Illustration by Oda Johanson

Some Dreamers: Joan Didion and “The Girl From Plainville”

A review of "The Girl From Plainville"—A show that shows restraint and care towards Michelle Carter, and her desire to narrativize life.

Hulu’s recent miniseries The Girl from Plainville recounts the true crime story of Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts teen who stood trial and served eleven months in state prison for, as the Commonwealth argued, ‘encouraging’ 18 year-old Conrad Roy’s suicide via text message. The involuntary manslaughter charges brought against Michelle were unprecedented; tabloid and internet fixation with Michelle’s contentious involvement and self-imposed likeness to supermodel Cara Delevigne created quite the media spectacle in the mid 2010s.

At the time of Conrad’s death in 2014, and through the conclusion of her trial in 2017, mainstream sentiment railed against Michelle. Phone records revealed a years-long bond between the two, rife with harrowing details of their respective struggles: Conrad had a litany of personal and mental health issues, and had attempted to overdose on Tylenol the year before. Michelle, psychiatrically medicated for an eating disorder of her own, was privy to the return of his suicidal ideations and had kept mum until it was too late. 

In 2019, Erin Lee Carr’s two-part HBO documentary, I Love You, Now Die succeeded in its effort to contextualize the case, deftly illustrating the lack of resources available to address both Conrad and Michelle’s mounting crises. The documentary understands Michelle’s final exchange with Conrad, a rather damning message in which she persuades him to get back into a car filling slowly with carbon monoxide, as an act of exhausted desperation—perhaps even mercy—rather than seething contempt. The Girl from Plainville takes Carr’s stance a step further, offering a layered psychological profile of Michelle through her own subjectivity.

Like many recent entries in its limited-series-for-streaming subgenre, The Girl from Plainville embraces the ambiguous morality of its real-life protagonist. Long gone are the days of mysteries neatly unveiled; whether investigating true crimes like this one or (as is more common and specific to 2022) troubled entrepreneurial ventures, these shows center familiar culprits and focus primarily on their psychology. They reframe tabloid fodder of the recent past in some holistic effort to understand the cause of wrongdoing— usually vindicating a scapegoated woman in the process. This woman is typically played by a respected actress in a lot of makeup. Or a wig. Think Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in Hulu’s The Dropout, Julia Garner as Anna Delvey in Netflix’s Inventing Anna, and of course, Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter in The Girl from Plainville. (The miniseries’ co-creator, Liz Hannah, is also responsible for The Dropout. With Candy and Pam & Tommy streaming there too, it seems Hulu is betting on sustained interest in programming of this kind.)

I’m of the belief that these stories of true scams and/or crimes are better served by theatrical releases, two-hour runtimes, and medium sized budgets. When adapted for television, even in the limited format, they tend to be unevenly paced and rely heavily on gimmicky casting choices coming to Emmy-nominated fruition. Indeed, it does take a moment to acclimate to Fanning as Michelle Carter, but the oneness comes eventually. She’s quite good at oscillating between Michelle’s naivete and cunning while maintaining the awkward physical presence of a self-hating teenage girl. Fanning doesn’t dispose of her natural poise, she simply makes it artificial. As a whole, the cast’s grounded, sensitive portraits make up for weaker moments in the miniseries’ writing.

The series’ showrunner’s (Hannah and Patrick Macmanus) make interesting choices; namely the depiction of Conrad and Michelle’s text exchanges as in-person interactions. Though the media and court labeled Conrad Michelle’s ‘boyfriend,’ he wasn’t that exactly; they’d met in person and sometimes saw each other in-person but mostly just texted each other, from their respective towns, miles apart, unbeknownst to all their friends and family. (Perhaps this illustrates it more clearly: They shared “I love you’s” but he wouldn’t take her to the prom.) Their bond was nurtured by and grew in an effervescent digital realm. Conrad could disappear at a moment’s notice, for weeks, months. And often, he did. The sequences staging text exchanges can be difficult to recognize as such. They begin jarringly but their staging is mundane. Michelle and Conrad play basketball in her driveway, they walk down her street, they spar in her bedroom. What’s odd about these scenes is the uncanny stillness of their backgrounds, and the swing between quick, immediate responses, and thoughtful, rehearsed replies. There are evident miscommunications and asides quickly dismissed. Still, there’s a striking similarity to Michelle and Conrad’s real-life interactions: expository angst-ridden reflection, long pauses, the singular focus of two people deeply connected. The show understands the nature of Conrad and Michelle’s connection is foreign to some of its audience and in itself confusing. It does its best to reckon with the conundrum. I’m not sure these attempts are always successful, but they certainly establish the general mood of social isolation amongst the generation raised online. 

