For the first time in her life, Gypsy Rose Blanchard has plans of her own. It’s 2015 now, and as The Act resumes for its fifth episode, she’s dressing up in provocative clothing to have cybersex with her internet boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn. She does this several times throughout the episode. It’s all kinds of blackly comic given Nick’s woeful lack of proficiency with regards to the dom-sub power exchanges the two enjoy. (In Gypsy, a woman whose entire life has been defined by her Munchausen-by-proxy mother and Disney movies, Nick, a man who blows his promotion at a pizza parlor, may have found the one person on earth he could convince to call him Daddy.) And since we know where it’s all headed, it’s sinister too.
But it’s liberating as well, and that’s the strength of “Plan B,” this pivotal episode. Written by Lisa Long and co-creator Nick Antosca and directed by Steven Piet, the hour aces the extremely difficult task of portraying Gypsy’s sexual self-actualization in a way that reflects its sordid context, but also captures all the excitement and heat people feel when they discover what gets them off, and realize they have both the partner and the power required to do it again and again.
Gypsy’s multiple role-play personas enable her to be a little-girl submissive during one session and a Dark Phoenix domme the next. She can enjoy the sense that her boyfriend Nick (Calum Worthy, quietly excellent and sensitive in his portrayal of a young man with autism spectrum disorder who also happens to be a murderer) is a powerful vampiric presence in her life, offering both protection and danger depending on her own emotional and sexual needs at the time.
Due to the intensity of their connection, the idea of killing her mother to preserve it grows more and more realistic with each conversation. With that grows the conviction, however fairy-tale it might be, that she can have a life beyond the pink prison of their house, where infantilizing stuffed animals have slowly spread into every room, even the bathroom, like a metastasizing cancer. (At one point Gypsy buys a plush kangaroo and joey as a cover for purchasing the knife that will be used to kill Dee Dee; the cancer spreads in both directions.) She can take control of her body, make it feel good, use it to bring pleasure to herself — and eventually also to Nick, with whom she has her first kiss and then has sex on the bathroom floor of the movie theater where they disastrously try to stage a meet-cute with her mom, using her Cinderella dress as a makeshift bedsheet like the wedding gown in Hellraiser. If she can do that, perhaps she can take control of everything. That kind of power is thrilling and erotic, even here, and when she returns to her mother following the act, she seems drunk with the delight of it.
But at the same time Gypsy is expanding — sexually, emotionally, aspirationally — she is narrowing as well. Specifically, she’s narrowing into a point that will be plunged into her mother’s body. This is a harsh, unpleasant, yet bizarrely satisfying process to witness, like watching a prisoner sharpen a toothbrush handle into a shank.
Yes, Gypsy and Nick discuss their plan to murder Dee Dee throughout the episode, starting off with tentative explorations of the very idea of being violent toward another person and ending with a fantasized femme-fatale seduction and the methodical purchasing and planning required to carry it out.
But because Joey King is the actor she is (and by rights she’ll be able to write her own ticket after this thing is over), and because Steven Piet is the director he is (ditto, though this was also true after his magisterially creepy work on the No-End House season of Nick Antosca’s horror anthology Channel Zero), this major step in Gypsy’s process of refinement into something lethal is wordless, witnessed in a hardening of the mouth, a narrowing of the eyes.
It happens when Dee Dee rebuffs Gypsy’s suggestion that they go on vacation, offering instead to take her to get her feeding tube changed. The younger woman glares at the closed bathroom door where Dee Dee sits and sobs, refusing to properly medicate her diabetes and becoming more pathetic and repellent to her daughter by the second. As Gypsy’s face curdles with contempt, the words “THE ACT” are superimposed over it, connecting her anger to the murder.
It happens again after Nick, in a misguided simulacrum of star-crossed romance narratives, calls Dee Dee to anonymously report that he’s in love with her daughter and that they’ll be together forever. Dee Dee hangs up and says nothing about the content of the call to Gypsy, a surprise given the expected harangue that would normally result. Instead, she summons her daughter to her room, where she stands waiting like a ghost from The Shining, holding the blue ribbon she uses to tie her daughter to the bed when she’s defiant.
It’s a wholly nonsensical act, of course. Tying Gypsy up demonstrably has not stopped her from having an inner life separate from that of her mother. She can’t keep her tied up forever at any rate. And she’s not even bothering to explain what she’s tying her up for. It’s almost a masturbatory act on Dee Dee’s part — an attempt at self-gratification directed at the part of her that cannot bear the thought of her daughter differentiating from the mother-child bond, but which is no longer together enough to formulate functional plans to keep this from happening.
By this point Dee Dee is so exhausted by her mental and physical illnesses that she actually seems like the underdog in the emotional struggle underway, despite the fact that she’s tying her daughter to a bed. As Gypsy submits to the ritual, which is all that it is, she stares furiously at her mother. She knows that on some level, she has won the war; Dee Dee in turn realizes she’s lost, but that’s not something she can really face. Again, this all plays out wordlessly, the story told in Joey King’s face.
It happens again once Dee Dee returns to free her from captivity that night, after the light has faded. The hate is just festering in Gypsy’s eyes now, but there’s more to it than that. Gypsy lives with her worst enemy, but she’s done so all her life. She loves her worst enemy, and her worst enemy, in her own fucked-up way, loves her too. So mixed in with Gypsy’s hatred is frustration, paralysis, even fear. To overcome the emotional bonds of an entire lifetime, a lifetime constructed around a relationship with a single person, and kill that person to stop her abuse? Actual revolutionaries have struggled against easier psychological odds.
The final step occurs on the day of the murder. The scenes that take place that day have a heavy Heavenly Creatures vibe, with Gypsy attempting to show her mother a few last acts of kindness prior to the killing. (When I interviewed him, Antosca told me Peter Jackson’s true-crime drama about two teenage girls who murdered one of their mothers in a dream-logic attempt to be together forever was a “huge influence on this show, on the style and philosophy.”) She cuts her toenail, paints her fingernails, even volunteers to go to the doctor for a feeding-tube change, taking her mom’s hand during the procedure.
Dee Dee turns to Gypsy and, to her shock, says she needs to apologize for her behavior at the movies the other day. You can see something close to panic wheeling around behind Gypsy’s glasses — should she call it off? Then Dee Dee explains what she feels she needs to apologize for. It’s not cutting off any possibility of Gypsy and Nick talking to each other that she regrets, nor publicly berating and humiliating him. It not disallowing Gypsy to have a sip of Dr. Pepper, which she’d denied due to her nonexistent sugar allergy. For the briefest second before the cut to the next scene, Gypsy’s eyes go cold as the grave she’ll soon be sending her mother to.
The hatred is so strong it takes your breath away. “I’m here,” reads the final text message from Nick when he returns to town following the movie-theater debacle to murder Dee Dee on Gypsy’s behalf. But the killer is already inside the house.