For a true crime-addicted society that has transformed the mega-popular likes of The Jinx, Serial, Making a Murderer, the various O.J Simpson mini-series and Dirty John into record-breaking, zeitgeist-capturing, instantly iconic and endlessly spoofed and ripped off pop culture events Hulu’s new smash mini-series The Act is manna from heaven.
It has all the elements of an epic smash: murder, sex, a beyond twisted mother-daughter dynamic, Munchausen by Proxy, gaslighting on a horrific, almost impossible to believe scale, child abuse, murderous rage and roles so juicy they all but guarantee Emmys and Golden Globes for the heavyweight thespians that snagged them. At the risk of being very safe, I’m going to play Nostradamus and predict all manner of awards for the lovely and talented Patricia Arquette. But, what makes the series so arrest for families is that the series floats the idea that in this particular tragedy, there are no clear-cut heroes and villains.
Arquette delivers a performance of great quality and quantity in the impossibly juicy role of the real Dee Dee Blanchard, a honey-dripping nightmare of maternal evil who kept daughter Gypsy Rose Lee in a state of eternal childhood and dependence by convincing her and doctors that Gypsy Rose had all manner of terrible, debilitating illnesses requiring intense, invasive care like being fed through a stomach tube and being confined to a wheelchair.
Dee Dee worked overtime to convince Gypsy and the world that her daughter had the mind of a small child, could not walk and had every illness known to man but she was actually perfectly capable of walking and possessed a sharp, hungry, yearning mind and libido that would eventually cause all manner of problems for Gypsy and her mother alike.
Arquette brings a Mommy Dearest bigness and theatricality to the role of a woman whose “Bless your heart!” veneer of folksy, Southern selflessness masks a core of calculating evil. In The Act, Dee Dee is the professional mother of a professionally sick child who seems to be suffering from all of the ailments. ALL of them.
Like Julianne Moore’s gorgeous sufferer in Safe, being sick is not a temporary or even permanent state so much as it is Dee Dee’s entire identity. She suffers fake illnesses, then her mother transforms the public’s pity for her unfortunate, plucky daughter into cold-hard cash, awards, and even the occasional house; Habitats for Humanity, the Ronald McDonald House and Make-A-Wish all fell for Mama Dee Dee’s demented grift.
Like Sarah and Jennifer Hart, the white subjects of the podcast Broken Harts, who adopted six black children they paraded in front of cameras for likes and love on carefully manicured social media posts while abusing, starving and ultimately killing them behind the scenes, Dee Dee didn’t just want the validation, praise and attention that comes with being recognized as a good mother. No, she wanted to be thought of as a living saint, goodness personified, an everyday hero making incredible sacrifices for her desperately sick daughter.
If Dee Dee wasn’t Mother of the Year she wasn’t anything at all. She had no identity, no cultural capital, no reason to stand out from the crowd. So this deeply mentally ill woman lived a grotesque lie in order to maintain complete control her daughter, to keep her from maturing beyond a state of perpetual pink Disney girlhood.
The internet is frequently a sinister force in stories like these. It certainly is in the case of the Hart family. But in the beginning, at least access to a computer and the internet is a liberating and empowering force for Dee Dee. It gives her access to the outside world, a world beyond her mother’s control, a world where she did not have to pretend to be a strange, sad, maudlin caricature of a girly six-year-old no matter how old she was on the outside.
The internet introduced her to people who would treat her like a woman with needs, sexual needs, instead of a perpetual child who needed to be kept from experiencing pretty much any of life’s rich offerings for her own good. The internet being the internet, it is not long before things take a dark, sinister turn.
The internet introduces Dee Dee to men who broaden her horizons by, for example, introducing her to the world of BDSM and pornographic, doctored images of Disney heroes and princesses that, needless to say, would have caused old Uncle Walt to blush something awful.
There’s nothing wrong with kinks between two consenting adults who aren’t hurting anybody but a few years into elaborate video sex sessions, Gypsy really starts playing up, “Hey, wouldn’t it be totally sexy if you killed my abusive mother? That would get me so turned on.”
In The Act, Gypsy is both victim and victimizer, the subject of horrific, mind-warping psychological and physical abuse and an active, aggressive force in her mother’s murder who isn’t above using her sexuality to get her disturbed, distressingly suggestible computer boyfriend to do her murderous bidding.
Dee Dee cynically and selfishly sold an image of Dee Dee as an eternal little girl with a fizzy, dizzy, head full of rainbows, unicorns, a woman-child who believed that Disney movies were real and fairy tales came true. Dee Dee, Gypsy and Nicholas Godejohn, the boyfriend who committed the murder were like creatures out of a fairy tale alright: the Wicked Mother, the desperate Princess being kept away in a castle and the handsome, daring Prince willing to defeat the Evil Mother in order to save his Princess.
Only this was ultimately no Disney fairy tale. Instead, it was a grotesque caricature that alternately suggested a snuff film or a pornographic parody rather the wholesome product pumped out by Disney corporation. Access to a computer broadened Gypsy’s horizons enough to make sex, kink, manipulation, and murder all very real possibilities and ultimately, realities.
The internet offered Gypsy the possibility of freedom, sweet freedom, from the horrors of life with a controlling mother but at a terrible cost. The Act has no heroes, just varying degrees of victims but it has a villain for the ages in Dee Dee. Dee Dee emerges as an unforgettable mother monster who ends up paying the ultimate price for decades of brainwashing and abuse but The Act has a pretty riveting secondary villain in the computer that allows Dee Dee to break free from the gas-lighting and mind control her mother inflicted upon her but also serves as a Pandora’s Box unleashing all manner of darkness and violence onto an already seedy, sordid and exceedingly combustible situation.