“Sleepy baby.” Two words that appear less than 10 minutes into Hulu's The Act — and two words that promise we’re about to see the soul sibling to HBO’s unshakable Sharp Objects. The first connection is obvious: The phrase is scrawled on a pill bottle this is part of a legion of suspicious medications Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) uses to dose her allegedly ill daughter, Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King, eviscerating her child star roots). This is a prescription pill closet Adora Preaker-Crellin (a fearsome Patricia Clarkson), peddler of rat poison and tranquilizers, would approve of.
However, the link goes deeper than Dee Dee’s obviously nefarious horde of sleeping pills and mystery meds. “Sleepy baby,” like “Baby” and “Girl” hidden throughout Sharp Objects, is a phrase that should be an infantile murmur. Here in the Blanchards' Missouri “castle” and in the Preaker's home of Wind Gap, these innocuous words are dripping with menace.
Like countless prestige series before it, The Act begins with a fatal mystery. Is Dee Dee Blanchard, whom we haven’t seen yet, dead, as her neighbors (AnnaSophia Robb and Chloë Sevigny) believe she is? Has her sick daughter Gypsy Rose really been abducted? The trick of the eight-part series is figuring out the answers to these questions, and what could have led these women to such terrible fates. Especially since the Blanchards appear to be living a beautiful, loving life when we meet them in the second scene of the series, which takes place seven years before the foreboding cold open.
Of course, Twitter, Buzzfeed, and HBO’s documentary arm have all investigated the details of the real-life Blanchards. But The Act is even more engrossing if you uncover the disturbing familial twists as you go.
And there are so many twists to find as you watch The Act unspool Dee Dee and Gypsy’s lives (an episode-ending title card reminds viewers this is technically a dramatized version of events). There’s the matter of Gypsy’s health. Dee Dee claims her wheelchair-using daughter has a history of cancer, life-threatening over-salivation, muscular dystrophy, and mental disabilities, among many other medical conditions. But does she? At all? And how much does Gypsy know of her own nonexistent conditions? Also, how old is she, anyway?
Eventually it becomes very clear that Dee Dee, like her real-life inspiration, is probably suffering from Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy (MSPD), a mental illness where a caregiver either fabricates or induces an illness in someone under their care. By caring for that “ill” individual, the caregiver attains attention or favor from their community and doctors.
Dee Dee forces Gypsy to look as ill as possible. She shaves her daughter’s hair, convincing Gypsy inevitable baldness is a symptom of her supposed diseases. Because Dee Dee had her daughter's salivary glands removed, Gypsy has a permanent dry mouth that wreaks dental havoc. The teen is forced into clothing made for a girl much younger than she, reinforcing the idea she is her momma’s “baby.” The tension between Dee Dee’s hope to maintain her daughter’s childlike status quo forever and Gypsy’s desire to grow towards womanhood creates a nail-biting battle of wills.
While Dee Dee may be inflicting abuse on her daughter, she cannot escape the ravages of this situation either. One of The Act’s most affecting choices is showing how Dee Dee’s self-made trap ravages her own aging body. Her hair — originally a mass of well-kept brunette waves — grays, frizzes, and grows into an unmanageable tangle. Her skin goes sallow and her ankles swell. At an early point in the series, when the tragedy of the Blanchards could possibly be avoided, Dee Dee looks absolutely baffled when a prospective suitor (Dean Norris) suggests a more independent lifestyle for the single mom. It’s a reminder Dee Dee’s disease is ruining her chance at happiness along with her child's wellbeing.
With The Act, the darkness and countless questions associated with MSPD stares you right in the face. In Sharp, the reasons for Adora’s abuse and Amma’s acceptance of it have neat answers (both tie into a desperate desire for their mother’s love). But in reality, mental illness and the ways it colors incomprehensible choices rarely has such easy, tidy resolutions.
The Act understands this fact at a painful level, and leaves you gasping from the results.