The real horror of this week’s Love & Death episode occurred when I realized I still had half the episode to go. Courthouse dramas are always a bit of a struggle for me—if I wanted to watch a good analysis of a possibly dangerous person, I’d watch Simon Killer for the fifth time or something—so I should have been ready for Love & Death to take this turn, but I won’t pretend I was happy about it.
I was hoping Love & Death would do something different this week, maybe use this (likely final) change in setting to dig into a new side of Candy (Elizabeth Olsen)—it could focus on how being on trial for the murder of her neighbor affected her relationship with her husband, or her children, or her best friend. Instead, “The Big Top” gives her an excuse to be even more vague. It’s by no means Olsen’s fault, of course. On Love & Death‘s last episode, she delivered a fairly rousing performance, but Candy spends most of this episode drugged up to calm her nerves during the trial, so Olsen doesn’t have a ton to work with outside of “read your lines with no strong emotion and stare blankly into space.”
The series’ penultimate episode is just hitting the same notes again and again, and I can’t say I’m really enjoying those notes very much. The standard filmmaking uses focus tricks and the score to suggest that something is very wrong with Candy indeed; her victim’s widower Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons) questions how sad he really is about his wife’s death; Candy’s husband becomes upset that he’s not allowed to get too close to the case; and there’s some surface-level commentary on the way this tragic and complex case was turned into a complete media circus. (Because, you know, this episode is called “The Big Top” and there’s a heavy focus on the borderline commercialization of this case. You know, in case you weren’t smart enough to figure it out.)
There are little details here and there that I like in regards to that theme. As a journalist outside the courthouse reports on the trial before it begins, a bystander walks by, notices the camera setup, and preens in front of it. Candy’s daughter (I think the show forgets she has kids as often as I do) mentions how one of her friends wanted to go as Candy for Halloween. Candy’s smart-ass lawyer Don Crowder (Tom Pelphrey) gets in trouble with the case’s judge because he insists on holding a press conference.
There’s some really interesting stuff that could be done with the way such an old case was sensationalized at the time, but all Love & Death wants to show us is Crowder and the judge droning on and on at each other, with a dash of a character that hadn’t been important since the series premiere. All that happens is that Candy gets called to the stand at the very end while spaced out on medication, so why even have the episode if that’s the only plot progression and a lot of the thematic points just fall flat?
I made a passing joke in my review of the premiere comparing this show to the second season of FX’s Fargo on the grounds that both shows opened with the “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” text, as well as being period pieces following Jesse Plemons’s relationship with a deeply unwell woman. I made it innocuously, but as I try to articulate what bothers me so much about “The Big Top,” my mind drifts to how powerfully Fargo and Kirsten Dunst depicted a woman who felt like she was being crushed under the weight of the expectation to be perfect, and how it isolated her and made her act out.
I’m by no means saying Love & Death needs to match Fargo‘s eccentric roster of characters and intense action, but the key difference between the two characters and the shows they inhabit is that Fargo and Dunst’s story just felt so…alive. It felt like things were happening in every episode of that , and that characters spoke with their actions as much as they did their words. The performances and the writing work together to create these rich characters that feel more real than the real people the actors in Love & Death are portraying, and Olsen is putting too much of her talent into a flat script. (Plemons is reduced to just speaking monotonously in court and making Candy’s defense look more solid. This episode does a great job of making me hate him, which I believe is intentional, because who is this fine with their wife getting chopped up?)
Love & Death is almost over, and when it started, I made the argument that it felt like just another series to toss onto the ever-growing “true crime” pile that’s been growing at an alarming rate in years past. I was ready to give it a fair shot and see if it could elevate itself as a standout in the genre, but after this week’s dull penultimate episode, that good will has been squandered.
This episode of Love & Death is now available on Max.