This week’s episode of Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean’s extraordinary true-crime series begins with bodies. The body of the landscaper Gypsy Blanchard sees through her window and lusts for. Gypsy’s body — Gypsy’s adult body — as she submits meekly to Dee Dee’s infantilizing bathing routine. (Gypsy’s menstrual cycle rebels, at least, much to Gypsy’s delight.) Dee Dee’s body, rebelling against her, as she is diagnosed with diabetes — though Dee Dee snatches victory from the jaws of defeat when she realizes the care she’ll require will force Gypsy into even tighter enmeshment with her. “I’m gonna need you now,” she drawls to Gypsy, “every…single…day.”
Indeed, much of “Stay Inside,” directed by Christina Choe from a script by co-creator and original reporter Dean herself, chronicles Dee Dee’s increasingly frantic efforts to extract that care from Gypsy and allow her no means of escape from the relationship. It’s a tall order, in that it requires her to act with a ruthlessness that belies her aw-gosh-gee-whiz sweet Southern mom charm, and Patricia Arquette handles this demand with precision that borders on frightening. One moment she’s going through the usual baby-mime motions with Gypsy, including buying her two guinea pigs as pets; the next she’s screaming incoherently, smashing Gypsy’s hidden laptop with a hammer, and physically tying her to her bed. She’ll commiserate with her neighbor Mel over their wayward daughters, just a few weeks after interrupting Mel and her daughter Lacey’s very public falling-out to harangue Lacey for introducing Gypsy to the concept of dating sites, chewing her out until she literally faints from the effort.
In the end, Dee Dee succeeds in convincing her 22-year-old daughter, whom she’s pretending and insisting is 18, to sign over legal guardianship in order to keep her as close to a minor as she can get. There’s a great moment early on, when she realizes that even her bullshit birth date makes Gypsy a legal adult now, where she looks at the big HAPPY BIRTHDAY display she’s set up in their kitchen like a monumental horror-image. To her, that’s what it is.
But a more direct horror influence creeps in through Gypsy’s secretly purchased computer, and it will have actually horrific consequences in real life. This week, we meet Nicholas Godejohn (Calum Worthy), the mentally ill or mentally disabled (he’s wavered as to which) young man whose whirlwind internet/IRL romance with Gypsy will eventually leave Dee Dee dead.
“I think I do have, y’know, multiple personalities,” Nick tells Gypsy over video chat, long after his compliments about how she looks like a princess, only prettier, have gotten her irrevocably hooked on him. “Don’t worry — there is a good one,” he reassures her. “It’s me, Nick. But the other one is dark. Actually” — prepare for something insanely badass, baby — “he’s a vampire. His name is Victor.” I laughed, until I realized neither he nor Gypsy took it as a joke.
Dean and Choe make bold choices throughout in terms of how to portray, in the three-dimensional space of a television set, a relationship that at this point exists entirely online. Sometimes they simply show what’s on Gypsy’s screen, but juice it up slightly — animating the number “10” to enlarge before our eyes when Gypsy discovers she has 10 messages from potential suitors waiting for her, for example.
Other times they let the innately uncanny effects of video chatting do the work for them: the discrepancy in the apparent size of the participants that occurs when one person (in this scenario, usually Nick) is closer to the cam than the other; the sickly glow emitted by a computer screen when it’s the only light in use for a conversation; the low resolution and glitchy frame rate that give such chats an ersatz vibe even when what’s being said comes straight from the heart.
They play similar tricks with the text, too, which shifts from the screen of the laptop or phone to floating freely in the room around Gypsy, like an apparition. This dovetails beautifully with the aesthetic of the opening title, which is also embedded within the action — this week it’s superimposed behind Gypsy when she smiles about getting her period and making her mom upset that she’s no longer a child, and in fact hasn’t been for years. The scene itself is a reverse Carrie, while the title’s sudden appearance onscreen as the action continues around or behind it was a hallmark of co-creator Nick Antosca’s practically perfect horror anthology series Channel Zero.
The floating text also makes certain phrases pop in a big way, the way such phrases do when you’re chatting with someone you’re falling for. Knowing what we know about all that is to come, Nick’s statement to Gypsy that “2 me u r wondrous” is lodged deep in my head already, and I have a feeling it’s gonna stay there. Liberating it from the monitor and letting it escape into Gypsy’s reality is actually a better simulation of the power chats like these have than depicting it “realistically” could ever be. Thinking about it further, it’s also a pretty terrific visual shorthand for Gypsy’s own dreams and challenges. Doesn’t she, too, want to escape her flat existence and emerge into the real world?
Her nascent sexual-fantasy life breaks the fourth wall in a similar fashion, in ways that mirror the chats themselves. The episode opens with Gypsy staring longingly at the hot dude who’s mowing the Blanchards’ lawn — to her he’s all flat stomach, happy trail, pouty face, and sweat — through another screen of flat glass, her window. In the case of this creep it’s just as well, since when she connects with him on the Christian dating site her neighbor Lacey introduces her to, his idea of a how-do-you-do is a dick pic. (Did not see that coming, Hulu! No pun intended.)
Once she hooks up with Nick, things get more fluid. First we see her watch an Edward-Bella make-out scene from Twilight through her mother’s protective fingers. (The version they’re watching is a mock-up, which somehow works better than the real thing would have; it’s what Gypsy processes from the scene that really counts, not what future art-house icons Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart actually did in the film.) Minutes later, she envisions Nick as his black-clad vampiric persona, Victor, emerging from the shadows of her closet to instruct her in how to inflict pleasure and pain upon herself.
Nick has already seeded this ground by sending her explicit BDSM fantasy artwork, in which a beautiful woman is held fast and manipulated by a much larger monster. It’s not difficult to see how or why this would resonate with the deliberately enfeebled daughter of a gale-force personality like Dee Dee Blanchard. Nor is it hard to miss how his desire for her to tie herself up plays off the very real incident in which Dee Dee tied her to her bed as punishment for using her secret laptop in the first place. When “Victor” begins issuing Gypsy commands — which he does with all the cornball confidence of a subpar daddy-dom on pre–porn-ban Tumblr — Gypsy’s reflexive “yes sir”s in response are both erotic and instinctive. Finally, she’s found a way to transmute her abuse into something she can submit to by choice rather than force, and make submission something she does to please herself rather than cater exclusively to the whims of someone else.
In the odd disconnect of cybersex’s equivalent of the afterglow, Nick unconsciously echoes Dee Dee, who’d earlier told her she wanted Gypsy to sign away legal guardianship to protect her in case their fraud is uncovered. (She’s come clean to Nick about the whole thing by now.) “I’ll protect you,” he says. “I promise.” Gypsy’s follow-up question will dominate the rest of the season: