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Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons lead a well-executed show about a doomed affair
The title of Love & Death might seem a little broad, but it accurately conveys what to expect from this fact-based series written by David E. Kelley — and the order in which to expect them. Though Love & Death doesn't split neatly down the middle, the opening episodes focus on love, specifically the romantic lives of a handful of churchgoing Texans at the end of the 1970s. Later to be described as "the most normal person on the planet," Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen) smiles easily and speaks in the comforting tones of a mother used to telling her children that everything is going to be all right. She has a nice husband named Pat (Patrick Fugit), and a clutch of friends who love her. These include a few of what her best friend Jackie (Elizabeth Marvel), the pastor of her church, describes as "backdoor friends," the kind close enough to show up unannounced.
But Candy wants a little more. After experiencing a meaningfully lingering moment with family friend Allan (Jesse Plemons) at a church volleyball game, she decides she'd like to have an affair and asks Allan to join her. They hash out the details in the long lead-up to the affair, begin meeting at a cheap hotel in a nearby town (Candy packs a lunch to save time), and find they like each other a lot, even if there's little danger of either falling for the other. Because that's an important rule they lay out from the start: their spouses can't know. It would break their hearts.
With Allan's wife Betty (Lily Rabe), there's the danger of breaking even more. A brittle woman prone to suspicion and depression, she's quick to anger and protective of her husband. She's also seemingly unaware of what's going on. Betty, Candy, Allan, and Pat are all friends, so why should she be? Then, when visiting Betty's house to pick up an item Betty's daughter needs — their kids are friends too — Candy discovers that Betty does have suspicions, and that she might be ready to act on them in the worst way possible.
If the setup sounds familiar, there's a reason. Love & Death retells the stories of Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore, a sensational piece of true crime that served as the basis to the book Evidence of Love, co-written by journalist Jim Atkinson and John Bloom (the latter more widely known as the film personality Joe Bob Briggs). Their book was previously adapted into the 1990 TV movie A Killing in a Small Town, and the same story provided the basis for last year's Hulu miniseries Candy.
That may explain why the "love" section of the miniseries feels fresher than "death," which commences when Betty walks out of her utility room carrying an ax. Its depiction of small-town sexual mores and the inner lives and after hours secrets of a tight-knit church choir digs deeper into the lead-up to baffling murder cases — the world in which the murder takes place and the lives of those involved leading up to it — than most true crime dramatizations. It's also quite well played by all involved, especially Plemons and Olsen.
Plemons plays Allan as a man who never considered having an affair and embarks on it as much out of curiosity as desire (a curiosity quickly repaid by the first French kiss he's ever experienced in his life). Olsen's Candy is a bit more of a mystery, seemingly even to herself. She wants this affair and the life she had before she began it, so she carries on as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening whenever she's not alone with Allan. She's well skilled at running errands and compartmentalizing, and this new venture allows her to do both.
The twist here — and this likely counts as a spoiler even with the case being a matter of public record — is that it's Betty who ends up on the receiving end of her own ax and Candy covered in blood after striking her friend over 40 times. But, however paradoxically, the introduction of violence and a police investigation causes the miniseries to lose a bit of steam (though Tom Pelphrey gives a spirited performance as Candy's over-his-head but committed lawyer, Don). However odd the case, the series starts to assume the shape of a procedural. It remains compelling, but it loses the interest in the details of its story's time and place that sets the earlier episodes apart.
Still, Olsen alone provides a reason to watch. She's in virtually every scene, but she keeps Candy mysterious even as the facts of the case become clear. She's both perfectly adapted to her life in the suburbs — cheery, quick to smooth over unpleasantness, and in the habit of drowning out her troubles by singing along to the songs on the radio no matter what happens — but also alien to it. Late in the series, Candy expresses a desire to go back to the way things were before the trial began and has to be told that, no matter what the outcome, that won't be possible. It's as if she didn't understand that some actions — murder, if not adultery — would make her an outcast no matter what her reasons for committing them or how well she cleans herself up after they're done.
Premieres: Three episodes premiere on HBO Max on Thursday, April 27, with the remaining four episodes rolling out weekly
Who's in it: Elizabeth Olsen, Jesse Plemons, Patrick Fugit, Lily Rabe, Elizabeth Marvel, Krysten Ritter
Who's behind it: David E. Kelley
For fans of: True crime, suburban intrigue
How many episodes we watched: 7 of 7