Prime Video’s Dead Ringers Is a Brutally Honest Portrayal of Women’s Reproductive Care in America

TV Reviews Dead Ringers
Prime Video’s Dead Ringers Is a Brutally Honest Portrayal of Women’s Reproductive Care in America

Alice Birch’s Dead Ringers, the second adaptation of Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s novel “Twins,” bares all. Sharing its name with David Cronenberg’s 1988 iteration, Birch’s take on the haunting story of twin Drs. Mantle is a gripping work of art, beautiful and grotesque at every turn. Rachel Weisz stars in the new Prime Video series as both Elliot and Beverly Mantle, obstetricians determined to redefine women’s reproductive healthcare by whatever means necessary. Driven by obsession and competition, the sisters share every part of their lives—patients and partners included. 

Dead Ringers is by no means an easy watch. In the first episode, we’re inundated with brutal sequences of the Mantles’ patients—natural births, cesareans, examinations—all in brief, indelible images. These are very minute parts of the doctors’ lives, just another day in the office. Desensitization is the key to survival, the key to their thriving in such a highly traumatic field. And why are we expected to be so squeamish when it comes to witnessing birth? Well, that might have something to do with America’s ever-rising maternal mortality rate. Or maybe it’s the barrage of legislation across the country criminalizing abortion? “Pregnancy is not a disease” is a phrase repeated often throughout the series, and yet, it has to be acknowledged that the US saw a 40% increase in maternal mortality from 2020 to 2021—even more jarring is how much higher these already-abhorring rates are in Black mothers.

As a British woman, Birch is an outsider looking in on the American healthcare system, capable of seeing how things can be different in a system that is less focused on squeezing a profit out of every patient. She presents the American healthcare system with a certain absurdity, the truth of the matter being so disgusting it’s almost unbelievable. In the first episode, Beverly notices a Black mother in an abnormal amount of pain and urges her doctor to take precautions, to pay better attention to her. Her concerns go unheard. Setting the tone of the series to come, the mother bleeds out, leaving her husband and newborn alone. 

Understanding these real-life horrors is fundamental to the series’ impact. As the sisters spend the first two episodes seeking out funding from Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle), a mega-millionaire whose obscene family funds come from their essential role in the opioid epidemic, the social and economic realities of our country are unavoidable. Childbirth can be a luxury, but only if you can pay for it. Parker spits insults and bluntly rejects any possible altruistic angles, making the sisters beg for her pocket change to open a birthing and research center. Amidst the groveling, Rebecca also prods a newly developing crevasse between Elliot and Beverly. For Elliot, private funding is essential. It means less oversight, more money to protect her cutting-edge fertility lab, more access to potential patients in Parker’s cohort of socialites. But Beverly just wants to bring babies into the world. Her idealism is constantly disparaged and belittled, and every time she mentions helping for the sake of helping, Elliot and Rebecca are quick to team up and shut her down. “Oh, is capitalism very, very bad?” Elliot taunts.

Dead Ringers on Prime Video

Across the first five of Dead Ringers’ six episodes, this division between Elliot and Beverly festers, driving the show more than any explicit plotlines. The series relies heavily on Weisz’s stunning performances, a risk that more than pays off. Beyond the obvious personality and hairstyle differences, it’s the slight adjustments in mannerisms and facial expressions that really speak to Weisz’s dedication. She’s able to balance the similarities of the twins, the inherent parts that reflect back at each other, while still holding on to their differences. The twins replicate each other and explicitly step in and out of each other’s identities, but somehow remain distinct entities. Elliot, animalistic and feral, is all id; Beverly is left to pick up their slack and worry about the boring stuff like “ethics” and “laws.” While Beverly revels in their differences, it is exactly what’s destroying Elliot. The twins have been united since they were just two cells in their mother’s womb and Elliot will do anything to keep it that way. 

Weisz’s presence on screen may represent the most basic update from Cronenberg’s film, which starred Jeremy Irons as the Mantles, but behind the scenes, the crew speaks to this story’s true modernization. The series was written by a team of women and Weisz stepped in as one of the many women to executive produce the series. The femininity is palpable, in subtle ways like the nonchalance of shots of bloodstained underwear or the unflinching portrayal of every man in the series as a bumbling buffoon. While Cronenberg’s adaptation is progressive itself, unfortunately, women’s healthcare is a minefield of evergreen horrors. In the film, Beverly blurred the line between science and art, commissioning experimental surgical devices designed to carve into deformed ovaries and uteruses. His drug-fueled quest is visceral and deeply disturbing, but Birch’s series reaches new levels of unsettling. The scientific boundaries being pushed here relate to the viability of embryos and fetuses grown in labs. In turn, conversations regarding the weeks or days after conception—and what it means to define life as it pertains to abortion—are inevitable. It forces us to reconcile with the fact that these legal boundaries are simply goalposts that can be moved at any moment, devoid of much scientific basis.

Dead Ringers is affecting and powerful, but not without its flaws. For one, Poppy Liu is dreadfully underutilized as Greta, the twins’ maid and personal assistant. Her desires are undefined and portrayed as a mystery to propel a plotline; we care about her because there is manufactured suspense rather than any sense of actual characterization. Do rich women like the Mantles care about the woes of their housekeepers? Probably not, but that only exaggerates my need to understand Greta. The timeline is also a bit perplexing. The Parker funding takes up a third of the series’ episodes, only for the birthing and research center to be opened overnight. Timeline inconsistencies make vaguely more sense by the end of the show, but generally, they tend to obscure the series rather than keep us engaged with it. 

It might be true that Dead Ringers requires a certain level of personal investment in the topic, but who among us hasn’t been traumatized by women’s healthcare in this country? And if you haven’t been directly affected by the medical community’s desire to pathologize your body while simultaneously ignoring your pain or other valid concerns, maybe this can be a conversation starter for you! Dead Ringers is designed to make its viewer uncomfortable and it absolutely succeeds. The series raises moral and ethical considerations of pregnancy, while still maintaining an objectively pro-choice point of view. It’s a brutal watch—one often that had me reflexively gripping my stomach—but Birch’s Dead Ringers has proven an essential update to the classic Cronenberg film. 

The entire season of Dead Ringers premieres Friday, April 21st on Prime Video. 

Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine and Vulture. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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