[Batman TV voiceover] Dee Dee and Gypsy, putting the con in “comic con”? Looks like our Dependent Duo are cosplaying with fire! Will the “Two Wolverines” who give our adventure its title sink their claws into these lovely lawbreakers? Will the Blanchards blanch at forming costumed connections with their hirsute suitors? Find out next week — same Act-time, same Act-streaming service!
Written by Robin Veith and directed by Adam Arkin, the third episode of Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean’s mesmerizing account of the Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard story takes a trip to Fangri-la, a costume-heavy comic-con. Is it the most realistically depicted comics convention I’ve ever seen? No. True, having multiple dudes half-ass a Wolverine costume by fluffing up their facial hair, buying some cheap plastic claws, and wearing a generic tough-guy outfit is on point. But the lighting is too good — comic-cons typically have a harsh convention-center glare that looks like wall-to-wall convention-center carpeting smells — and the near-absence of dudes in Red Lantern T-shirts carrying bags the size of a compact car is hard to excuse.
Hard, but not impossible. The emphasis here, from the made-up name of the show “FanOptiCon” on down, is on optics — seeing, and being seen, and presenting yourself accordingly. The most surprising thing about it, aside from how lucky the show got in receiving clearance for all those X-Men and Disney trademarks, is how well the result works. If you’re Gypsy in this situation, no doubt the princesses and superheroes and stormtroopers really are the only people you see. And if you’re Dee Dee, who seems to be the sole person not in costume, well … siiiigh, these are the sacrifices a mother has to make for her daughter’s happiness, especially a mother who’d never distort anything about who she really is, oh good heavens no. By making the con exclusively for cosplayers, the show makes Dee Dee’s costume, that of an honest person, stand out.
But it’s not always a costume. One of The Act’s trickiest and most important projects is to convey the idea that, in her own warped way, Dee Dee really did care about Gypsy, and that many of the fears she had about her daughter’s safety in the world were real, even if many of the things she was afraid of weren’t. When Dee Dee discovers the note Gypsy leaves behind telling her she’s run off with her cosplay crush — signed “Love, Gypsy —your 19 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER” — she’s worried Gypsy might blow their cover, yeah. But she’s also very clearly worried the way any parent would be if their kid ran off in the middle of the night with a much older man they met at a comic-con. In a way, Dee Dee’s Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a coping mechanism for existing anxieties; whether or not she can ever admit this to herself, inventing things to be worried about and then solving those nonexistent problems gives her some control over an otherwise uncontrollable world. To have that world suddenly rise up and swallow her daughter, creating a problem beyond Dee Dee’s power to shape and treat it herself, must be legitimately terrifying.
The men the two women are linked with in the episode — the “Two Wolverines” of the title — present a revealing contrast as well. Russ, the friendly (if overly persistent) Old Man Logan cosplayer portrayed (amazingly!) by Breaking Bad’s ASAC Hank Schrader himself, Dean Norris, is honest to a fault. He’s smitten with Dee Dee not only because she’s kind of adorable, but because she seems to be a good person, a woman struggling to give her daughter the best life possible in a difficult situation. There’s a DIY element to her caretaking that we can see must appeal to him when, over the phone, he describes to her how much he’s missed just fixing things and helping out around the house since his divorce. Dee Dee’s self-presentation as an honest, hardworking sort is what attracts him, and her knowledge that it’s bogus is why she rejects him.
Then there’s the young Wolverine, with the amusing-if-you-know-your-X-Men-lore name of Scott (Joe Tippett). While his occasional discomfort with Gypsy’s princess-in-the-tower mentality is amusing, he’s ultimately able to roll with it, in part by shifting the discussion to his own preferred fictional framework and casting her as the Jean Grey (a.k.a. Dark Phoenix) to his Mutant Formerly Known as James Howlett — the great star-crossed never-quite romance in the franchise’s history. Gypsy’s escape from her mother’s fantasy life is just an entrance into someone else’s.
