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.