Elizabeth Olsen Is Outstanding in Crime Drama Miniseries

Apr 21, 2023

If the true story of housewife-turned-murderer Candy Montgomery sounds familiar in any way, it’s because HBO Max’s Love & Death is far from the first attempt to tackle the tangled tale of lies, infidelity, and passion that took place in the sleepy town of Wylie, Texas. It’s not even the first TV series adaptation — Hulu technically got there prior with 2022’s Candy, starring Jessica Biel in the titular role, but this initial on-screen version of things mostly seemed confused about what type of show it wanted to be, vacillating between melodrama and earnestness. By contrast, Love & Death is a standout in part because it’s willing to wade into the emotional disarray, but it also rests chiefly on the shoulders of a leading actor capable of capturing all the complexities of David E. Kelley’s scripts and Lesli Linka Glatter’s direction. Put another way: Love & Death wouldn’t be half as riveting without Elizabeth Olsen to bind it all together.

From outward appearances, Olsen’s Candy Montgomery is every ounce the capable housewife and mother of two — an active parishioner in her local church, a member of the choir, and the type of parent that you would readily entrust with the care of your own kids if necessary. On the inside, however, she’s discontented with her current situation, feeling unfulfilled not just in her own marriage to the ultimate left-brain man Pat (Patrick Fugit) but in her life as a whole. Even her weekly creative writing class only provides so much of a needed outlet, as she confides to both her pastor Jackie Ponder (Elizabeth Marvel, pulling excellent double-duty in both this series and the madcap Mrs. Davis) and her BFF Sherry Cleckler (a heavily-rouged Krysten Ritter).

One gets the sense early on that Candy may very well be looking for an excuse to be defiant when she accidentally collides with fellow congregant and married man Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons) during a church volleyball match. In Candy’s mind, Allan is sex-on-legs, testosterone incarnate, which makes it all the more amusing given that Plemons’ performance feels expertly designed to evoke none of those things. Over the course of the next several weeks, Candy propositions Allan about having an affair, but lest you think the story immediately devolves into a torrid headboard-thumper, think again. There’s a lot more planning and pros-and-cons list-making than you’d expect, an unemotional and detached lead-in to something that would normally be thought of as much more risqué. Adding more humor to the situation is the fact that Candy volunteers to pack lunch for each of their clandestine meetups so she doesn’t cut into Allan’s breaktime, which is when he most often sneaks off to meet her at a dingy motel.

Image via HBO Max

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While Candy’s excuse for an affair largely seems tied to her own ennui, Allan’s motivation feels much more linked to the rocky situation going on at home. Around the same time that he and Candy are first doing their will-they-won’t-they-sleep-together dance around each other, Allan and his wife Betty (Lily Rabe) are in the process of trying to have another baby. It’s emphasized more than once that there’s been some difficulty around conceiving in the past, and Allan readily points out his wife’s postpartum issues as the reason for her mental health struggles, even after her death, but it’s a convenient scapegoat for a much more deeply-rooted problem.

In fact, the biggest place where this miniseries stumbles, overall, is its depiction of the story’s true victim. Largely ignorant of her husband’s infidelity (until she isn’t), Betty is clearly wrestling with more complex emotions that are not successfully rendered on the page, often reduced to the role of the difficult wife Allan must endure — but it’s beyond evident that his habit of emotionally withholding is just as much, if not moreso, to blame for their marital strife. In spite of those characterization issues, Rabe is exactly the sort of performer who can offer more dimension to Betty as the script continually tries to dismiss her presence. One only wishes that the series was more twofold in its depiction, with the woman on the fatal side of that June 1980 day afforded as much intricacy as the other.

Image via HBO Max

But Love & Death does make itself about Candy’s journey first and foremost, from her decision to have the affair that impacts a marriage on both sides to the awful murder that takes place to the trial that ensues, making headlines across the country. Throughout it all is Olsen, who, at the start of the series, bears unmistakable shades of the vintage housewife she once expertly brought to life on WandaVision before the narrative demands her to plummet into some intense places. The sugary-sweet facade Candy projects to everyone around her begins to peel back, layer by layer, and although we’re afforded some early hints about what actually happened when the axe was in her hands, we don’t bear witness to the true extent of how dark Olsen is willing to go until the back half of the season. There, she swerves from screaming like a wounded animal to sitting emotionally numbed in a courtroom, testimony fading in and out in her hearing. There are moments in which it’s impossible to tell what Candy is thinking, and others where the truth is written all over Olsen’s face. It’s a performance unlike anything we’ve seen from her before, the descent of a once-sunny pillar of her community into someone her family and friends scarcely recognize.

The story doesn’t begin with death, nor does it end there either — the latter portion of the series shifts into courtroom drama territory, switching gears so dramatically that even Candy herself takes a backseat to the narrative. Instead, this is where one of the show’s supporting cast members has a chance to step into the spotlight, especially once the lives of everyone in Collin County are uprooted by the resulting media circus. As civil lawyer Don Crowder, a friend of Candy’s that she personally retains to represent her during the trial, Tom Pelphrey projects every ounce of the bravado needed to command a jury’s attention, although it doesn’t hurt that he’s also sporting a noticeably fake tan and a well-pressed suit. His devil-may-care attitude when facing off with the judge assigned to Candy’s case, as well as the distinctly effective monologue he gives at the close of the trial itself, is a potent reminder of what the Emmy-nominated actor has always been capable of when he’s given the page space and the screentime to flex his abilities.

In fact, the talent behind the camera as well as in front of it creates an alchemy for success where Love & Death is concerned. Kelley has been at the helm of just as many TV hits as he has misses, but with his latest foray into the true-crime realm, he eschews embellishment in favor of depicting a more intimate and disturbing drama. By the time Candy and Allan are standing on opposite sides of a screen door, it’s clear they’re miles apart from the two people who once chose to embark on an affair together, irrevocably reduced to strangers who may not have really known one another at all. Unlike other versions of the story that could resort to theatrics for the sake of sensationalizing real history, Love & Death doesn’t want to leave its audience sitting comfortably at its conclusion. Instead, it chooses to present a messy, tragic story with no satisfying ending in private, even if the public verdict is well-known.

Rating: A-

Love & Death premieres with its first three episodes on April 27, exclusively on HBO Max, with the remaining episodes dropping weekly every Thursday.

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