Author’s Note: The following Dead Ringers review contains some spoilers.
In Dead Ringers — the new Prime Video series that’s an adaptation of the David Cronenberg film from 1988, which was based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland from 1977 — Rachel Weisz plays twin gynecologists seeking to revolutionize the way pregnancy and birth are handled in the medical world. A bloody and horny psychosexual thriller full of body horror, mind games, and sci-fi-ish strangeness unfurls its claws across the six-episode series.
The Mantle twins insist, early on, that their relationship is impossible to understand or describe, and that’s certainly true. They are different, but they are perpetually entwined, unable to exist without one another. At least seven times in the writing of this review, I accidentally wrote the wrong twin’s name. This is not because Rachel Weisz’s dual performances bleed together; she’s masterful at her physical, verbal, and energetic differentiations between the two. Rather, I keep mixing Beverly and Elliot up, because it’s what the Mantle twins want: not to be seen as two sides of the same coin, not to be seen as dualistic, but rather to be seen as composites of each other, as a fusion. This goes beyond notions of where do you end and I begin; the Mantles bring a whole new level of codependency and enmeshment to the table.
Beverly is quiet but passionate, and by the end of the series I read her as potentially contending with undiagnosed depression. Elliot is an addict. She crushes and snorts pills between appointments with her patients, concocts obscene sexual spectacles, such as when she convinces a father-to-be to take out his dick while his wife is peeing nearby. She’s ravenous in more ways than one, always pleasure-seeking to the max, always eating food as if she hasn’t eaten in days. Weisz makes great use of food as props, spending an entire scene gnawing like a toddler on a seemingly endless string of rope candy. At another point, Elliot crawls across a countertop while eating leftovers with her hands. Throughout the series, she’s like a Greek god feasting, her cup overflowing, and indeed she does fancy herself a god, her single-minded pursuit of creating life manic and illicit.
Dead Ringers does not shy away from the parallels their sisterhood has with romantic obsession. In fact, it leans into it. They like to twin-swap with abandon. Elliot seduces ones of their patients, a television actress named Genevieve (Britne Oldford), but she does so on Beverly’s behalf. This, we learn, is a little ritual of theirs. The charismatic and brash Elliot goes “hunting” for women for Beverly to sleep with. Normally, though, Beverly tires of these women and moves onto the next one. But something different balloons between her and Genevieve, and it freaks Elliot out to see her sister falling in love, to see that she might be replaced. Elliot functions in this love triangle with Genevieve and Beverly as if she’s Beverly’s jilted longtime lover, and while Dead Ringers never overtly crosses into incestuous territory, it also doesn’t NOT touch that line.
Body horror is bountiful throughout, and you’ll see birthing scenes unlike anything else on television. Dead Ringers doesn’t stigmatize pregnancy as something not to be looked too closely at but instead acknowledges that, yes, it is a necessarily violent and disturbing process — one that you should look at. Beyond its visual horror, Dead Ringers also finds the horror in family, in interpersonal relationships, in capitalism, greed, and the hunger for power. I love a “dinner party from hell” scene, and there is not one but THREE (arguably, four if including the finale’s restaurant scene where Beverly is asked to abandon her sister) here, each of them touching on different discomforts and demons. Doubling occurs throughout the series to disorienting effect. Sometimes we’re looking at the two Mantles; sometimes, we’re looking at just one and her reflection. Beverly and Elliot take turns (though Elliot, more often) releasing primal screams across the six chapters. There’s a very fun lack of inhibition to the story and its characters.
I’m not super interested in an extended compare/contrast between the movie — even though it’s a favorite of mine! — and the series, because a lot of the differences are obvious and because I think the series ultimately stands firmly on its own. Alice Birch, who penned the series, has clear reverence for Cronenberg’s oeuvre while also letting her own voice come through. This series is the gold standard for how gender-swapping adaptations should function; it should feel intentional and be an additive and expansive choice, not mere surface-level detail. Making the Mantle twins sisters rather than brothers (in the film, they’re played by Jeremy Irons) and also injecting more explicit queerness into the story opens up a new layer of narrative regarding gender, systemic sexism in the birthing field, motherhood, and pregnancy. Beverly’s difficulty becoming pregnant herself adds specific stakes to the work the Mantle twins are obsessed with. The series touches on abortion, infertility, menopause.
