Recap: Love & Death (Eps 1, 2 & 3) — Early Episodes Show Strong Performances if an Over-Saturation of True Crime Content
On June 13th, 1980, in the town of Wylie, Texas, housewife Candace “Candy” Lynn Montgomery killed her neighbor with an axe. When the case went to trial, Montgomery insisted she acted in self-defense—she had been having an affair with the neighbor’s husband, and was attacked with the murder weapon after being confronted about it. Though there were those who insisted she was responsible, including the victim’s father, She was found not guilty and let go regardless, and, as of the time of this writing, is still alive and free today.
Love & Death is not the first piece of media that wants to tell this story. The 1990 film A Killing in a Small Town and last year’s Hulu miniseries Candy both follow the crime, as well as the trial and controversial decision that came with it. The fact that a series about this event is being made within a year of another one’s release kind of says everything about where “true crime” as a genre is right now. There are so many series nowadays, whether documentaries or scripted, that just can’t get enough of reporting on and recreating the crimes they’re centered around, and it’s starting to wear a little thin.
The song that plays over Love & Death‘s title sequence is Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which the show seems to make its mission statement regarding its main character. Candy (Elizabeth Olsen) is a woman understandable and confounding. In these first three episodes, director Lesli Linka Glatter, writers David E. Kelley, James Atkinson and John Bloom, as well as Olsen (mostly OIsen) bring the character to life very well. Candy’s place in the world (and the world she inhabits) are established quickly and accurately. The first we see of her is in the center of her local church’s choir, the church itself located in an idyllic green paradise, the clouds overhead thin and the sunshine plentiful. Over the first fifteen or so minutes of the episode, we learn what Candy’s existence is like—she takes part in all the community events she can; she teaches piano on the side; she makes her money at home. She’s the prototypical image of a 20th century American housewife.
The issue that I take with Candy’s character—this being what the first three episodes of Love & Death have demonstrated is the crux of the show—is that we understand far too much of what we perhaps shouldn’t. When she confesses to her friend Sherry (Krysten Ritter) that she felt a sudden rush of attraction to her neighbor Allan (Jesse Plemons), Sherry asks “Are you sure this is about Allan Gore and not you wanting to be reckless?”
“Maybe a little bit of both,” Candy muses.
The show centers around a simple idea—only Candy is able to tell whether or not she killed Allan’s wife Betty (Lily Rabe) in self-defense, so is that the way it really happened? Would Candy be the type of person to do something like this out of cold blood? Love & Death‘s premiere episodes strip away some of this very important mystery by having Candy’s motivations laid bare before the audience. It would obviously be good to learn more about her as the show goes on, but it feels like we already have too clear of a portrait of this very unhappy woman who clearly has some repressed emotions simmering under her surface.
“We all have stuff buried deep within,” Betty exposits over dinner with Allan and the Montgomerys. “Things we never knew were there.”
That being said, the cast is really doing their best to sell what they’ve been given. I’ll watch Plemmons in just about anything (it’s worth noting that this is not the best crime series where he’s linked with a somewhat unstable woman), and Rabe does a great job with Betty’s depressive tendencies, creating what seems like someone who would be both the perfect friend and enemy to Candy. Olsen does some of the best work I’ve seen from her to date as Candy, capturing her distress and small moments of repressed anger perfectly, as well as making me wish she had more subtle, intricate material to work with. The final scene of the third episode, where Candy visits Betty and is confronted with the latter’s suspicions of an affair, is an excellent showcase for both women as one finally gets to speak her mind and the other, who has frequently spoken her mind to the audience, has to downplay everything.
The plots of the first three episodes feel a little dragged out. Each of them focus on important parts of the crime—the start of the affair between Allan and Candy, the end of it as Allan fixes his marriage, and Candy discovering that her own union isn’t as easily patched up—but all of them feel overlong, as though they’re hitting the same notes again and again. All three episodes clock in at about an hour, but they could be trimmed down to forty-five minutes apiece and tell a more concise story without much being lost.
Love & Death is by no means poorly made. The production design is good and the shots themselves look fine. But I do think it says something about true crime and where the genre is nowadays that, even in the final moments of the three episodes released, where Betty approaches Candy with the ax, that the show just can’t muster anything new or exciting. Maybe that’s not the show’s fault—if it released a year earlier, it might feel a little more novel and exciting. But like its main character, there’s not much to get excited over, because the mystery’s answer feels like it’s already been made perfectly clear.
These episodes of Love & Death are now available to stream on HBO Max.