The final episode of The Act is titled “Free,” and the irony is hard to miss. This is, after all, the episode where Gypsy and Nick are imprisoned for the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard — Gypsy for ten years and Nick for life. But despite the foregone-conclusion resolution of this true-crime drama, there are two scenes of actual freedom here, by my count, and each serves to drive that terrible irony deeper into your brain.
The first is the flashback to 1997 that opens the episode. This is the night when the Blanchards’ bedtime routine begins: Dee Dee comforting Gypsy, who’s spooked by the Spanish moss swaying from the branches above them as they lie in the grass, telling her that the stars are angels who will protect them, just as they will protect each other. They’re sleeping under the open sky, in the great outdoors, yet Dee Dee is forging a crucial link in the chains that will stay wrapped around her daughter until the night she herself is killed.
The second takes place on that fateful night, which we see in flashback near the end of the episode. After the murder, as Nick and Gypsy prepare for their farcical flight to freedom in Wisconsin, Gypsy grabs her two pet guinea pigs and sets them free on the lawn outside the pink Blanchard house. These two small domesticated rodents stand about as much chance of surviving out there on their own as the other two life forms who emerge from that house on that night. By freeing them, Gypsy has unwittingly sentenced them to death.
A literal sentencing awaits, but that’s not even the half of it. Gypsy’s imprisonment, her ongoing sense of being trapped no matter what she does and no matter where she is, is the guiding principle of the episode.
On a plot level that’s obvious enough: She’s incarcerated, goes to court, gets sentenced, and goes to prison. But working off a script by co-creators Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca and staff writer Lisa Long, director Steven Piet continuously frames Gypsy in isolation as well. We see her stuck all the way at the bottom of the frame and dwarfed by the gigantic white wall of the prison common room in which she makes phone calls. She sleeps alone in her cell. She sits alone in the cafeteria. When her father comes to visit, they’re even all alone in the visiting room for some reason. When a fellow inmate harangues Gypsy for making more than the one phone call to which she’s entitled (her communication with her old friends Lacey and Mel are strained at best), that inmate’s face is kept out of focus, like there’s a screen between Gypsy and the other prisoners, something that keeps them apart even when there’s just a couple of feet between them.
To the extent that the legal process depicted in the episode has a climax, it’s the severing of the trials of Gypsy and her initial co-defendant Nick. Thanks to medical records obtained by Gypsy’s estranged father — a much younger man whose painful attempt to rebuild the memories he and Gypsy shared prior to Dee Dee’s complete takeover of her life is backbreakingly sad for them both — Gypsy’s able to establish a semi-self-defense argument for resisting her mother’s abuse. Nick, however, is just some doofus who did the deed because he was hot for her. In the end he’s led away, confused and saddened. The princess has gone right back into her tower, and the prince is now stuck in one of his own.
As for towers…well, now we come to it. Since the murder, Gypsy has been stricken with disorienting flashes of the painting of a lighthouse mounted above the bathtub in the house she and Dee Dee shared. The Act waits until the penultimate segment of the season to finally flash back and show us why.
The night in question unfolds in a nightmarish series of long takes, dreadful silences, and grueling closeups, strengthened by both the psychological acuity with which the show depicts its co-conspirators and the mordant humor that naturally accompanies their poorly executed plan. It does not show the murder itself. That’s kept offscreen, a decision that roots us in Gypsy’s experience of the crime, not Nick’s.
Gypsy lies in bed with her mother, running through the say-goodnight script she’s performed thousands of times about the Spanish moss, the ghosts, the stars, the angels, and the way they’ll protect one another. Even so, neither the rote nature of the routine nor her exhaustion from her physical ailments and sleeping pills prevents Dee Dee from picking up that something is bothering her daughter. “Whatsamatterhun?” she slurs. “Goodnight, Mom,” Gypsy manages in response, one last time. Then I could swear Dee Dee replies “Don’t hurt me sweetpea,” though that could be either me or Gypsy hallucinating. At this point I’m not sure.
Soon after, Nick — “sir,” in their BDSM-tinged text exchanges — arrives under the hum of the orange-tinted streetlight. Composer Jeff Russo’s post-rock strings hit hard as Gypsy grabs the murder weapon and walks down the hallway toward the front door with it; With her short hair, nightgown, and knife, she looks like Mia Farrow at the climax of Rosemary’s Baby. “Shhhhh,” she whispers to Nick when she opens the door, putting her finger to her lips in the universal sign for silence. Both her voice and her finger are shaking.
The long take builds and builds as Nick approaches the bedroom door. He just stands there for a while, internally transforming into a person capable of murder. When it’s all over and he rejoins Gypsy, he’ll kiss her seemingly out of a sense of obligation, like that’s what you do when you kill the wicked stepmother and free the princess, but within a minute or two he’s as dazed and pliable as an infant. Whatever was in him burns out fast.
And while the crime is committed, Gypsy hides in the bathroom. She sinks to the ground, covering her ears with her hands the moment she hears her mother start to stir and speak and scream. Any time she stops blocking the sound, even for a split second, it goes from muffled to piercing, and the effect is truly disorienting and upsetting. The camera swirls around her as she stares ahead at the lighthouse on the wall, now luminous with dreadful significance.
After that, some of that awful, sick-making black comedy kicks in. When Nick kisses her she cuts him off with an “okay okay okay okay,” like, slow down there, Romeo, we just murdered my mom and I’m not feeling particularly romantic. She cleans the blood from the knife, and then from his skin, at which point we can see he’s wearing a Kylo Ren T-shirt — his own pitiful dorky way of channeling the darkness.
Soon they collect themselves and go about their preparations to leave. “Oh, I covered it up so you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” he tells her as they pass the murder scene, like he’s talking about scooping cat litter and not throwing a sheet over her mother’s corpse. In a particularly stunning moment for actor Joey King, Gypsy turns from Nick and visibly transforms herself from trauma victim into perky, lovestruck princess before embracing him.
Nick takes this as his cue to have sex with her, which he does after some initial difficulties achieving an erection, and for a grand total of like 10 seconds. (Gypsy, after it’s over: “Did you…?” Nick: “Basically.”) “Welcome to the rest of your life!” he proclaims after it’s over, as she grabs the stuffed bear she stared at during the act for comfort.
But the old life never ends for Gypsy. In the final scene of the season, she’s brought to her cell — where she finds Dee Dee waiting. Gypsy, who’s spent the entire episode telling everyone from the judge to her dad to the doctor who removes her completely pointless feeding tube that she loved her abusive mother, that her mother loved her, that they were best friends, rests her head on the shoulder of the woman she loved and hated more than anything in the world, whose face is kept eerily off camera and obscured. They’re locked in there together.
In that moment, I couldn’t stop thinking of the adorable little girl lying on the grass looking up at the stars, of the smiling child waving a flag with her father at the Special Olympics in one of her dad’s faded photographs, of the young woman saying goodnight the same way she has every night for years, including many nights where her love for her mom was true and pure. I thought of how that girl became that woman, and how that woman will never be free of feeling like a girl who needs her mom. I cried and cried and cried.
Thanks to its thoughtful and humane co-creators, its austere and talented directors, and the black-hole performances of its lead actors, The Act showed me something I quickly realized I didn’t want to see. I’m so grateful I saw it.