From the outset, Dead Ringers has been Rachel Weisz’s baby, and when you watch the series, you quickly understand why. Based upon the 1988 David Cronenberg film (itself loosely inspired by a true story), the new miniseries stars Weisz as twin sisters Beverly and Elliot Mantle, brilliant doctors on the cutting edge of gynecology and fertility. Weisz may not have intended to star in the series herself when she began developing the project with showrunner Alice Birch, but one can hardly imagine an actor-producer passing up the opportunity. Though at a glance, Weisz’s dual roles might be easily cataloged as “good twin” and “bad twin,” over the course of six hours, both Beverly and Elliot evolve into complex and deeply disturbing characters in their own right. They are unique, distinct, but also not so different as they seem. In short, either Mantle sister is the sort of full meal on which an actor dreams of dining, and in Dead Ringers, Weisz enjoys a Thanksgiving feast.
The audience at home, however, is liable to get so sick with anxiety that they lose their appetite, and I mean this as a sincere compliment. Dead Ringers is a gnarly, slow-churning nightmare of a thriller and one of the most stressful viewing experiences of the year to date.
The opening act of Dead Ringers, set over the course of one day in the maternity ward of a New York hospital, is a white-knuckle-tense introduction to the characters, stakes, and themes as well as a test for you, the viewer, as to whether or not you have the stomach for what’s ahead. Birth is bloody business, and by the end of the Mantle twins’ shift, we’ve seen graphic depictions of vaginal births and cesareans, but also stillbirths and maternal mortality. The message is clear: Our present medical standards around childbirth are inefficient, impersonal, and in some cases downright inhumane. Dr. Beverly Mantle knows something must be done. She wants to completely reimagine how women give birth, but such an undertaking would require the kind of resources typically only available to amoral, profit-driven scientific research.
Luckily, Beverly’s identical twin, Dr. Elliot Mantle, is something of a mad scientist whose fertility research may be a stepping stone to extending the reproductive lifespans of the absurdly rich. With the support of a Sackler-esque family of pharmaceutical robber barons, the Mantles get the chance to make their visions a reality. However, this ethical dilemma is merely the backdrop to the far more intense drama that plays out in the sisters’ personal lives, as their deeply codependent relationship is challenged not only by their differing moral standards (Beverly has some; Elliot does not) but by Beverly’s budding romance with television actress Genevieve (Britne Oldford). The Mantles have always been two halves of a whole, living only for their work and for each other. What happens when one of them finds something else to live for, and the other doesn’t? The relationship between obvious sociopath Elliot and the more quietly fucked-up Beverly simmers and pops, growing more uncomfortable by the hour. No on-screen pairing this year will have more devastating chemistry than Rachel Weisz and Rachel Weisz.
Weisz’s performance as the Mantle twins is certainly the centerpiece of Dead Ringers, and with the aid of some terrific and totally invisible visual effects it’s easy to forget that she can only be in one place at any given time. But as much as to the star and executive producer, Dead Ringers owes its hypnotic appeal to showrunner Alice Birch and her killer writing staff, some of whom share her theatrical roots. Calling a TV show “stagey” is usually a pejorative, but Dead Ringers manages to make its lengthy monologues (roughly one per episode) feel like natural communication. The reality of the show bends around the poetry, whether it comes in the form of an exhaustive equivocation from a jaded billionaire or a chilling visitation from the ghost of medical malpractice. Its horror movie direction from the likes of Karyn Kusama and Sean Durkin, along with appropriately discomfiting scoring and sound design, allow practically any scene to take a swift but natural turn into the surreal. Any given dinner table conversation in Dead Ringers is as likely to raise your heart rate as the climax of a slasher film. The high it offers is both cerebral and visceral.
While it’s constantly teetering on the edge of genre, teasing at science fiction and body horror and class polemic, Dead Ringers is a character study first and foremost, repeatedly pulling the Mantle twins apart and pushing them back together into new configurations. Each shift reveals new facets to both women, and to the relationship that, in their words, can’t be fully understood from the outside. But, through Weisz, we can come close, just a little closer than is safe or comfortable.