Hulu’s The Act
Season 1, Episode 8: “Free”
Directed by Steven Piet
Written by Nick Antosca, Michelle Dean & Lisa Long
* For a recap & review of the penultimate episode, “Bonnie & Clyde” – click here
* There’s potentially a Season 2— will it focus on Gypsy Rose again in some way, or will there be a new ‘act’ at the centre of the drama?
We start in 1997, back in Louisiana, when Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette) was trying to quell her daughter’s fear of ghosts while lying under the stars. She tells little Gypsy Rose about the stars: “I protect you and you protect me.” It’s likely they were homeless, which explains why they’d be out so late together, lying in the grass.
Jump ahead to 2015.
Gypsy (Joey King) and Nick (Calum Worthy) are on trial for murder. She enters a plea of “not guilty” and it surprises the court. They’re both up for the death penalty should they be convicted of first-degree murder. The sad irony is Nick thinks they’re going to stick together “like Bonnie and Clyde.” Gypsy questions what happened to the two outlaws “in the end“— these two young lovers could up just like Bonnie and Clyde, without a hail of bullets. Later, Nick finds out they died together, and seems to think it’ll be comforting to his lady, though it’s anything but, only horrifying Gypsy more.
She sits with her lawyer, who’s trying to put together a sympathetic portrait of her client. The power of attorney debacle isn’t good. The lawyer wants to get in contact with her father, but Gypsy believes he left her and didn’t love her. “We have to start changing the story,” her lawyer explains. The medical records are key to building a case that won’t end with the young girl being murdered by the state.
A doctor (Krisha Fairchild) at the prison examines Gypsy. The girl tries to ask about her medical records, though the doc isn’t too interested in chit chat, mostly looking to get the feeding tube out of her new patient. It’s tragic, to see her reach for where her mother’s hand would usually be as her tube is painfully removed with little care. Also odd for Gypsy to be “one of the healthiest” people anywhere.
All around, her life’s been subverted to a degree she could’ve never expected. She used to be treated like the only person in the world— despite the cruelty of her wretched mother— and now she’s less than a number in a factory of human misery.
Gypsy calls Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb) to explain she wasn’t intentionally trying to fool or hurt anybody. She tries to tell her friend that she genuinely cares about her, and she expresses a need to tell her everything honestly. She asks Lacey to come see her at the prison, and doesn’t get a straight yes or no either way. After that, she tries calling her father and has to leave a message.
Soundtrack note: Dionne Warwick’s “I’m Your Puppet” plays in the neighbourhood scene
At home, Lacey hears everybody “talking shit” about the Blanchards. Some would like to see Gypsy get the chair. Most assume she was totally in on it with her mother, which is what the media were spinning. Mel (Chloë Sevigny) sees the Blanchards as “emotional vampires,” feeling fooled by them, whereas Lacey’s beginning to wonder if there’s still more to the story than they’re being told.
At the prison, Gypsy’s surprised by a visit from her father, Rod. He’s brought the medical records along with him. Most of the notes read “according to mother” and “mother said“— Rod says none of it ever happened. This begins to let the girl in on how Dee Dee made her “a prisoner.” Rod explains he was 17 when he and Dee Dee were married. He made a bad mistake letting his daughter go. He did try to come see her, and his ex-wife wouldn’t allow it. Then he shows her a picture of him holding her only days after she was born, another when she was three, and one when she was eight. She only remembers Dee Dee’s distorted perception of her father through years of abuse.
Slowly though, the good memories are returning.
In court, it’s Bonnie and Clyde no more: Gypsy and Nick’s trials will be separated after the judge is given evidence of the medical history behind the former’s abuse. Nick’s visibly distraught, telling the court he only killed for Gypsy. Nevertheless, their trials are divided. On top of that, the young girl continues to be troubled by the fact she’ll likely have to plead guilty. At the same time, Lacey’s at home hearing of the “Munchausen‘s by proxy” on the news, wondering if there weren’t times when her friend across the road was calling out for help and she simply didn’t see it. Mel suggests her daughter go to the prison, if nothing else but to get the truth.
Instead, she goes herself. She wants to know when Gypsy knew she could walk, and why she didn’t get out on her own. Gypsy’s not sure why Mel would come see her. Mel tells her some hard truths, hoping to help the girl understand she has to cauterise herself from the memory of her mother for good, to figure out her own identity for once.
All this does is bring up the guilt in Gypsy. She remembers the night her mother was killed. When Dee Dee was asleep, Gypsy went to get the fishing knife she bought and saw Nick waiting outside the front door. She let him in, handed him the knife, then led him to the bedroom where he viciously stabbed Dee Dee to death— the reason Gypsy’s seeing the image of the tower in her flashbacks is she hid in the bathroom as Nick murdered her mother, hearing all the sounds, which is how the viewer experiences this moment.
An effectively disturbing scene without showing a graphic stabbing. Truly chilling.
In the aftermath, Gypsy washed the knife, then she tried to wash Nick off as best she could. Neither of them had any real idea what would come next. She focused on going on “an adventure.” They turned it all into the plot of their fairy tale, dissociating from their real identities so they didn’t have to face what they’d done. Nick ruined the fairy tale directly after by pulling off his pants and trying to climb on top of Gypsy, having trouble getting an erection. Another disturbing moment, as she was lying under him for a few seconds clearly not enjoying what was happening.
Later, Gypsy and Nick got ready to leave, embarking on the next leg of a new life. She didn’t forget to turn the heat down, so her mother’s corpse wouldn’t bake like a ham. In a twisted way, it shows compassion. For Father Gore, it speaks to the upsetting fact the daughter couldn’t hate her mother, even after plotting her murder, clinging to what love they did share over the course of her damaged life. The final image of Gypsy in her cell, leaning on Dee Dee’s ghostly shoulder, is a testament to this fact— a perfect note on which to end the season.
Soundtrack note: “Why Try to Change Me Now” by Fiona Apple plays here. The final song over the credits is “Femme Fatale” by the Velvet Underground.
“Welcome to the rest of your life”
The Act is easily one of the best new shows in 2019, as well as one of the better adaptations of a true crime story yet to be seen. All the writing was so well done, and each of the directors who came on-board kept things visually interesting, offering compelling imagery and juxtaposition of scenes that really helped the whole story, and its important themes, shine bright. It’s a disturbing tale, though it needs telling.
Let’s hope a Season 2 is definitely coming! Father Gore assumes it’ll be a brand new story.