What is a remake, if not a sort of twin? It’s a duplicate, the same but different, often with a preoccupying awareness of which came first. Doubles have always fascinated us, so perhaps, in more ways than one, Hollywood’s current rapidly expanding crop of reboots and remakes was inevitable. Guaranteed sameness, but with difference built in. Not only do these provide us with the familiar comfort of nostalgia, but they also give us the opportunity to compare, to spot the differences and pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness. Twice is nice, as they say.
Remakes, however, tend to be fraternal, not identical. Nothing in entertainment is exactly the same as what came before it; where’s the fun in that? Enter: Dead Ringers, Prime Video’s new series based on the 1988 David Cronenberg film of the same name. The premise of the film, taken from the lives and deaths of real-life twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, remains largely unchanged in the series: Drs. Beverly and Elliot Mantle try to expand their successful gynecology practice while also wrestling with the twining and untwining of their identities. But as the minutiae of the series reveal themselves, it’s the sameness that can sometimes be difficult to spot; differences, as it turns out, abound.
Most of the discrepancies between the two versions of Dead Ringers are rooted in a single major change: gender. In Cronenberg’s film, the Mantle are men (both played by Jeremy Irons), thriving in the business of women. In the series, helmed by showrunner Alice Birch, it’s Rachel Weisz who takes on the dual role, playing the double doctors with delightful mania. With a contemporary eye, it’s difficult not to read the change as an inherently political one; given the intimate nature of gynecological practice and the sexual proclivities of the Mantle twins, Weisz’s versions of the doctors are bound to have a different relationship to their patients. But beyond this, the practical application of this change is a little more unclear. What does it really mean that the Mantle twins are now women?
The swap feels at first like a natural one, not least because, in the 35 years since Cronenberg’s film and the 48 years since the death of the Marcus twins, male gynecologists have become something of a rare breed. Many pregnant people, in fact, specifically seek out female gynecologists. It’s not necessarily a question of credentials, but then again, maybe it is; male gynecologists can and should know the tomies of their patients, the facts and realities of pregnancy and childbirth, but these realities quite literally make up the lives of cis female gynecologists, of Beverly and Elliot 2.0. Who better, then, to cater to gynecological needs?
Despite the ultimate fate of the Mantle twins, the show seems to be leading its audience toward a clear answer, the same one many give to the question of why women gynecologists have become more prevalent: women know women. A series about twins, however, which is itself a second version of an existing story, should know: similarity does not necessitate sameness. Womanhood is not shorthand for empathy; the gap between being a woman and knowing women can be cavernous.
And yet, this is how Dead Ringers employs the Mantle twins’ newfound womanhood: as a narrative tool, rather than as a fact. Womanhood in Dead Ringers is not a state of being beyond the leers of a few creepy men and grating tones of a few Girl Power statements — “Who doesn’t [like strong women]?” Elliot asks; “Men. And most women,” Beverly answers. Instead, their womanhood is used to develop the twins’ characters, and specifically to confer goodness upon Beverly, the quieter, more pure-hearted twin.
Beverly is the one who looks out for a surrogate neglected by an aggressive rich woman. She’s the one who wants to open the twins’ private birthing center with the primary aim of helping people give birth safely. She gets it, the show seems to say. But what is it, exactly? Pregnancy? Womanhood? The struggles of giving birth while poor? I have no idea, and neither does the show; Beverly’s connections with the women in her life—aside from her lover, Genevieve, and Elliot—are mostly gestural. They tell us the basic facts about her; that she’s kind, emotionally determined. But they don’t actually say much. And nowhere is this more clear than in Dead Ringers‘ use of its Black women.
As with so many “modernized” remakes, Dead Ringers takes care to include people of color, but chooses to leave them primarily in the background. They appear as nurses, pregnant women, reporters, or even hallucinations. But in spite of their differing roles, they all appear with a single purpose: to build up — and tear down — the Mantle twins in the eye of the viewer.
In the first episode, Beverly meets one of these women as she walks through the hospital where she and her sister work. The woman, who is Black, has recently given birth, and she and her husband wait patiently for their doctor to investigate the pain she complained about hours before. We know their predicament because Beverly, good doctor that she is, takes the time to ask, despite having no responsibility to the patient. She does not hesitate to step in, and through her we learn that, by way of her prolonged absence, the doctor has ignored the significant pain that the Black woman is in, noticeably different from that of her previous pregnancies. Beverly begins to plot out a course of diagnosis, but then, the woman’s doctor (who is white) arrives and ushers Beverly off, perhaps in an attempt to save face with her patient.