Scott has more in common with Dee Dee than either might think: He’s committing a low-key version of her own high-key medical fraud. Though he works in a nursing home, a perfectly valid and noble profession based on the idea of caring for those who need it, he inflates this during late-night secret chats with Gypsy into a more heroic-sounding job as a surgeon. Maybe he thinks he’s unlikely to ever be in a position where Gypsy will be close enough to him to suss out the truth, which his reaction to her eventual arrival in person would appear to back up, or maybe he’s just kind of stupid and sleazy, which tracks with the rest of his lifestyle. (“What a beautiful place you have,” Gypsy says when they go back to the house he shares with a roommate. “Really?” he asks, uncertain if she’s lying or just has really really bad taste.) Either way, his arms-length relationship with the truth and his use of the medical profession to score personal points is very on-brand for the Blanchards.
In a be-careful-what-you-wish-for sense, Scott’s fantasy becomes reality. He does wind up in an emergency room, only as the result of a bar fight rather than being on call. This gives Gypsy the opportunity she needs to escape her house and grab a taxi to the hospital, wearing the bright red Jean Grey wig that Scott sent her. Joey King, who in a just world will be able to write her own ticket as an actor after this show, weaves her way through an extremely daunting gauntlet of inflecting tones and emotions throughout the sequence that follows. She’s required to depict the puppy love of a child, the low simmer of teenagers on a couch, the comical mangling of various pop-culture references and tropes about true love (she wants to be free of “that evil Cyclops,” indicating that her late-night X-Men fan-art binges left something to be desired regarding character continuity), and the crushing fact that she’s never before been allowed to have an interior life of her own, making expressing her innermost feelings to others in an honest and intelligible way all but impossible. When Dee Dee finally shows up in a panic and whisks Gypsy away, Scott’s reaction to her lie that her daughter is only 14 is a lot closer to relief than you might expect; at least this way he has an excuse not to have to rescue her from her own emotional quicksand.
The episode concludes with a deft and upsetting bit of physical business. When the Blanchards arrive back home at their little pink house, Dee Dee makes Gypsy get back into her wheelchair despite the fact that they both clearly know she doesn’t need it. It’s like watching a version of Misery in which Kathy Bates makes James Caan hobble himself. Then she storms toward the house through the orange haze of the streetlights in a huff, forcing her daughter to wheel herself up the tortuous switchback ramp all by herself … and guaranteeing that when Dee Dee steps in to help, which she inevitably does, Gypsy’s reaction will be one of relief and gratitude. It’s a lot like the stunt she pulled by having all of Gypsy’s teeth pulled and withholding her dentures before delivering them at just the right moment in the previous episode: She creates a problem, and then accepts the emotional rewards for solving it.
To me, though, the most upsetting thing about the episode is a problem Dee Dee creates without the hope of ever being able to solve it herself. From the natural sympathy garnered by a child to the legal and medical rights attached to reaching the age of majority, Dee Dee’s scam requires Gypsy to remain forever young. This means continuously revising her daughter’s age downward, telling her she was born in 1993 for a while, then shifting to 1995 when the dates stop working. (A car accident made her “no good with numbers,” she bullshits; this is a woman who could probably recite all of Gypsy’s vital medical stats by heart.) Eventually Gypsy goes through her mom’s stuff and discovers the truth: She was born in 1991. As she angrily points out in her Dear Mom note, this makes her nineteen, not fifteen, which is Dee Dee’s current line. It’s this that gives her the courage to run off to Scott in the first place.
But I just kept thinking of what it must feel like to realize you’ve been denied this fundamental piece of information about who you really are — what you really are, in terms of the line of demarcation between childhood and adulthood — all your life, by a person who claims to you and the world at large that she exists only to serve your needs. How can you trust anything at that point, from your mother’s words to the doctors’ opinions to your own lived experience? Wouldn’t a fantasy world of mangled Disney/Marvel romance seem not just appealing but necessary at that point? It’s a reality Gypsy has the power to choose herself, even if everything there is fake.