What sets apart The Girl from Plainville from its subgenre peers is that so little of it is fun. Really, none of it is fun. Surely no one would approach this material with the expectation of fun, but we’ve come to expect at least some grandeur and silliness from these shows; most engage in displays of Scorsesian excess for some length of time, if only to tease the disastrous lows ahead. Though their efforts to sympathize protagonists are rarely concealed, this decadence provides some leeway. A person of the staunch belief that Anna Delvey is a purely selfish thief or that Elizabeth Holmes is a destructive liar could, possibly, enjoy parts of Inventing Anna or The Dropout. The thrills of dramatic irony, the humor of odd vocal affect. But The Girl from Plainville is a monotonous, saddening, slow show. Michelle and Conrad’s personal successes are far and few between; and these successes are merely brief flitters of normalcy in the lives of two very unwell people. In the absence of fun, the audience is often made to sit in discomforting silence, long pauses, disappearing texting dots. And beneath this discomfort is a general, detached ambivalence. Michelle modulates between vulnerability and falsehood, kindness and cruelty, normalcy and chaos. The Girl from Plainville takes a deliberate stance of unsureness. Yes, it strongly points toward the possibility that the socially marginalized Michelle welcomed the embrace she’d likely receive from her peers in the wake of Conrad’s death. But it will not say whether she killed him, whether she planned it, whether she took satisfaction in it. For some people, this will read as a lack of concern for Conrad’s death. But The Girl from Plainville is very concerned with Conrad’s death; that is why it approaches the question of Michelle so carefully.

This careful approach establishes a tone reminiscent of Joan Didion’s essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” the first in her 1968 collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Didion’s essay recounts the 1964 trial of San Bernardino housewife Lucille Miller, who was tried and served seven years for the death of her husband Dr. Gordon Miller. (He died under suspicious circumstances in a car fire made from their family’s Volkswagen.) I’m sure my brain made this connection because of the similarities of the crime at each narrative’s center: two women found guilty of committing violence against easily sympathized male partners in which their true legal culpability is fairly unknowable, whether by virtue of inconclusive legal evidence (Lucille) or inconclusive legal precedent (Michelle). But Didion’s piece is not really about Lucille’s trial, or Gordon’s death, or Lucille and Gordon, or murder at all. It is about a culture of media-influenced striving invented by Hollywood (both the machine and its products) practiced here in Southern California and maybe, especially now, everywhere elsewhere too. Lucille was a dissatisfied suburban housewife engaged in an extramarital affair. Correspondence with her adulterer followed the language patterns of speech in film noir. And whether or not this had anything to do with her husband’s untimely death, this, along with many films and tabloid magazines in which wives killed their husbands, were available and convenient to the people (the police, the lawyers, the jury, the press) charged with understanding what had happened. So, as Didion explains, these people “set out to find [the truth] in accountants’ ledgers and double-indemnity clauses and motel registers.”

Michelle Carter was a dissatisfied suburban teenage girl obsessed with Glee. Thus, Glee is the source from which The Girl from Plainville makes sense of her and what she did. From the miniseries’ opening sequence, which juxtaposes the police discovery of Conrad’s body with Michelle’s routine viewing of the television show, an onslaught of distracting allusions to Ryan Murphy’s musical satire form the basis of Michelle’s character portrait. The most memorable and significant of these allusions arrives at the conclusion of the pilot, as Michelle intimates Rachel Berry’s performance of “Make You Feel My Love” in her bedroom mirror, as though curating the public display of grief she’ll present at the community softball game she’s planning in Conrad’s honor. Viewers will note that Rachel sings this song to eulogize Finn Hudson, her late boyfriend. Of course, Finn died on Glee because Cory Monteith, the actor who played him and was engaged to Rachel’s actress, Lea Michele, died in real life. It couldn’t be more on the nose, but it works. And again, it’s not fun, even if there’s a chuckle of recognition at its smack-dabbing obviousness or the poorly aging legacy of Glee; it’s disturbing, deeply.  (Elle Fanning told Variety that reading the pilot, she knew this scene was “The Scene.”) 

The references continue beyond. Michelle’s sister asks her if a line delivered in an emotional outburst is from Glee, knowing the answer. (Yes.) There is a fantasy sequence in which Conrad and Michelle perform “Can’t Fight This Feeling” dressed as Finn and Rachel. Michelle watches Glee with a teammate who’s more of a secret girlfriend; they gush about Santana and Brittany, the lesbian cheerleaders. Michelle tells Conrad to start watching Glee; he does. He likes it. Michelle has a photo of Lea Michele on her bedroom wall. It’s visible in the “Make You Feel My Love” sequence and while she chooses an outfit for his funeral too.

We get many glimpses of 2013 but don’t see Michelle the day she finds out Cory Monteith is dead. A missed opportunity maybe— Conrad died on the one year anniversary of Cory Monteith’s fatal overdose. (A connection which was noted during the trial.) The show doesn’t argue for some correlation between Michelle’s rabid fandom and her wrongdoing: Glee simply offers the miniseries a girl and her dead boyfriend, two girls with dead boyfriends actually, and better yet, a great symbol: a show about the kind of people who dream of Hollywood and understand the world through it. Much like Joan Didion did Lucille Miller, The Girl from Plainville paints Michelle and Conrad Dreamers of the Golden Dream. Michelle learns how to love and grieve from Glee and practices in the mirror. Conrad does too: he studies rap music to self-soothe when humiliated by his peers or physically abused by his imposing father. He models his skills (masculinity) in his reflection and rehearses conversation in between his recitation of lyrics. He exclaims, “Pop culture, current events… knowledge!” The two idealize celebrity and television, so of course, California. To them, California and Hollywood are synonymous. 

