The story of Gypsy Rose has stuck in my head since I first heard it in an episode of My Favorite Murder back in 2017. I was spellbound listening to this insane true story and sought out more about it because I needed to know. If you don’t know much about Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard, I urge you to read the article for Buzzfeed by Michelle Dean. It’s some amazing journalism. And then, go ahead and sink your teeth into the first season of The Act, co-written and co-created by Dean, centered on the story of Gypsy Rose and what drove her to kill her mother.
The story starts out innocently enough – Gypsy Rose is a very sick young girl, and her mother Dee Dee is the ultimate caretaker. But it’s evident very early on that something is slightly off-kilter in this story. Dee Dee is overbearing, and her insistence on monitoring every aspect of Gypsy’s life has the ring of an ulterior motive. It’s hinted at on the show, but Dee Dee suffers from Munchausen by proxy. She wants to be Gypsy’s savior, even though she doesn’t need one.
I hadn’t thought much about this story in a couple of years, but after watching the first episode of The Act, and I was immediately sucked back in and decided to do a bit more research, to the tune of watching Mommy Dead and Dearest, the documentary about the case, featuring interviews from Gypsy Rose, her family and those close to the proceedings. I’m so glad I did because it set the scene for The Act and cemented the fact that while the show is only “based on a true story”, it seems like they’re following it pretty closely. From the bright pink house to the creep-inducing scene of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee singing together on stage while she receives yet another sick kid award, it’s jarring to watch. There’s more than enough drama and conflict without the need to embellish or falsify (although Gypsy Rose herself has made claims that the show has done just that).
As people turn away from cable and start to pay more and more for streaming services, the expectations for the content provided by these services soar. We want insightful stories, actors we recognize, and production value that mimics that of the best HBO drama.
The Act delivers. Joey King of The Kissing Booth fame is excellent as Gypsy Rose. The high-pitched voice, the subtle turn from doting daughter to knife-licking BDSM sub is unnerving in the best way. She realistically portrays a young woman who’s been tortured and isolated her entire life without making her into a caricature.
And then there’s Patricia Arquette. Man, that woman is on fire. It seems like she’s won or been nominated for something every award season in recent memory. Watching her as Dee Dee is horrifying, to say the least. The subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – manipulation she subjects everyone around her to leaves us viewers feeling squeamish. Her Lousiana drawl alone gives me chills. You know an actor has achieved their goal as the villain when you’re not entirely upset to see them killed. That’s not to say that this whole turn of events isn’t tragic, but it’s hard to watch this perfectly fine young woman be stifled and treated as a lab experiment her entire life at the hands of a mentally ill mother.
The performances are stellar all around. There are lots of familiar faces such as Chloe Sevigny and Juliette Lewis, as well as newcomers who excellent – looking at you, Calum Worthy. His portrayal of Nick Godejohn, Gypsy’s boyfriend and would-be savior, is once again hard to watch yet hard to look away. That’s kind of the take away from this entire show.
The Actual Act
Reality is stranger than fiction, and that’s never been a truer turn of phrase than when used to describe the saga of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard. Watching their lives makes you shake your head at your TV and wonder how any mother could treat their child like that, especially when it’s justified as being the care she needs. The Act is a hard show to watch. It’s tragic, suspenseful, and makes you feel a range of emotions that I would in no way classify as fun. But it’s so, so interesting. And truly hard to believe that all this actually happened (minus any embellishment added). When you see present-day photos of the real Gypsy Rose, thriving and healthy in jail, it’s bittersweet. She’s imprisoned, but in a way she’s free. In another, much deeper way, she’ll never be free. Did the actions of her mother justify the action she took against her? It’s a matter of opinion at this point.
The Act shows the duality of this story in so many ways – through the many personalities of both Gypsy and Dee Dee, the conflicting nature of the crime itself, and right and wrong in general. Dee Dee’s murder lays in some fuzzy middle ground between justice and brutality, and Gypsy is both a victim and a criminal. I’ll say it again, this is not a fun show to watch. It’s well acted, entirely too factual, and the subject matter is undoubtedly engrossing, but be prepared to do some grappling with your feelings when it’s all over.
The Act is streaming on Hulu now. Stayed tuned for the second season this anthology series, focused on a different (but probably just as tragic) true crime.