Dee Dee Blanchard—who gave birth to her daughter, Gypsy Rose, on July 27, 1991—could not abide by the traditions of child-rearing. She rejected the most common narrative of parenthood, wherein her child would gain independence through friendships and secrets and disobedience; gradually mature into an autonomous adult; and, one day, leave home to make a life according to her own desires and choices.
As Gypsy grew up, Dee Dee trapped her in a tangle of bogus diagnoses: She was confined to a wheelchair due to purported quadriplegia, even though she knew she could walk; a feeding tube was plugged into her abdomen; and she was dosed with unnecessary medications. Dee Dee had even lied about Gypsy’s age, so that years after Gypsy became a legal adult, Dee Dee still wielded authority over her medical treatments, and much else. Gypsy, who eventually realized the fraud to which she was an unwilling party, and the lengths to which her mother would go to render her submissive, began to rebel. Seeking refuge online, she met a guy on a Christian dating site, Nick Godejohn, and the two dove headlong into a vehement, fantasy-addled romance. Soon she asked Nick to murder Dee Dee, which he did. Both he and Gypsy are now in prison.
A story like this, thoroughly macabre and seemingly impossible, summons infinitely more questions than it answers, and has accordingly garnered feverish attention. Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard were the focus of a 2016 investigative article by Michelle Dean and a 2017 HBO documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, and the new Hulu drama series, The Act, co-created by Dean and Nick Antosca, is based on their story. The series does not dwell on the murder, but instead imagines the everyday life that mother and daughter shared—the lies that Dee Dee wove around them, shielding them from speculation and reinforcing Gypsy’s own belief that her mother was, indeed, her guardian angel. Antosca has told Variety in an interview that for him and Dean “the act” in question is not the murder, as one might assume, but rather “the deception.”
With her article, Dean portrayed the thorny bond entwining Dee Dee and Gypsy, a dynamic rendered with brutal clarity in The Act. There are shots of Dee Dee presiding over her double-door closet crammed with needless medications, many of them tranquilizers with “Sleepy Baby” scrawled over the label. But there are also sunny breakfast scenes, as mother and daughter absentmindedly hum “Three Blind Mice” in unison. When Dee Dee catches Gypsy eating a cupcake—she purportedly has a fatal sugar allergy—her terror registers as authentic, and perhaps, for less straightforward reasons, it is. Perhaps more than a study of true crime, the act is a show about the fierce attachment between mothers and daughters, gone horribly wrong.
Beginning with Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette) and Gypsy’s (Joey King) arrival in Springfield, Missouri, The Act tells a story of manipulation and claustrophobia. Having been left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, they now settle into a Candyland pink house built for them by Habitat for Humanity. Dee Dee would also use the story of the hurricane to perpetuate her fraud, claiming that Gypsy’s medical records had been lost in the floods. In Arquette’s performance, Dee Dee is a masterful and resourceful storyteller, who can repurpose any scrap of personal history for her own ends.
When the local press arrives to interview Dee Dee, it’s clear something is amiss. During the interview, Dee Dee, dominates the conversation and is quick to speak for her daughter. And when the reporter asks Gypsy if she is excited to make new friends, a telling squeeze from her mother’s hand—they are always holding hands—communicates to Gypsy her expectation: We have a script; stick to it. “Well, my mom is already my best friend,” Gypsy pipes up, sweetly, but with the practiced cadence of performance. King is especially adept at insinuating her character’s low simmering uneasiness, whether due to her mother’s pressure or the baffling experience of existing in her carefully-managed body. She remembers her mother once giving her a miniature house as a present, and promising her they would one day live in a house like that. With this pink house, now they do.
Yet Gypsy is not happy, something The Act reveals almost immediately. Dean has said she was most interested in depicting “that girl getting up at night and what she does in the dark.” And in fact, these are the scenes most crucial—and most heartbreaking—to the show, as we see a young woman struggling under the most deranged and oppressive circumstances. Puberty baffles Gypsy, because she has never been told to expect or to accept these intimate evolutions. She has been ordered to trust her mother when it comes to her health and her body.
When certain urges and questions arise, Dee Dee unceremoniously waves them away, emphasizing on Gypsy’s “eighteenth birthday”—by now she is actually in her twenties—that she will never be like other girls her age, but will instead remain her mother’s “little baby.” The first time we see Gypsy use a computer, she sneaks a few moments on her mother’s laptop while she is outside. Running a search for “best friends,” her lonely eyes tarry on stock photos of comely young women bathed in sunlight, taking selfies, laughing, and embracing: cheesy stuff, if you’re acquainted with the realities of companionship, but Gypsy is not. These photos, for her, belong to a fairy tale, a story that undermines the one Dee Dee has always told—that her mother is “already” her best friend, and, as such, other relationships are superfluous. She then googles “boyfriend kiss,” which yields more stock photos and signals to us that Gypsy’s sexuality is burgeoning, despite her mother’s attempts to squash it.
At one point, Dee Dee covers the windows with translucent contact paper, to conceal the goings-on of the house. Her mistake is to think the threat to the life she has constructed will come from outside. What she can’t prevent is her daughter’s desire to pull away from her, especially as she recognizes the extent to which Dee Dee has lied about her supposedly frail health. Gypsy’s teeth, long neglected, and rotting, are eventually removed at Dee Dee’s instruction—this is convenient, since age can be discerned through dental markings—and Gypsy, who only realizes what is happening just before she is put under anesthesia, is left bruised, gummy, and utterly dispirited. As she sobs quietly in the bath, her bowed head shaven—also at her mother’s insistence—Dee Dee takes palpable, maniacal solace in her daughter’s shattered will, relishing her crises as opportunities to perform a fantasy of motherhood.
Gypsy might not entirely comprehend Dee Dee’s plays for control, but as they years pass, she begins to resist them: She steals from her mother’s “nest egg”—all money collected under false pretenses from people who believed they were helping with Gypsy’s medical expenses—and buys phones and laptops. She meets Nick online, and the two begin a relationship shot through with BDSM that Gypsy only partially understands, and in which the boundaries between reality and fantasy are porous. When she finally asks Nick—or rather, Victor, his “dark personality”—to kill her mother, the exchange is filmed as an erotic fantasy with Gypsy donning a wig and dressed for cosplay. When she asks him—“Victor? Will you please kill my mother for me?”—she might as well be asking her big strong boyfriend to open a jar for her.
Reading about this case, I had wondered whether Gypsy could have taken different, less violent measures to secure her freedom. After all, she knew that she could walk—why not run outside and call for help? The Act anticipates this question, and offers a hypothesis. Certainly the abuse visited upon Gypsy involved psychological and physical isolation as much as it forced her to endure a pseudo-medical hellscape. Most everyone seems to believe Dee Dee, and when they don’t, Gypsy, understandably, squirms under a quivering sense of obligation. “My mom needs me,” she tells a doctor who hopes to unveil Dee Dee’s fraud.
It is a terrible truth. One day, after a fight in which Dee Dee smashes her computer, she pins her daughter to the bed and attempts to tie her up, before collapsing in hysterics. Gypsy wriggles away and heads to the front door, its yellow light glowing, promising. She has long known she possesses the physical strength to escape; perhaps, she finally possesses the will, too. But Dee Dee, by now struggling with Type Two Diabetes, calls from the bedroom, feeble and pathetic, begging Gypsy not to abandon her. What seems the easiest thing—walking out the door—is, in fact, the hardest.