. Yet, in my opinion, it’s Chloe Sevigny’s portrayal of a stringent single mom and wary Springfield neighbor that stands as the most compelling and begins to sow the seeds of doubt in regard to Dee Dee’s overly magnanimous and profoundly suspicious character.
To anyone whose interest this review of the show’s first episode has piqued, “The Act” does look like a promising new show that will work to develop the character arcs of its two protagonists and hopefully give depth and richness to Gypsy’s evolution from helpless victim to autonomous killer.
It’s no exaggeration, however, to say that this show is not for everyone. The manipulation and subtle abuse that start to soil in the pilot preclude a much larger theme of unnerving child abuse, and even the first episode was certainly sinister at some parts and enough to put you on edge, especially given the whole murder-mystery component.
Still, for those interested in a riveting psychological crime drama and curious about the hypnotic story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, “The Act” is the show for you.