[This story contains spoilers to the finale of Amazon’s Dead Ringers.]
In a show that centers on a twisted relationship between brilliant, codependent twins, Rebecca Parker and Susan also play an intriguing duo.
Dead Ringers, Amazon Prime Video’s six-part limited series that reimagines David Cronenberg’s psychological thriller, centers on the Mantle twins, identical world-renowned gynecologists Beverly and Elliot who are played by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz in a double lead role. The feminized series from creator Alice Birch thrusts the 1988 story into modern day as the Mantles (who were played by Jeremy Irons in the movie) set out to revolutionize childbirth. With that goal comes another twisted relationship with the business of maternal health, and that’s where Rebecca Parker, played by Jennifer Ehle, and her fourth wife, Susan, played by Emily Meade, come in.
Rebecca Parker is the ruthless billionaire investor (the pharmaceutical heiress comes from a family who fueled the opioid epidemic) who backs the Mantles’ lifelong dream of building a birthing center. The Mantle-Parker center offers a bespoke — and profitable — labor experience that is ultimately led by Beverly after Elliot is side-lined. Rebecca, showrunner Birch has said, is inspired by the Sackler, Rausing and fictional Roy families (Birch was a writer on Succession). And the show, as THR‘s chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg wrote in his review, “reflects on the commodification of fertility processes in which the experiences of actual women are superseded by profits and artificial restrictions.”
Throughout the series, Rebecca aligns herself with Elliot, the ethically corrupt, more fun and reckless sister, while the softer and kinder Susan more easily cozies up to Beverly and her altruistic ambitions. The second and fifth episodes, especially, reveal more about the couple and their familial histories, and the two women are the scene partners to Weisz when the ultimate twin swap ending to the series is revealed in the finale.
Below, in conversation with THR, the 1923 and The Deuce stars unpack their characters and discuss their complicity in the Mantle legacy, as is revealed in their final scene.
So, what drew each of you to your characters?
Emily Meade: As far as the project, the people, that was a no-brainer. And I had never really seen a character like Susan. She’s like a mixture of adorable and creepy. And sort of this childlike creature who also is really close to the ability to do great damage in the world in some ways. I found her really funny and really bizarre. And I loved that it was really unclear if she was innocent or complicit; or good or bad, or both. It’s funny, even hearing peoples’ response to the show they’ll be like, “Oh, she’s like the sweet bright light.” In some ways, she had that light, but is it a bizarre choice? Is it an act? I don’t know. But I just found her really funny and really strange in a way that was really exciting and fun to tap into that creepy part of myself (laughs).
Jennifer Ehle: With Alice Birch and Rachel, I would have done anything. So the fact that the character I got to be was Rebecca Parker, who is just extraordinary and doesn’t sort of have a people-pleasing cell in her body, and she’s been raised with such extreme wealth and privilege, it’s almost like a manifest destiny sort of monarch. She’s almost been raised with this divine right to run the world and make the choices of which way the world goes. Kind of like an objective Ayn Rand thing. She’s got this like, mandate. It was very cool to explore that.
I haven’t seen many characters like them before, and they were created for the series. How familiar were you with David Cronenberg’s film?
Meade: I had never seen it. I knew it existed, and I had really piercing images from it in my mind, but I had never seen it until after we filmed it. I saw it so we could talk about it. It was interesting to watch it sort of backwards and see crossover elements that I maybe hadn’t known if I had already seen it before.
Ehle: Now I want to rewatch it. I haven’t seen it since it came out. I was 18 in 1988 when it came out. I loved it. But obviously, that was a long time ago.
The series gets up close and personal with childbirth and fertility, while also delivering horror and satire. As you read the scripts, what felt the most transgressive to each of you?
Ehle: Wow, it’s a great question. There are so many things. There are just so many elements that I felt like I hadn’t seen shown or portrayed on television, and certainly not in something that is also so entertaining. Alice Birch’s writing… she is so smart. And she has a way of putting in these huge concepts that should be a part of the conversation. We all know, it’s documented, that doctors routinely don’t believe or underestimate the level of pain that Black women talk about. And there’s this bit in the first episode [when a Black mother dies hours after giving birth] where it’s a big part of it. She just has this way of weaving in these strands that are not part of the main story, but that are layers and layers of this world that’s part of our world. There is no melodrama.
Meade: I found that really striking. We watched it [at the premiere in NYC] and there’s a series of scenes that I was sitting there trying not to cry — because I had my makeup done! — and I was really overwhelmed. And then it’s insane how within three minutes, you’re laughing at something. So to experience both of those feelings back-to-back, and thinking about all these different concepts while also being entertained, while also moving through all these emotions, I can’t really compare it. I can’t think of something that is that effective in being sad and disturbing in a funny sort of satirical way at the same time, without feeling disjointed.
