Lizzie Borden is infamous for quite possibly murdering her parents with an ax. She was only proven guilty in the court of public opinion, getting off in actual court and going on to live a life of wealth and, well, infamy. But part of the speculations about Lizzie’s life includes the relationship she had with actress Nance O’Neil.
Lifetime’s movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax hinted at the Lizzie/Nance romance in a brief party scene, but their new series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, will not explore the queerness of the characters as we hoped. Director Stephen Kay, who wrote the original TV movie, says there is a Nance character, but there won’t be anything more than subtext for sapphic viewers.
“In the real story of Lizzie, what I found fascinating was Nance was this woman who was fabulous: an actress, all things sort of shiny which I think was part of what Lizzie wanted,” Stephen said. “Lizzie wanted out of the oppressed life and into shiny. And the more I tracked that person, Nance was who was living with Lizzie when Lizzie died, and Lizzie and Emma went their separate ways when it seems like Emma sort of went, ‘I think you killed our parents. I’m out of here.’ But the last person literally living with Lizzie was Nance and so my brain went to, it could have been a completely platonic relationship, a person in her life who loved her. Maybe loved her regardless, and I thought that was interesting. I also thought that was interesting in the scheme of things to have a woman who was looking to push boundaries and back then, that was a part of pushing boundaries.”
Christina Ricci reprises her role as Lizzie Borden for Chronicles, but a different actress, Jessy Schram (Once Upon a Time), has been cast as Nance, who is renamed Nance O’Keef and presented as an object of intrigue.
“I think Lizzie is trying things, in general, is looking for what makes her feel something inside and I think part of that is, ‘Do I kiss who the world tells me I’m supposed to kiss? Do I kiss who the world tells me I’m not supposed to kiss? Do I kill the person?’ I think that’s part of it and I think that’s where we play with that in the series,” Stephen said. “The way we introduce [Nance], and we had a lot of fun with it…the idea was to introduce Nance as something other, something that was not the repressed world and so what we did in this, which I think is fun, when you see her–she’s basically doing Salome, they go see her in a play. But the way we present it it’s almost like a striptease. She’s her own kind of seductress, she’s not deliberately trying to seduce Lizzie, but her sensuality and her openness and her freedom is something that Lizzie doesn’t see, especially in women. … It’s cool because it does feel like men/women: It’s a different kind of sexuality than you see on the show in other ways. She’s fun. Their relationship is fun.”
Nance’s very sexy performance (which Lizzie and Emma attend in New York City) opens the second episode, and Lizzie is thrilled by the violent innuendo. Nance is thrilled to meet Lizzie after the show, and invites the sisters inside to the after-party, saying her guests pale in comparison to Lizzie being “stupendous.” Inside, women wear suits and kiss one another, highlighting a queer world of art and drama that Lizzie is dying to be a part of.
Clea DuVall is also back for the series as Lizzie’s sister, Emma, who seems to be skeptical of Lizzie’s actions and want for attention but supports her, nonetheless.
“I think that Lizzie needs Emma more than Emma needs Lizzie,” Clea said. “I think that Emma is the only reason why Lizzie has been able to survive as long as she has been—or as long as she has, because Emma is kind of her greatest enabler. That’s true.”
In the premiere (“Acts of Borden”), Emma tells Lizzie she often dreams of a future husband. Lizzie’s response: “I never imagined a husband.” The show is a true thriller in that the focus it not on romance between anyone (same-sex or otherwise). The relationship we are watching and rooting for is the one between sisters. During their “husband” discussion, Emma promises Lizzie that no matter what happens, they’ll always be together.
“I want people to be conflicted. I want people to root for her and then think, ‘Woah woah woah you crossed the line.’ I think characters like that are fun,” Stephan said. “I think what grounds this is Lizzie and Emma. You root for a relationship that you understand. You go ‘I would fucking defend my sister to the death” and then the question is would you defend her if she was a killer? And that stuff is fun and relatable and all that, so I hope people go—and I also think it helps that Christina who is super likable and we like how much fun she’s having, so there’s a part of it that we go, ‘She’s super fun so I’m going to root for her,’ and then there’s the other part where you go ‘Ax? Murder? Hmmm.””
In the second episode, Lizzie takes in a woman named Adele (Kimberly-Sue Murray) who was being beaten on the street, hoping to help her get back on her feet after being injured while working on the street. While in a closet together, Adele kisses Lizzie, then backs away when she feels Lizzie isn’t reciprocating. “I’m sorry…I thought…” but then Lizzie pulls her back for another kiss and finishes dressing her up. “You’re a proper young lady. And that’s all anyone will see.” Adele is confused about what Lizzie wants from her, because everyone is afraid of Lizzie.
Historical fiction fans will find The Lizzie Borden Chronicles compelling enough, with the cool addition of contemporary music to keep it from being too dated. But those looking for the truth about Lizzie won’t necessarily find it.
“I think the movie was really trying to straddle the line between reality and fiction, and that, it’s a tricky thing to do,” Clea said. “And the movie to me felt a little more straightforward, a little more serious. And in the show, we’re able to have more fun with it and take way more liberties and create a whole different world. And I think that was really—it just gave us so much more room to play and it was really, really fun. And we didn’t really know what was going to happen because we would get the script so close to when we were shooting that we didn’t always know what was coming next.”
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles premieres this Sunday at 10/9c on Lifetime.