On the Hometown Horror of ‘The Act’
Hulu’s latest drama, The Act, recounts a riveting true crime story, one of the most bizarre and terrifying in recent history. It makes me squirm, but not for the reason you might think. I just can’t objectively evaluate this show.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s plenty to like. The performances are top-notch (Patricia Arquette brings her A-game, and Joey King is uncannily accurate), the costumes and design shines, and the typography alone should take an award. Every new reveal heightens the stakes, but I’m completely unable to divorce fact from fiction when it comes to the Blanchards.
Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy, arrived in Springfield, Missouri in 2009. Displaced after Hurricane Katrina, the Blanchards were helpless and homeless. Complicating things, Gypsy suffered from a laundry list of ailments: she was paraplegic, intellectually stunted, and had battled cancer to name a few. Habitat for Humanity built them a home, and the community embraced them. The Make-a-Wish Foundation flew Gypsy and her mother to Walt Disney World and gave them backstage passes to Miranda Lambert concerts. Their story went from heartbreaking to heartwarming, but the reality was was horrifying.
June 14, 2015, Dee Dee Blanchard was found murdered in her home, and her daughter was nowhere to be found. She eventually turned up in Wisconsin, and she was found with her secret online boyfriend. They had conspired to murder Gypsy’s mother.
Dee Dee likely suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which is a disorder where a caregiver fakes—or in the Blanchards’ case causes—illness in the person they care for. It’s abuse that Dee Dee took to the extreme, where she purposefully kept her daughter sick and stunted for over two decades. Any illness she had was either induced or fabricated, and her wheelchair was entirely for show. The mother used physical abuse to keep her daughter from revealing the secret. Dee Dee claimed Gypsy was a child, but her age never quite stayed the same. In truth, Gypsy was well into her twenties when Dee Dee was found dead.
The twisted circumstances and secrets led to a documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest. If you haven’t seen it, fire up HBO immediately (or find the whole thing on YouTube. I won’t narc).
Springfield, Missouri!? It’s my hometown. The city is portrayed as typical flyover country: you’ve got the urban decay, complete with a shot of a weathered Waffle House; there’s the occasional thick, twangy accentl; and pastel, identical houses in the middle of nowhere. There’s glimpses of civilization in the local shopping mall, hospital, and charities. Yet, most of the B-roll paints a town that America forgot. In reality, it’s much more like the Springfield of The Simpsons, an archetypal Anywhere, USA (one with a regional dish that I’m a little offended that hasn’t had a single mention yet). It’s not entirely detached from reality. There are parts of Orange County that look identical to it. But it’s not so much The Act‘s depiction of Springfield that irks me.
There’s Chloë Sevigny’s character, Mel. She’s our surrogate viewer, the audience member who knows something is up. Everyone else is a gullible rube, but like us, Mel suspects something. If anything, she’s a narrative necessity. No one could fall for Dee Dee’s ruse, right? However, Mel was few and far between in the real world, and if they saw something, they rarely said something. Dee Dee’s m.o. involved bolting at the first sign of suspicion, but she was good at keeping secrets. When one of Gypsy’s doctors began to question Dee Dee’s elaborate “medical history,” other doctors told him to brush it off. He was told to treat the Blanchards with “golden gloves.” The secret was always safe.
I’m not going to claim to have been close to the Blanchards, or even to have met them, but they were known in Springfield. They were fixtures of local events and charity functions, and the wool was over the eyes of an entire city. When the news hit, no one said, “I told you so.” That suspicion just wasn’t there. The shock was universal. Without its “based on true events” cards, you’d think The Act was pure fantasy, a potboiler piece spun by a lunatic. Yet, the truth is (as the cliché goes) stranger than fiction.
The Act hovers somewhere between a Lifetime movie and HBO drama, simultaneously pulp and prestige. It’s dishy and dark, but it’s nowhere near as twisted as the real story. While it’s fun to watch, there’s that nagging in the back of my head that pulls me out of the narrative. As a viewer, I’m supposed to side with Mel. But she’s the show’s biggest lie.