On David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a strange mystery about doppelgängers, talking brain trees, and many other bizarre things, Naomi Watts spins a banal archetype into comic gold as Janey-E Jones, a desperate housewife whose big-dummy hubby jeopardizes their suburban life with his dark appetites. Poor Janey-E might find something cathartic in Watts’ latest nervy turn. Gypsy is a psychological thriller about a woman whose quest for vitality and reinvention renders her certifiably Twin Peaks-y — surreal and lively, with a double life full of dangerous secrets. She’s a puzzle made utterly fascinating by Watts.
Created by Lisa Rubin, the series challenges the Can women have it all? question with a complex premise that illuminates the clichéd notion’s oppressiveness. Watts plays Jean Halloway, a therapist; her husband, Michael (Billy Crudup), is an attorney; and together they are the model of success. But one of Rubin’s goals is to deconstruct our unreflective pursuit of modern happiness and all that’s expected of women in particular to make it work. The Halloways have a daughter, Dolly (Maren Heary), who shows signs of identifying as a boy, one of several triggers that catalyzes Jean’s transformational drama. Jean has a troubled history — a past breakdown and a rocky rapport with her mother (Blythe Danner), intrigues that get unpacked over time. Her roster of patients is provoking as well: One is a widow estranged from her daughter, another is a young runaway self-destructing with drugs and abusive men. Jean wants to offer more than empathy. She thinks she wants to change them, but really she wants to change herself.
In a show full of casual coincidence and blunt symbolism (mirrors…so many mirrors), Jean goes through the looking glass when she descends into a hipster coffee bar called the Rabbit Hole and becomes smitten with Sydney (Sophie Cookson), a musician who just happens to be the ex-girlfriend of a patient. Jean adopts a different persona, Diane, to chase a relationship with Sydney, a transgression that prompts other illicit enmeshments, and soon Jean is juggling a wildly complicated life while endeavoring to remain a faithful spouse, good mother, and all-around winner at suburban homemaking. She’d fit in well over in Big Little Lies, California.
Rubin patiently sets up her characters, then twists and evolves their conflicts. Jean’s inside-out chaos and obsession with others resonate. You can see Gypsy as being about identity and boundary-blurring in a social-media culture, or infidelity and breakdown in a lonely-making workaholic society. You could even take it as allegory about binge escapism. Jean is both a fresh take on the film-noir femme fatale and a critique of that trope. Watts’ unforced, understated performance makes Jean more compelling as her heightened reality intensifies. She keeps the central riddle — Why is she doing this? — constantly interesting. Crudup makes the most of his unconventional cuckold, letting you see how the unexamined privilege of this easy, breezy good guy enables Jean. The surrounding characters lack similar depth, and I wish there were more invention in the filmmaking. Still, Watts has enough shine to make Gypsy a wandering, adventurous character-study worth following. B+