A Case Study in Mental Health

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On July 13, 2014, eighteen-year-old Conrad Henry Roy III decided on suicide to escape the suffering that mental illness and life had caused him. Roy had been suffering from anxiety and depression for years, had a history of previous suicidal thoughts and attempts, and it seemed that, perhaps, this had been the final straw. But there is a complication in what seems to be a simple story: seventeen-year-old Michelle Carter. Born and raised in Plainville, Massachusetts, Carter would initially meet Roy in Florida in 2012.

They had been dating at the time of his death; Carter herself suffered from mental health issues. The relationship was largely conducted over email and text, and that is how it took a lethal turn. Carter encouraged Roy to kill himself through texting, leading to an extensive legal case that dubbed the teenager guilty of involuntary manslaughter. As of 2022, she has been released from jail and is flying under the public’s radar. However, at the time of the trial, it became a media sensation and one of the most talked-about stories in the United States, thus making Carter an infamous figure. She was a teenage femme fatale fallen from grace.

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A Dramatization of a Sensational Court Case


Girl stands next to mother
Hulu

Regardless of wherever Carter is, Elle Fanning’s newest Hulu show, a follow-up from her successful historical comedy The Great, has chosen to take on and dramatize this case. The show is based on an Esquire article and investigation titled, “The Girl from Plainville.” Still fresh in the public’s mind as the suicide texting case, the show’s team sought to make this into a story about collective grief and mental health. Instead of focusing on the sensational aspects of the tragedy, one of the show’s goals was to instead focus on how mental health is a unique experience tailored to each individual, and the impact such a horrific incident has on family members.

Fanning was decided upon to star in the series in 2020 as Michelle Carter, sparking a shocking transformation for her to fully engage with the role. Colton Ryan, who previously was an understudy on the Broadway show and the movie adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, was cast in the role of Conrad Roy III. Chloë Sevigny and Norbert Leo Butz portray Roy’s parents, while Cara Buono and Kai Lennox are Carter’s parents. Among the recurring cast, actors Peter Gerety, Michael Mosley, and Aya Cash all make appearances throughout the show.

Relationships in the Digital Age

The Girl From Plainville offers a tantalizing approach to the digital persona and what constitutes an extension of ourselves in the virtual sphere. Roy’s and Carter’s relationship, while it lasted, is depicted the way it was: largely online. And perhaps that is what makes this a doomed Shakespearean tragedy updated for the 2022 young adult genre, but it slots the show into a narrative space uniquely Generation Z. Its opening montage sets the scene for how Carter and Roy actively communicated with each other: through texting. The close-up shots of their flip phones reveal an intimate conversation, one in which Carter asks him repeatedly if he has done it yet. They compare themselves to Romeo and Juliet, a romantic comparison if one forgets the ending of that story.


We quickly learn that it is the actual act of suicide. Conrad’s distraught mother (Sevigny) calls the police when she learns that he never came home the previous night, which is unlike him. A police officer soon discovers him alone in his car, dead, in a parking lot. This is not Verona, and the two households are not alike in dignity. Roy’s family is devastated, left to pick up the pieces of what their son has left behind. Sevigny’s performance as Roy’s mother is nuanced, full of grief, and conflicted at what just happened. As her former husband and she sit on the beach after scattering their son’s ashes into the ocean, they ask themselves if they were the ones to blame for what happened.

Michelle Carter then repeatedly enters their lives, and her appearance is unsettling. The story of Carter and Roy slowly unravels throughout the series, actually showing him as a character versus being someone stagnant in other people’s memories. When the two first meet in Florida, on vacation with their families, their relationship remains innocent as they meet at night and play word games. Their families were not aware they were dating, thus making their relationship as something odd for the two of them. It becomes stranger when Carter begins to text his mother and seems obsessive about what has happened and Roy.


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An Unsettling Appearance


Girl stands on baseball field with microphone
Hulu

Fanning’s Carter is erratic, a source of concern for her closest friends, family, and Roy’s family and friends. When she first learns that Roy is dead, she sobs and invites her friends over, but at a brief moment, she pulls herself together and asks, “What dress should I wear to the funeral?” Her choice is, evidently, not funeral appropriate. In another scene at the end of the first episode, Carter looks in the mirror, she watches Glee and recites a monologue, word-for-word, by Lea Michele’s character, and twists it to make it applicable to her situation while crying. It is in small moments like these when the show exposes the undercurrents of Michelle’s issues.

While the show begins in media res, right at Roy’s death, it truly does distance itself from the sensational nature of the case. The only inklings that Carter was involved in something suspicious in terms of Roy’s death is through the detective plot, which largely remains a side thread until it becomes too serious and legitimate to ignore. An innocent teen romance is the root of a toxic relationship that may have brought out the worst in each other. And perhaps that is the underlying thread of the show: two teenagers, who were suffering, tried to find solace in each other and found the exact opposite.

The story allowed itself room to breathe, utilizing flashbacks and other characters to fill in the missing pieces. Not everything is what it seems on the surface, even if it becomes uncomfortable to watch. A good portion of the story is Michelle trying to essentially make up for Conrad’s death. Whether her actions stem from guilt, obsessiveness, or genuine grief, it is not too clear what her motives are exactly. To many, her behavior is odd, something that might be more harmful than helpful. This is why it is no surprise when the courtroom drama aspect of the show begins that she begins to unravel—alienated by everyone around, no longer able to feed into her previous habits, Carter falls apart.

A Well-Acted Show


Girl looks like to cry in courtroom.
Hulu

From the cast list, it is no surprise that the acting in this show remains one of its core highlights. Fanning as Michelle Carter undergoes both a mental and physical transformation through the show, slowly becoming someone unrecognizable. Through texting, Carter becomes someone who seems more self-assured than she actually is, embodying someone with confidence and poise, but as she gets lost in the stories she is telling herself, it becomes abundantly clear she is not the same as her online persona.

At the same time, Colton Ryan portrays Conrad Roy III with the patience of a Broadway actor that has done this before—Ryan previously was an understudy for the role of Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen and portrayed that role in the movie. Roy, in the show, is someone being torn apart by the world’s expectations; his family is depicted as being established, his grandfather discouraging all notions of mental health awareness early on in the show. Ryan’s Roy is a boy crumbling with the weight of his parent’s divorce and the world’s expectations imposed upon him. Sevigny, who portrays his mother, is another standout performance in the show.

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Moments of normalcy do linger in The Girl From Plainville, largely in the flashbacks. Roy and Carter have moments to live lives as quote-on-quote normal teenagers, offering a brief reprieve from the tension. It humanizes them past the news cycle that once consumed an entire nation, bringing glimpses of who they were, regular teenagers in high school, and what they lived through to the public’s eye. Perhaps someone will walk away now knowing that Conrad Roy III liked the ocean, played baseball, and his family lived near the beach. Or, perhaps, they now know Michelle Carter loved Glee when it was still on television.

The Girl from Plainville is a miniseries currently available to stream on Hulu. The first three episodes have already been released as of March 29, 2022. The remaining four episodes will be released weekly after the premiere date. While Carter’s story in real life may have become private, perhaps there is a chance for a second season. Until then, you can get your Elle Fanning fix by watching The Great.


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