Beverly’s (in)fertility journey — and Elliot’s research — also feel distinctly queer. Genevieve speaks of impregnating Beverly, and it isn’t played for laughs. I feel this moment deep in my core, in the place where I quietly yearn for the possibility of conceiving with my partner despite its biological impossibility, but the Mantle twins likely wouldn’t consider it impossible. They don’t feel limited by biological rules or binaries. Elliot skirts laws and ethics to find a way to grow fetuses outside of human bodies all the way to infancy. Her scientific imagination — while deeply flawed — does reimagine bodies, birthing, and biology in very queer ways.
Beverly often repeats the sentiment that pregnancy isn’t an illness. The twins have supposed feminist intentions behind their research and vision for a new birthing facility that prioritizes genuine health and wellness for mothers, but their lofty ambitions are undercut by the unsavory bedfellows they must keep in order to make the clinic financially possible. These are not just unlikable characters; they’re diabolical ones. Yes, even Beverly, whose soft spoken and literal hair-pulled-back demeanor belie her tacit approval of Elliot’s methods and the fact that Elliot would not “go hunting” on her behalf if it were not something she desired.
The penultimate episode switches gears into a full-tilt Southern gothic mode, the Mantle twins arriving at the wealthy estate of a family full of twin sisters. It’s eerie and strange throughout. The true story of “the father of gynecology” — a white man who performed surgeries on slaves without anesthesia — is told first by a man who considers himself an intellectual descendent of this torturer. He obviously skews the history in favor of a tale of scientific achievement and discovery. The story is retold, then, in a dream sequence Beverly becomes lost in, turning this racist piece of history into something like a spoken word artpiece (Birch is a playwright, and that influence comes through in much of the series). It’s affecting in the moment but doesn’t reverberate through the rest of the narrative in the way it should. It doesn’t downplay the racist brutality of modern gynecology’s history, but this dream sequence choice also doesn’t really allow for any real reflection by the characters, almost like tacking something on as a footnote rather than really tackling it. The series would feel incomplete without this haunting scene, but at the same time, I wish it were doing more. Beverly is a passive observer of the horror, and even though she hallucinates literal blood on her hands, the series doesn’t push this one step further, even as it is willing to go way beyond other boundaries and not just explore but truly revel in discomfort elsewhere in the story. Dead Ringers gets its hands dirty in many ways, but in others, it leaves things in a more intellectual space that can make the series feel a little too loaded with ideas without meaningful follow-through.
Which brings me to this: At times, the pacing of Dead Ringers is wonky. I wonder if it would be less noticeable if released weekly rather than as a streamer where viewers will likely watch the installments back-to-back, as I did with the screeners. But at times, it feels like you’ve missed something, begun the wrong episode perhaps. The timeline clips along rapidly, and more breathing room (perhaps an 8 or 10-episode order?) is desired. This pacing doesn’t completely undermine the viewing experience, and arguably it does make the whole thing seem that much more nightmarish, this sense of being dropped into the middle of something and having little by way of a grab handle to reach for. I imagine it’s a show that rewards rewatches and closer looks.
Any issues with the writing, though, are mitigated by the performances — not just from dueling Rachel Weiszes but also Oldford as Genevieve and Jennifer Ehle as evil lesbian Big Pharma overlord Rebecca Parker — as well as visceral, ambitious direction throughout. Impressive directing turns — particularly from Karyn Kusama (of Jennifer’s Body fame but also of Yellowjackets pilot fame), Karena Evans (who in addition to her work on Drake’s music videos also directed the pilot of P-Valley), and Lauren Wolkstein (queer fav who has directed episodes of Queen Sugar and Dare Me) — needle into body horror, psychosexual tension, and fraught images, use of color and sound immersive throughout. (On the topic of sound, I anticipate startling any time I hear two vibrations emit from a phone for the foreseeable future, much like I couldn’t hear the ding of an elevator for a while without thinking of Damages, a show that feels visually and tonally connected to this one though much different in scope and structure.)
The ending deviates from the film and brings back a mysterious seed planted early on in the series to dizzying effect. Elliot and Beverly commit the ultimate act of twin-swapping, their identities collapsing, and Dead Ringers making its final descent into this nightmare in a haze of blood and turmoil. While imperfect in some of its plotting, Dead Ringers is a nasty little treat about two dazzlingly destructive (and dykey!) twins who will be on my mind for a while.
In conclusion, the series is basically this tweet in a nutshell (and I mean that as a compliment):
i have no idea what "queer joy" is i only know about psychosexual lesbian mindgames