“Acts of Borden,” the first episode of Lifetime’s limited run series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, was about what I expected from the show: a nice, solid hour of wicked fun, shot through with a little critique of what a woman’s life was like at that time. Oh, and the body count in Fall River has doubled by the end of the evening. What’s not to love about that?
Before we go any farther, let’s be clear: this series is a direct sequel to last year’s Lifetime movie, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax. If you’re not familiar with the real life Lizzie Borden trial, you should stop reading this review right now and watch that movie before you start the Chronicles.
Part of the fascination with the Borden double homicide is that no one knows what really happened that day. Lizzie was found innocent in a court of law (spoiler!) but everyone in the town was convinced that she killed her step-mother and father. Adaptations of the story usually come down on one side or the other, and part of the appeal of the story is finding out whether the writer thinks she’s innocent or guilty. True, you’ll find out whether Lizzie killed her parents in this series before the end of the cold opening, but be warned: you’ll feel like you’re missing out on some back story if you start watching here.
Spoilers for everything from here on out. You have been warned (and possibly threatened by an ax-wielding maniac).
The story opens with a shot of girls jumping rope and singing the Lizzie Borden rhyme:
“Lizzie Borden took an ax
She gave her mother forty whacks
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.”
It’s four months after the trial that found Lizzie not guilty. She and her sister Emma are trying to get on with their lives in Fall River. Their future is at risk due to a large debt their father owed William Alby, a wealthy local. Lizzie is determined to make the debt go away so that she and Emma can move to Maplecroft, a house in a nicer part of town, and leave their past behind.
In addition to Mr. Alby, two other men stand in their way to a secure future. First, their disowned half brother Billy Borden shows up, demanding money he thinks their father hid somewhere in the family home. Billy is clearly bad news, but Emma takes him in over Lizzie’s objections because it’s the Christian thing to do. The other man is Charles Siringo, who has been hired to investigate the Borden case. As a Pinkerton man, Siringo has experience with violence and can match Lizzie with his own brand of cold-blooded justice.
To sum up: Lizzy wants to keep her money, move to Maplecroft, and have a good life. Two men stand in her way, and one man just wants to find out the truth. What do you think is going to happen here?
Billy eventually finds more than he bargained for in a locked storage room in the Borden cellar–the skeleton of a dead baby, wrapped in a shawl and still wearing a lace bonnet. Bet you didn’t see that coming! His attempts to use the corpse to blackmail his sisters backfires when Lizzie points out that he’s too much of a low-life for anyone to believe his story. Lizzie comforts Emma, promising that they will find where Billy has hidden the baby, Benjamin, and they’ll bring him home. (What? Is this Emma’s baby?)
Now desperate for money, Billy attacks Alby in the middle of the street, and hides in the Borden’s hayloft. Lizzie knows he is there, but she doesn’t turn him in when the police search the barn. No, Lizzie has Other Plans for brother Billy.
Meanwhile, Agent Siringo gets confirmation from the Weddingtons that Lizzie was a troubled child. Mrs. Weddington was Lizzie’s teacher at school, but she is unwell and offers just a little information before getting confused and crying for her baby. (Another baby? Or could it be the same baby?) Mr. Weddington suggests Siringo read the school records for more information. Siringo breaks into the school that night and locates Lizzie’s file. He also finds a hidden door that leads to an abandoned floor of the school where there’s a room full of rotting animal carcasses hanging from the ceiling.
“What the hell?” I can hear you ask. That’s what I said, too! Whose baby IS this, anyway? What’s with the hidden staircase and abandoned section of the school? Who killed the animals and strung them up like sides of beef? Could that really have been Lizzie’s handiwork from her school days?
Hold on to your hats, because here’s where it gets really crazypants.
That same night, Lizzie approaches Billy in the barn, offering to help him make a plan to escape the police with the money he wants in exchange for telling her where the baby is hidden. They share a drink. The next time we see Lizzie, she’s at Alby’s house. It appears that she is going to seduce him to make the debt go away–but instead she stabs him in the neck with her hairpin, smears a shirt with his blood and beats him with a pair of horseshoes tucked inside a leather glove.
