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The Act Recap: A History of Violence

The Act

A Whole New World
Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating *****

The Act

A Whole New World
Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Brownie Harris/Hulu

When the murder happens, it happens fast. It happens offscreen. It happens without even the presence of the camera within the house where it takes place — we’re trapped outside and they’re trapped inside, and then it’s done. This week’s episode of The Act behaves a lot like I imagine Gypsy Blanchard and Nicholas Godejohn behaved the night they murdered Gypsy’s mother Dee Dee: like they just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible and move on with their lives.

Which they do, to an extent. Written by Heather Marion and directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnere, “A Whole New World” tracks Gypsy and Nick’s getaway, which is so childish and naive and clumsy it’s almost charming, like watching a Vine of one of those goats that falls asleep and topples over in the middle of running around the yard. The goats, however, didn’t just stab a woman to death after a lifetime of abuse.

Gypsy and Nick call a cab to the crime scene and take forever packing up and getting in; Nick’s main contribution is to bring a tray of brownies out of the house with him. They check into the motel where Nick had been staying, and it’s a disaster area. Gypsy dresses up to make a sex tape, but the camera falls over while Nick’s in the middle of going down on her, which lasts approximately five seconds before, based on the bouncing of the camera, he starts fucking her instead. He spent more time eating the brownies.

And so it goes. They go out for breakfast but the harried waitress prevents Gypsy from her dream of ordering soda pop to drink. Cops come in, completely unrelated to the crime, and scare the couple half to death. A cop picks up a bottle of pills Gypsy dropped (she pops them regularly throughout) and returns them to her, getting her mother’s name off the label in the process. Nick screws up the bus ticket order so he and Gypsy are stuck in the motel in the same town as the murder scene for an extra night; they stay in Room 237, in case things weren’t ominous enough for you already. Gypsy freaks out at the sound of a little girl begging her mom for candy at the vending machine, then snaps at Nick for his failure to be Prince Semi-Competent, much less Prince Charming.

But this is only half the story. For the first time this season, The Act is dominated by flashbacks, showing Gypsy’s birth and her early childhood with Dee Dee. They’re not alone at this point, not yet. The father’s out of the picture, but Dee Dee has her mother Emma (Margo Martindale from The Americans) and her cousin Janet (Rhea Seehorn from Better Call Saul) to count on. Well, Janet anyway — Emma’s contempt for Dee Dee, and her demand that Dee Dee simply love her without reservations in return, is an abusive dynamic that explains much of what comes later.

If the flashbacks did nothing else but give beloved prestige-TV actors Margo Martindale and Rhea Seehorn a chance to be on the same show as Patricia Arquette, Joey King, AnnaSophia Robb, and Chloë Sevigny, they’d be a welcome development. But more than anything else the show has done so far, they humanize Dee Dee Blanchard — both the villain and, in life-or-death terms, the victim of the piece.

They do so in part with extremely effective de-aging that connects Blanchard more closely to the live-wire characters Arquette portrayed as a younger actor. Watching the face of Alabama Whitman, Nancy Coplin, and Renee Madison and/or Alice Wakefield struggle not to break as Dee Dee’s rapidly growing second-hand hypochondria, legal travails, and emotionally abusive mother work hand-in-hand to do a number on her is tough stuff to endure.

It’s also brutal for its own sake. Martindale appears not so much to act as to sail through these scenes as Dee Dee’s mother Emma; she cares for Gypsy primarily as a way to spite Dee Dee, whose emotional needs she seems not to notice at all. “Sometimes,” Emma tells Dee Dee as her daughter is hauled off to prison for check kiting, “the only way out is through.” Dee Dee tells Emma the exact same thing later on, when she’s withholding food from the now elderly and ailing woman.

Ironically, there’s a brief respite from the relentless undercutting and undermining just after that exchange when Emma cuddles with Dee Dee and young Gypsy in her sickbed, allowing her daughter to reach out and touch her, and touching her daughter in return. But in the next scene, she’s responding to Dee Dee’s attempted apologia for her lifelong abuse — “I know you did your best to always love me” — by rasping back, in a voice that’s barely audible within her dying body, “You made it impossible.” Dee Dee immediately runs to Gypsy for comfort, requiring the child to step in for a parent who refused to parent. “It’s okay, Mama,” little Gypsy tells her, a role reversal that’s a whole form of emotional abuse unto itself.

There’s a drawback to this approach, though, and you feel it during the present-day scenes in the form of a reduced sense of urgency, even though the situation for Gypsy has never been more urgent. By stepping into the wayback machine and traveling into Dee Dee and Gypsy’s past, the show must crack open the door of the hermetically sealed vault where the pair have spent the entire series so far. Locked in their pink prison together with only the occasional glimpse of the outside world — friendly neighbors, would-be suitors from a cosplay convention, surreptitious videochatting — the Blanchards created a world defined by one another, to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. It’s true that Gypsy and Nick have killed Dee Dee now, but I’d have liked to watch Gypsy start to break herself free of that folie à deux thought pattern over the course of an episode, before the show’s structure followed suit.

Still, both timelines end the episode with their strongest material. Young Gypsy, god help us all, has a trampoline accident, bouncing around with her cousins against her mom’s wishes until she falls off and hurts her leg. (The editing suggests this happened at least in part because Dee Dee’s panicked cries distracted her from what she was doing.) Returning home from the hospital, Dee Dee carries Gypsy despite her insistence that she can walk. She then puts her down and wheels out the wheelchair her mother used, with very vocal misery, before she died. Into the chair Gypsy goes. It’s dark and dreary and it dwarfs her tiny frame. The camera lingers for a truly unpleasant amount of time on the little girl as she looks into her lap, eyes wide open, mind working. You’re watching a child think — hard — about what her life is like now, and what she’ll have to do to keep the only other person in that life happy. Again, it is not an easy thing to look at.

Contrast it with the final present-day scene. After many delays, freakouts, and fuck-ups, Gypsy and Nick have finally boarded their bus to the promised land: Wisconsin. Gypsy looks out the window, as blissed out as Amanda Seyfriend in Twin Peaks Season Three but without the benefit of cocaine to buoy her. She is, as the saying goes, high on life — on mobility, freedom, sex, love, the ability to make her own choices, the absence of her martinet mother, the sight of the trees and the sun through a moving window.

For the second time in the episode, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s luxe, louche romanticization of amour fou, “Bonnie and Clyde,” plays over the action. Gypsy and Nick are a far cry from the glamorous killer couple played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, or from Gainsbourg and Bardot’s cosplay of same—but then, so were the actual Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a state of mind, a daydream, and dreams end.

The Act Recap: A History of Violence