What follows seems inevitable, for all the wrong reasons; the Black woman dies. “Your wife suffered heavy internal bleeding,” the tardy doctor tells the now grieving husband. “A CT scan was ordered, but did not happen.” Beverly could have saved her, is the implication. Even if this incident is read generously as an example of the show’s understanding of the flaws in women’s health care — Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women — the end result remains the same: the Black woman is a tool. She is a plot point, engineered to demonstrate Beverly’s capacity for empathy and the dire need for the twins’ revolutionary birthing center.
Not that there’s much of a plot to contribute to; Dead Ringers falls into yet another of the common pitfalls of the movie-to-TV adaptation by padding the film’s surgical (pun intended) storyline with discordant extras, including a mind-boggling thread following the Mantles’ caretaker Greta (Poppy Liu) as she invades the twins’ private spaces in order to collect intimate materials, later revealed to be fodder for her art show. What this has to do with twin identity crises, I couldn’t tell you. Probably more than the creepy rich children’s choir singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” though. (I wish I was making this up.)
All of this is bad enough, but the show’s worst offense comes in its penultimate episode, directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Susan Soon He Stanton. The Mantle twins have launched their birthing center and are on their way to opening a second location in Montgomery, Alabama. In the midst of this process, they visit with the family of their business partner, Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle). Rebecca’s father-in-law (Michael McKean) is also a gynecologist, and one night, he tells the twins the story of the birth of modern gynecology.
The story itself is harrowing enough, but according to the doctor, it’s one of collaboration: a 17-year-old girl with rickets and a deformed pelvis gives birth to a stillborn baby, but in the face of tragedy, bravely volunteers her body to a doctor over the course of 30 different procedures to “repair” it. Later that night, however, Beverly (it’s always Beverly) learns the true story, in the form of a haunting: The girl was Black, and a slave, and she did not volunteer her body. “All we know of this girl, called Anarcha,” says the hallucination, probably the girl herself, “who was 17 and enslaved, and was forced to give birth to her stillborn baby, and who was operated on 30 times without anesthetic, and who had a disfigured pelvis and suffered a severe form of rickets… We only know because of what a white man, specifically tea white man who tortured the 17-year-old girl, and experimented on her in order to be named the Father of Gynecology… What that white man wrote down is the only information we have about that 17-year-old girl.”
It’s a dramatically rendered story with a clear point — men are users and abusers — but curiously, as Beverly listens, the imagined Anarcha takes her story a step further: “You do not know her,” she says, “And she is not yours to know. You cannot have her trauma, or her imagined hope. She is not your device.” It’s the kind of on-the-nose writing that, in the right hands, might work. But it fails, because even as Anarcha utters the words, the writers have failed to take their own advice. They have already used Black women, capitalized on their imagined hopes, made tools of them so that we, the audience, can better understand the Mantle twins.
But to what end? Because for all of the utilitarian Black women who appear in the course of Dead Ringers, almost nothing is contributed to the narrative or characters. Beverly takes precisely nothing out of her encounter with the ghost of gynecology’s past; she goes back to bed and wakes up in the morning to perform a C-section like nothing happened. Was the hallucination simply an audience-directed lecture? Was it Beverly unconsciously acknowledging the insidious roots of her chosen profession? In the end, what does any of that matter to Beverly and Elliot’s fate in the story? Any charity Beverly may have felt toward the tortured Black women of the health care system dies with her, because this is the one instance where the show understands that being similar does not mean being the same.
In trying to distinguish itself from its predecessor through “modernization,” in trying to convince its audience that, unlike the men who came before it, it knows the Plight of All Women, Dead Ringers makes a mockery out of the victims of medical racism, and congratulates itself for the accomplishment. It puts the issues of people of color on display only insofar as it conveniences the (shallow and uneven) story, and then it discards them in favor of its white protagonists. And as remake-mania continues to take over Hollywood, the failures of Dead Ringers are emblematic of a lesson we’re still struggling to learn: newer isn’t always better.