Midway through the first episode of The Act, a group of neighbors are chatting on a front porch when Casey Anthony’s name comes up. The scene is set in 2008, smack in the middle of the Nancy Grace–fueled wave of “tot mom” national hysteria that peaked when Anthony was arrested (and then acquitted) for killing her daughter. “Do you believe that Casey Anthony shit?” Shelly (Denitra Isler) exclaims. “A car smells like a dead body for a month and nobody notices?” Mel (Chloë Sevigny), similarly skeptical, remarks that you can tell when somebody’s no good; all you have to do is pay attention. Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) is silent, but her gaze is nervous, and her forehead is furrowed.
The scene might feel like a throwaway moment—an interlude illustrating Mel’s short-lived suspicion of Dee Dee, who has recently moved with her daughter, Gypsy (Joey King), into a bubblegum-pink house built for the Blanchards by Habitat for Humanity. But nothing in The Act is unintentional. To reference Casey Anthony is to dig up a tangle of ideas about the cultural fascination with women who harm their own children, a dynamic that The Act explores in visceral, psychological detail.
The new eight-part miniseries on Hulu is adapted by Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca from Dean’s 2016 BuzzFeed feature, “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered.” The series fictionalizes some of the details, but otherwise faithfully adapts the true story of a young woman in Missouri who plotted to kill her mother. The real Dee Dee Blanchard insisted that her daughter suffered from an encyclopedic list of ailments and disorders: cancer, muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, asthma. She told friends and neighbors that Gypsy, a teenager, had the learning capabilities of a 7-year-old. None of it was true. Rather, Gypsy was the victim of her mother’s Munchausen by proxy. But by the time she was old enough to doubt her mother’s claims, the two women were as imprisoned by codependence as they were by Dee Dee’s imagination.
The particular horror that Dee Dee represents—the fundamental corruption of the maternal imperative to provide care—is magnified in The Act by stylistic choices. This is body horror by way of Walt Disney, a ghoulish fantasia of princess gowns, stuffed animals, prescription drugs, and physical harm. King’s Gypsy speaks in an unnervingly high-pitched voice (much like the real Gypsy), and is dressed by her mother in doll-like outfits: soft pink sweat suits, floral pinafores with Peter Pan collars. In one of the first scenes in the show, Arquette’s Dee Dee shaves her daughter’s head with tenderness. “I wonder what it would be like if it grew out,” Gypsy says, wistfully. A few scenes later, illustrating the absurdity of Dee Dee’s insistence that Gypsy’s hair won’t grow, the 5 o’clock shadow is already visible on her scalp.
The Act, like most superior true-crime stories, isn’t merely interested in re-creating what happened. It delves into the texture of Dee Dee and Gypsy’s life together: the details of their lies, the physical brutality Gypsy endures by way of unnecessary procedures, the question of how so many doctors could have been compelled to believe Dee Dee. The relationship between the two women is the show’s most fascinating element, and it relies upon the extraordinary performance of its two stars. Arquette could easily go full Mommie Dearest with Dee Dee, leaning into the character’s monstrousness. Instead, she uses restraint, playing Dee Dee as a woman whose worst behaviors are governed by fear. They’re also rewarded by the people around her. Gypsy and Dee Dee are “like royalty” at a particular medical center, a doctor says in one scene. The sicker Gypsy appears to be, the more kindness she and her mother receive.
King, in many ways, has an even more demanding role, in that she has to convey Gypsy’s journey from victim to willing participant to a woman who sees murder as her only means of escape. In the second episode, the show makes clear how much she’s being forced to endure: Gypsy has taken to sneaking sugar late at night, her first act of rebellion against her mother, who insists she’s allergic to it. But her teeth begin to rot, and her mother takes Gypsy to the dentist. Before Gypsy begins to realize what’s happening, the buzz of the dentist’s drill amplifies. In the next scene, Gypsy’s mouth is horrifically bruised, and her teeth have been reduced to stumps. King makes Gypsy’s shock and humiliation palpable. Arquette’s Dee Dee, by contrast, is unnervingly calm, as if she’s been soothed by the process that has disfigured and traumatized her daughter.
Given that so much in Dee Dee and Gypsy’s relationship is unsaid, both actors powerfully communicate the subtext of their dynamic. The imagery The Act employs to build tension isn’t remotely subtle (red paint dripping down a wall, Dee Dee restraining her daughter with ribbons whose blue satin matches her Cinderella dress), but it works, thanks mostly to the sharpness of the performances. The only cost of the show’s heightened focus on its core two characters is that other cast members sometimes feel like an afterthought. Sevigny’s Mel has very little to do beyond providing a contrast with Dee Dee. A doctor played by Poorna Jagannathan, who is immediately suspicious of Dee Dee, is an intriguing possible antagonist, but the reality of the story means that she’s thwarted before she can fulfill her potential.
The show’s pacing, too, tends to lag—it feels like a story that could have been told in half as much time without sacrificing anything. But both Arquette and King are riveting in the scenes they occupy, bringing the necessary intelligence and complexity to balance out the story’s more outlandish elements. The French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who directs three out of eight episodes, also provides a kind of visual austerity that counteracts the Disneyfied color palette and the cloying childishness of Dee Dee and Gypsy’s world. It’s plain to see how curdled their shared fantasy has become.