Stream and Scream
Perhaps the best phrase to describe Dead Ringers is one you are unlikely ever to hear in Dead Ringers: All the parts work.
Smartly, savagely adapted by Alice Birch from the David Cronenberg film of the same name (co-written by Cronenberg and Norman Snider) — itself adapted from the novel Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, which was adapted in turn from the true story of twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus — Dead Ringers is part of a wave of reimagined erotic ‘80s classics, including Paramount+’s Fatal Attraction and Netflix’s Damage update Obsession. This one, though, comes with a massive mainline injection of what I like to call “the high weirdness” — the spectacle and perversity that’s the stuff of great art.
Rachel Weisz stars as Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin gynecologists operating out of a Manhattan hospital where their reputations keep them in high demand. There’s an easy visual shorthand for telling who’s who, at least when they’re not deliberately swapping places to fool patients: Beverly wears her hair up, Elliot down. (This makes keeping track of the twins a lot easier than it was with the two Jeremy Ironses in the original film, where you had to rely on body language, dishevelment, and the occasional pair of glasses.)
They’re different in other ways, too. We spend our first alone time with Beverly in a bathroom stall while she discovers she’s miscarried, and not for the first time; there are self-injury scars on her thighs. Her own pain aside, she is ferociously devoted to the science of childbirth and the cause of treating expectant and birthing mothers with less pain and more kindness and respect. That aside, she is otherwise much more shy and reserved than her swaggering, glamorous, confident sister Ellie, the public face of their operation. While they’re both admirably profane in their language, Ellie’s the one who tilts over into full bad-girl mode — snorting coke in the office, having sex with random men in nightclub restrooms, inveigling an expectant father to show her his penis while his pregnant wife is off using the bathroom, even volunteering to seduce a patient to whom Bev is attracted while posing as Bev in order to save her “baby sister” the hard work of doing the seduction herself.
The ostensible plot of the episode is the sisters’ quest to convince rich philanthropist Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle) — who sits atop a pile of money earned by almost singlehandedly causing the opioid epidemic with her family’s pharmaceutical empire — to fund a brand-new birthing center of the sisters’ own conception and design.
In one of the episode’s fieriest scenes, the sisters essentially square off against the almost supervillainously smug Rebecca and her bleeding-heart wife Susan in order to secure the funding. Rebecca rudely blows them off, earning giggles from the never-quite-serious Elliot, until Beverly blasts her with a story of the horrific scenes they’d seen at the hospital that day — a woman bleeding to death because an ordered scan didn’t arrive on time, a baby stillborn because its mother was too scared of hospitals to seek medical treatment in time. Bev’s “if you don’t give a shit about this, then fuck you, we’re outta here” attitude intrigues the imperious Rebecca, who says she’ll consider the proposal but insists on being hands-on from the start. (The fact that Beverly herself is, ironically, unable to sustain a healthy pregnancy no doubt fuels her fire.)
That’s the business side of the story. The personal side comes (literally) in the form of Genevieve (Britne Oldford), a famous actor on a zombie show who comes in for a diagnosis. Turns out she has a heart-shaped uterus (heh heh) and will be unable to bear children without help. What she also has is a very smitten gynecologist in the form of Bev.
Noting her sister’s arousal, Elliot swaps places with Bev (as they frequently do when faced with difficult tasks they feel the other would be more suited to), pretends to be her sister, asks Genevieve out on a date (rather unethically!), kisses her at a bar, and generally sets the stage for Bev to take over, which she enthusiastically does. But once Genevieve discovers that Bev has a twin sister, Beverly lies and insists she’s been the only sister Genevieve has been with the whole time.
Near the end of the episode, Bev refuses to kiss and tell to Elliot, a fact which enrages her to the point of screaming. Bev herself, meanwhile, goes to grief support groups claiming her twin sister has died. Cracks in the flawless façade already! And given that Genevieve calls Bev “schizophrenic” during one of their earliest encounters, it’s clear she’s already sensed the difference between the two; how long can the ruse hold up?
Not forever, of course, or we wouldn’t have much of a show to look forward to. But boy oh boy, do we have a show on our hands in the meantime!
The script, by creator Alice Birch herself, is so sharp, swift, and mercilessly cutting that I half-wondered if the box from Hellraiser wrote it. These people are a pleasure to listen to, as they eviscerate pretty much everything and everyone with Wildean precision.
It’s certainly hypersexual and hypergory enough to warrant the Hellraiser comparison too. The scenes of childbirth are depicted in graphic, bloody biological detail, and the death scenes are excruciating. Remember the furor over the childbirth scenes in House of the Dragon? Not anymore you won’t!
And the sex stuff? Ooooooh-weee. The bit where Elliot persuades that dad to take his dick out, just for the pleasure of knowing she can do so? The thing where she crawls on top of their counter and shoves the food prepared by Genevieve into her mouth after smelling her discarded underwear, knowing the woman is fucking her sister in the other room all the while? The bit where Genevieve is visibly turned on by the knowledge that Bev is currently “trying” to conceive, stripping away the euphemisms and implicitly emphasizing the fact that this woman she has the hots for is getting jizzed in, one way or the other, on a regular basis? Hose me the fuck down.
Now, you can get shows that pile sensation on top of sensation willy-nilly if that’s what you really want — Mrs. Davis would like a word if so — but that’s not what Dead Ringers is doing. It pulls off that special Cronenbergian trick of being simultaneously over-the-top and austere, a combination that allows both tones to ring out louder through contrast. The judicious score by Murray Gold is outstanding, but the filmmakers are often content to let it lie as we contemplate what we’re seeing and hearing from the characters in relative silence.
The carefully considered blocking and shot compositions from director Sean Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes are…well, it’s just a pleasure to watch a show where every shot is intentional, designed to look like something, feel like something, instead of just being a way for actors to talk to or fuck each other while we watch. It does feel very much like Cronenberg’s original in that respect as well.
And I almost can’t believe I’m saying this given the strength of Jeremy Irons’s original performances as the male Bev and Ellie, but Rachel Weisz makes you forget about them almost as quickly as you stop noticing the fact that the two lead characters are in fact played by the same person and never actually talk to each other or sit next to each other at all. Regardless of their differences, Weisz plays both sisters as, well, weird — self-absorbed, messianic, and as in the original, way too comfortable with fucking, and fucking with, their patients.
The opening scene, in which they team up to destroy some lunkhead’s fantasy about banging twins by describing their imaginary incestuous sex life in lurid detail, demonstrates how even though Elliot is the extrovert and Beverly the introvert, they’re both perfectly capable of wrecking fools at will. These are dangerous people, hiding in plain sight. I can’t wait to see what happens when they can’t hide it anymore.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.