“I like you special.” In an hour of television that includes the aftermath of a murder, the possibility of a kidnapping, and the evidence of year upon year of medical child abuse, these four innocuous words are the most frightening thing we hear. Dee Dee Blanchard isn’t lying when she says them, either. She treasures Gypsy, her frail and charming daughter. Dee Dee loves Gypsy for the things anyone would find lovable about her: her cheery disposition, her reassuring optimism, her own love of all things bright and beautiful. Dee Dee also loves Gypsy for the what others might find burdensome: a bottomless cocktail of illnesses, including epilepsy, paraplegia, a heart murmur, anemia, a lethal sugar allergy, a condition that required the surgical removal of her salivary glands, her need to be fed through a tube in her stomach. Gypsy’s suffering, and her endurance of it, are a part of what make her special, and just as she says, Dee Dee likes her for it. That Dee Dee also manufactured this suffering makes what she’s saying no less true. It just makes it horrifying. Like the little pink house after which this episode, “La Maison du Bon Rêve” (The House of Sweet Dreams), is named, “I like you special” is a prison in disguise.
Based on a blockbuster BuzzFeed article by co-creator and co-showrunner Michelle Dean, The Act takes us inside that prison, immersing us in the deliberately stunted life Gypsy Blanchard experienced under her mother Dee Dee’s smothering care. Today’s series premiere features a script by Dean and co-creator/co-showrunner Nick Antosca, of whose stylish and stunning horror anthology series Channel Zero this could easily be season five, courtesy of Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s chillingly restrained direction.
These horrors, however, are real. As the flash-forward cold open and subsequent follow-ups make clear, Dee Dee’s Munchausen-by-proxy abuse of her daughter Gypsy — who was both years older and much, much healthier than her mother ever allowed her to let on — ended forever in June 2015, when she was stabbed to death in her sleep by an assailant the show has yet to reveal. Based on this episode, the journey to that point will be brutal to watch. It will also be riveting.
In large part, the success of The Act so far comes down to one person: Joey King. She portrays a healthy young woman who’s been convinced by her mother that she is a grievously sick child, and, since she doesn’t know anything else but the world her mother created for her, works as hard as possible to convince everyone else of the same thing, including herself. What else can she do? She’s been infantilized by her mother, who bathes her in the sink, has her sleep in the same bed, and feeds her a steady diet of Care Bears cartoons and PediaSure food supplements. Despite her own misgivings about all this, Gypsy lacks the emotional and affective vocabulary to articulate them. She’s locked forever in a giggle oh gosh gee whiz command performance that’s as hard to see past as her shaved head and gigantic glasses. She’s both an actor and her own audience, a magician laboring mightily to trick herself. Tour de force is the go-to phrase for this kind of role, but in King’s case I prefer beast mode. She grabs ahold of the character with frightening strength and does not let her grip slip for a second.
In their very first scene, Gypsy and Dee Dee (a remarkable, appropriately exhausting Patricia Arquette) give a joint interview to the local news in the community to which they have recently moved, thanks to the pink house built for them by Habitat for Humanity, along with every other home in the neighborhood. Holding hands and cooing lovingly at each other, they run through their alleged plight — the chronic illnesses, the post-Katrina homelessness — as Gypsy smiles, and smiles, and smiles some more; smiles so hard you can nearly see steam rising from her ears, smiling as if her life depends on it because as far as she knows, it does. King establishes the unarticulated pain of this person so clearly and so early that she does half the episode’s work for it right there.
But this isn’t a two-hander for Arquette and King, strong as they are. Their Dee Dee and Gypsy have an opposite-number mother-daughter tandem in the very same cul de sac, in the form of Chloë Sevigny as Dee Dee’s fellow single mother Mel and AnnaSophia Robb as her oldest kid, Lacey. Mel and Lacey are aggressively normal, but thanks to both Dean & Antosca’s writing and Sevigny and Robb’s acting, they’re normal in a real-world kind of way. They’ve been through some shit, they give each other shit, but they do it all together, as a family that gets through its hard times rather than depending on those hard times to give it meaning. Their ability to argue but still count on each other’s love sets them apart from the painful perfection Dee Dee expects of Gypsy. So does the existence of the younger sibling for whom Lacey helps Mel care, and of Mel’s friend Shelly (Denitra Isler, in another endearing regular-Joe turn), whose presence prevents their household from taking on the hermetically sealed feeling of the Blanchards’.
The episode builds, via the slow-motion nightmare pacing familiar to fans of Channel Zero, to a sort of double climax in which cracks in Dee Dee’s facade — maintained within the pink house by literal walls of stuffed animals and pill bottles — begin to show. On a trip to the mall, Dee Dee shoplifts a necklace while using the (allegedly) wheelchair-bound Gypsy as a combination diversion, getaway car, and human shield, but notices at the last second that Mel has coincidentally caught her in the act. Then, at a big meet-the-neighbors block party Dee Dee throws in part to feel like she’s still ahead of the public-relations game, Mel starts to confront her, but gets cut off when Gypsy starts nibbling on a cupcake, causing Dee Dee to rush her to the hospital to fend off her nonexistent allergic response. “That woman has been kicked around, beat up, and gone through honest-to-god shit,” Shelly observes; Munchausen-by-proxy mission accomplished.
Chastened, Mel catches the Blanchards on their way out of the hospital, extending an olive branch. But even as she falls into Dee Dee’s trap of sympathy, Gypsy partially frees herself: She’s overheard a doctor telling her mother that she isn’t allergic to sugar at all. (Anyone who’s seen the grotesque slurry of pizza and PediaSure that Dee Dee pours into Gypsy’s stomach could tell you that.) So she sneaks out of bed past her Xanaxed mom and chugs Reddi-wip right out of the can, because why not? It’s a telling and crushing detail that when faced with hard evidence of her mother’s deceit, the greatest act of rebellion she can think of in the moment is indulging her sweet tooth.
But the escape is only temporary. Mel awakes and welcomes/forces Gypsy back into bed, strapping an oxygen mask to her face for no goddamn reason at all. “Baby, baby, my baby — it’s okay,” Dee Dee whispers, in the bed where she’ll be murdered seven years later.