Ehle: I remember getting to the end — because we didn’t get all the episodes at once; they were still writing them, so you start shooting and then gradually the episodes arrive. And it’s very exciting when an episode arrives, and you’ve been shooting, and you still don’t know what’s happening next. In the fifth episode, when I got to the end of reading the script, I just started weeping. I don’t know, it’s all about the South and all this stuff [and is centered on Susan’s family]. It hit some nerve in me and how Alice Birch taps into such a thing about the South and the Southern patriarchy when she’s not American, I don’t know. She’s got this sounding fork that just hits something.
I love to hear that you wept, because we get no emotion from Rebecca this entire series.
Ehle: Rebecca? No. (Laughs.) She doesn’t weep. My character doesn’t weep.
Do you think she has ever wept in her life?
Ehle: Gosh. I don’t think so, no. I wouldn’t have thought so.
Meade: She ought to.
Ehle: Well, that’s your opinion. (Laughs.)
You wrapped filming early 2022, months before the Supreme Court’s landmark Dobbs decision. When you saw that happen, how did it feel to know you had this show centered on childbirth and fertility that was about to come out?
Ehle: We haven’t had conversations together, actually, because we’ve hardly seen each other since then.
Meade: It took me a while for it to sink in. I almost had to compartmentalize at first, and then suddenly I was like, “Wait a minute, we’re really a part of this conversation.” I didn’t want to be excited about that, because it’s a horrible conversation. But it’s an important conversation. I am happy to be a part of it, and there needs to be one. We didn’t finish that far before. But it was enough time that it wasn’t inspired but that, although that was in the air and Alice is brilliant, so I’m sure there was some of that already there. But it’s pretty intense timing, and I’m curious how it will be talked about.
Dead Ringers has some of the most graphic labor scenes on TV. What would be your message to the male audience or anyone deterred by that?
Ehle: It is wonderful to see birth and to see it the way it is depicted in this, and all the horror and the wonder. It’s the most natural thing in the world, but also, it’s brutal. It’s a lot. It’s a lot! And I think we have to choose whether we go through that or not. And I think a big part of it is about empowering women to make their birth decisions.
Meade: Toughen up. If we can do it, you can watch it. I talked to a man recently who said how great it is to see that, and it was a man who had children and his wife had a C-section, and he said he actually did get a peak behind the curtain, and then instantly just washed it from his mind because it was so traumatic. I think the more you see something, the more it’s internalized as a part of life. And when men think women are annoying, they should remember what we do!
Ehle: I think if your mother did it, you can at least watch it.
I want to hear both of your interpretations of the ending, which is different from the film. Why did Beverly and Elliot make their ultimate twin swap? My interpretation is they couldn’t survive together, so Beverly made that ultimate sacrifice.
Meade: I felt that way, yeah. There was never room for the two of them, at that point. And I think obviously Beverly’s desperation to do good things and feel good almost pushed her to that point. Obviously, they have such a codependent, bizarre, layered relationship so I think that they both couldn’t exist, and I think ultimately Beverly couldn’t really exist without Elliot. And so, for her, it was more worth it to give Elliot a chance to live as her with a clean slate, a clean reputation.
Ehle: I guess I have two versions of it in my mind. One is Elliot with the money behind her and the potentially nefarious possibilities of science [and the babies, from illegal embryos, she’s secretly growing in her lab]. And with all of that, that it was just inextricable. That was going to take over and that was in the end going to steamroll, and so one of them had to go. So, Elliot let Beverly go. And the nicer possibility is that in Beverly being absorbed into Elliot, it softens Elliot in some way. It balances her. Which I think you kind of see in the counseling scenes. It seems like she’s found some kind of… but I’m not sure how much you can trust it. Whereas I don’t think Beverly could ever accept Elliot inside of her. I don’t think Beverly could ever let her morality loose in that way.
Meade: And Elliot does Beverly. She’s kind of the person who can lead Beverly through her life. She’s the one who can hold both at the same time.
Ehle: She’s more mercurial.
How much do your characters know in the final scene when Elliot wakes up as “Beverly”? There is the real Beverly’s dead body, somewhere.
Ehle: Oh, Rebecca knows 100 percent.
Ehle: Yeah. That’s why Rebecca is like: Let’s do that later. Because this could work really well.
Elliot was also her favorite.
Ehle: Yeah, this is perfect. I think Rebecca gets it immediately.
Meade: I think Susan was ignorantly blissful. I think she knows there’s something awry but is choosing not to. And, in that scene, I played it like she is questioning and choosing not to question.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Dead Ringers is now streaming on Prime Video.