‘The Act’: Bizarre True Crime Story Brought to Life in Captivating Hulu Series

Of all the crime documentaries that have popped up on various platforms these past few years, few have been quite as shocking as “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” the HBO doc about the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, a crime in which her own daughter, Gypsy Rose, was convicted for her role. Gypsy, a victim of extreme Munchausen syndrome by proxy, claimed that only by her mother’s death could she be set free. The story of the Blanchards is something of cautionary tale, as few questioned Dee Dee’s deceptive behavior; even doctors and Gypsy’s own father, for the most part, took her reports of her daughter’s fake medical conditions, which included Leukemia and muscular dystrophy, at face value. Mother and daughter received money, free trips, and even a new house from charities and individuals touched by their plight. Now, almost four years after Dee Dee’s murder, a new Hulu limited series, “The Act,” has dramatised this compelling story, with none other than Patricia Arquette portraying Dee Dee, and talented rising actress Joey King taking on the role of Gypsy. “The Act” focuses not so much on the fraud part of the Blanchards’ story, but on the twisted and claustrophobic relationship between the mother and daughter.

“The Act” opens on the night of Dee Dee’s murder, after a suspicious Facebook post leads neighbor Mel (Chloë sevigny) and her daughter Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb) to the Blanchards’ door, where they make the decision to contact law enforcement after hearing no signs of life. Flashback to seven years earlier, Dee Dee and Gypsy move into their new pink house in Missouri, a home that was built for them by Habitat for Humanity. We first meet them giving a TV interview, the reporter visibly moved by this devoted mother and her doting daughter. With her bald head, frail physique, and wheelchair, young Gypsy, who is about 17 at this point but lead to believe by her mom that she is four years younger, certainly looks the part of a child who is not long for this world. However, moments later we see Dee Dee shave her daughter’s head in the kitchen sink, the first clue that things aren’t what they seem.

Lacey, who is around the same age of Gypsy but looks considerably older, makes the first move to befriend her new neighbors. The teens become fast friends, and soon Lacey is sheltered Gypsy’s only link to the outside world. Mel, meanwhile, is initially skeptical of Dee Dee’s “perfect mom” act, but the two eventually warm up to each other, bonding over their shared experience of being single mothers. When it comes to Dee Dee, it would have been easy to have made her nothing more than a narcissistic villain. However, just as she did with her controversial character in “Escape at Dannemora,” Arquette, with help from writers Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean, peels back Dee Dee’s layers. During the first two episodes, which mainly set up exposition and explore the dynamic between Dee Dee and Gypsy, her sanguine southern woman act seems overdone, but that’s the point. At times, it appears as if Dee Dee has bought into her own falsehoods about her daughter’s health issues, such as a fabricated sugar allergie. And while money is certainly a motivation here, it’s also clear that she has legitimate abandonment issues. While “The Act” by no means offers excuses for the drastic measures Dee Dee takes to infantilize her daughter, the series does make a valiant effort to humanize the woman.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Dee and Gypsy’s relationship that is explored here is the psychological hold the mother has on the daughter. According to the original documentary, not one medical professional thoroughly vetted Gypsy’s medical history, so a fictional character, Dr. Chandra (Poorna Jagannathan), is invented to create conflict and keep Dee Dee on her toes. In one of the more revealing scenes, Chandra attempts to set Gypsy free, so to speak, only to discover that she isn’t ready. One cannot help but to feel the heartbreak as she squeaks out, “My mom needs me.”

By episode three, Gypsy’s budding sexuality serves as an impetus for her to finally openly rebel against Dee Dee. As diabetes takes a hold of the older woman and makes her more and more foggy, it becomes easier for her daughter to sneak around. The series really picks up with the introduction of Nick Godejohn (an excellent Calum Worthy), the disturbed young man Gypsy meets online. The pair are fascinating to watch as they retreat deeper and deeper in their own world, and King is especially captivating during Gypsy’s unconventional transformation into womanhood. By the end of episode five of this eight-part series, she reaches a breaking point, leaving the viewer eager to watch the rest of the story unfold, even if they are familiar with the eventual ghastly outcome.

The Act” begins streaming March 20 on Hulu with new episodes airing on Wednesdays.