At a more stable point in their relationship, Conrad and Michelle fantasize about moving to California together. Conrad claims “the people out there are so different.” One of my favorite details in the show, perhaps the most endearing moment of audience identification with Michelle, is a flashback in which she presents a vision board of her future during her last day at an inpatient eating disorder treatment center. Michelle seems centered and calm, well even, as she narrates her hopes and dreams. Amongst glue-stuck print outs of the Santa Monica Pier and red carpet portraits of Lea Michele and Cory Monteith at a Hollywood premiere, there’s the UC Davis logo. With any knowledge of California’s geography,  one wonders if Michelle Carter knows where exactly Davis, California is. 

Inevitably, both The Girl from Plainville and “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” engage with the proceedings of the court. Didion does so with more tact. Through her descriptions of Lucille’s trial, she ponders Lucille’s outfit choices and witnesses’ syntax and the fixations of tabloid headlines. The Girl from Plainville takes a more traditional approach, to its detriment. State Prosecutor Katie Rayburn (Aya Cash) is an undeserved secondary character with too much screen time. The only real interest of the miniseries’ courtroom scenes are Cash’s labored efforts to pronounce ‘Conrad’ in the effortless manner of a true New Englander. (She nails it once or twice.) The unfolding of the case is anti-climactic and rote; in a miniseries so invested in the malleable bounds of intimacy, the courtroom scenes feel cold and completely detached, sometimes as though pulled from a lesser procedural and edited in. 

There’s another issue with devoting the back half of the miniseries to the trial— Fanning’s performance shifts, I think, beyond her intention. Now, she is the Michelle the audience knew, or at least thought we knew. In these scenes, Michelle has the aforementioned eyebrows: bold, dark, drawn on straight. She looks like a different person, deliberately, but this transition is never meaningfully felt as the courtroom setting renders her a passive listener. What work Fanning does to convey Michelle’s resignation and heightened self-consciousness in a photographed courtroom seeps in elsewhere. In the beginning of the series, Fanning executes a careful juggling act between Michelle’s pleading, lying, scheming, dreaming, etc.; once the trial begins, by virtue of her character’s subjectivity being sidelined, Michelle feels far more hollow both in and out of the courthouse.

The finale includes a lengthy fantasy sequence in which Michelle reimagines the possibilities of her future, a world in which Conrad never died. There’s no Santa Monica Pier, no costumed musical numbers, no mention of or reference to Glee at all. Just her, returning home for the holidays after graduating from UC Davis. Against its best attempt, the sequence devolves into dull, predictable sadness as Michelle finds alternate universe Conrad at a local bar and follows him outside to the car in which he will end his life. 

A better fantasy occurs at the end of the penultimate episode. Awaiting her sentencing on bond, Michelle and her father sit for her younger sister’s high school choir concert. The auditorium is not unlike the one from Glee. Michelle cowers in her seat but relishes in the ease of a dimly-lit room in which everyone’s attention is fixed elsewhere. The sister invites Michelle on stage. She’s reluctant to join, but the audience goads her. She takes her spot beside the choir and they begin Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag.” At first, standard acapella fare, then an increasingly violent, rageful, auditory swarm. It feels true to the visual language of Michelle’s mind. A properly theatrical, plausible metaphor of her brain’s invention. A Dreamer’s nightmare. 

I’m sure Joan Didion was not the first to notice and articulate the human tendency to narrativize life. It’s our nature and our law. The court itself privileges first-hand narrative yet stifles the complications and conundrums of truth. It is my understanding that, in any murder case ambiguous enough to attract the attention of the public or a hesitant jury, the prosecution makes a decision, which is really just a strategic guess, and devotes all of their time and legal dexterity to proving the validity of that once-made conclusion. When they’ve successfully prosecuted on its grounds, that once-made conclusion is called the truth. I’m troubled by what’s lost in this process. Still, I’m not certain there’s any other way. 

I am certain of this: Michelle Carter’s case was a difficult one in that there was no legal precedent to determine her culpability. Still, an 18 year old boy named Conrad Roy is dead, and there are texts, right there, where she encouraged him to do it. There are stories available. Stories that help make sense of the unspeakable thing that had happened. We crafted a story about Michelle, one in which text messages were as influential as spoken words and forced actions, one where an internet girlfriend was a regular girlfriend and a teenage girl had the wits of an adult woman and an adult woman killed a young man. We continue to craft stories about her. These stories are not original, they’re inundated with the flaws of film noirs and teen comedies and we know that. We like when that’s made clear. These stories are important, not because they are wholly true, no story really is, but because they allow us to understand why people lie, cheat, steal, kill. Maybe we are Dreamers too.