The next morning, Emma discovers Billy’s body hanging from a beam in the barn, dead. Her screams wake Lizzie, who just smiles to herself and arches one perfectly shaped eyebrow.
End. Credits. Wow! Give me more now, please!
I went into The Lizzie Borden Chronicles with pretty high expectations. This episode delivered exactly what I was expecting based on what we saw last year.
Last year’s TV movie was way more fun that I thought it would be. The tongue-in-cheek vibe starts with casting Christina Ricci as Lizzie. Ricci is well known for her role as Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family movies from the 90s. A casting move like that tells me that this show just might be able to walk the line between taking the historical material seriously and just having fun with the myth of Lizzie Borden. Ricci kills it (heh) in the TV movie and again in the first episode of Chronicles. She can move smoothly from being a devoted yet slightly spoiled sister to cold-blooded killer who is amused by her murders and thinks that she has everything and everyone under control. The modern music used in the soundtrack of both last year’s show and this series also walks the line between serious and playful. Since the story is set in the 19th century, you might expect a more traditional orchestral score. The modern songs used here jolt you out of the assumption that you’re watching a safe, Masterpiece-style costume drama.
Like we saw in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, Lizzie and Emma have very different personalities, but they make a formidable team. Lizzie is more headstrong and outspoken. Emma chooses her words carefully and usually gives in to Lizzy’s demands. Lizzy wears flashier clothes and dreams big, where Emma wears plain clothing and tries to be more practical. The sisters are very loyal to each other, clinging together in the way that shipwreck survivors might. Lizzie is more willing to ignore conventions of the time. She assures Emma that they are capable of running their father’s business and that they can make the debt go away. Emma seems less comfortable with breaking society’s rules and is always trying to ground Lizzie in reality. Emma doesn’t realize it, but Lizzie is far stronger than she appears.
Something about this version of the Lizzie Borden story feels like a critique of women’s place in 19th century society. Lizzie and Emma grow up in a time where women are expected to get married and have a family. Neither sister has that life. As a girl, Emma says that she bought into that dream. She even knew what her husband’s name would be. For her part, Lizzie never imagined getting married. As it turns out, they have something closer to the unconventional life Lizzie says she wanted. After the murder, polite society rejected both sisters so their very presence in Fall River meant that they were bucking convention. Emma is old enough to be past the marrying age when the murders happen, yet she probably sacrifices any chance she has to get married when she sticks by Lizzie’s side during the trial when it would have been better for her socially to walk away. For Lizzie, now that their parents are dead and her name has been cleared, they are both free. We haven’t gotten far enough in to see what exactly Lizzie does with their unusual level of freedom (besides kill two men who stand in her way), but I think we will before the series is over.
There’s also a very interesting sequence in the Danforth Hotel where Mr. Danforth orders his wife Isabel to search Agent Siringo’s room. Siringo catches her at it after she’s seen enough to know he’s come to investigate the Borden crime. He asks her to keep his purpose there a secret. He sees some prominent scars on her face and asks if her husband did that to her. Isabel’s response is to leave the room–and not only keep his secret, but to use it to her advantage. She lies to her husband, saying that Siringo is there to investigate the source of obscene photos and literature. She suggests that he not offer to sell any to the agent and that he should destroy his collection just to be sure. You go, Isabel! It’s clear Siringo is right about how she got her scar, and a little of the Borden iconoclastic mojo seems to have rubbed off on her when thinking about the case is paired up in her mind with how she got that scar.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles isn’t great television, but it’s a really fun, satisfying hour with a little bit of crunchiness in there if you stop to think about it. If you’re a fan of the Borden case and you’re not put off by the liberties that are going to be taken here to make a serial murderer seem a little bit rock’n’roll, don’t miss this series.