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There Are Limits to the "Jesse Plemons Thing"

In HBO's Love & Death, he's on the verge of minimalist shtick.
  • Jesse Plemons (and wig) in Love & Death (Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max)
    Jesse Plemons (and wig) in Love & Death (Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max)

    Jesse Plemons is a very good actor, and that’s why his lackluster performance in HBO’s Love & Death demands scrutiny. The problem is most pronounced in Episode 4, “Do No Evil,” when his character Allan Gore discovers his wife Betty (Lily Rabe) has been murdered. As Allan processes a phone call from the sheriff and races home from a business trip to comfort his daughter, the actor does what could be called “the Jesse Plemons thing.” But while this approach has served him well in many other projects, this time, something’s off.

    The Jesse Plemons thing is rooted in meaningful minimalism. His performances are often built from almost imperceptible details, like the way he gets irritated while talking about a fish or the way he expresses sexual desire by drinking from a coffee mug. Because he makes such small choices, his characters often linger in the background until they do something that forces us to pay attention. Only then do we realize a storm has been brewing beneath the placid surface.

    That’s certainly what happened in Breaking Bad, where Plemons played the eerily stoic burglar Todd Alquist. He gave the guy a sociopathic ambition that was clearest when he decided, on the spur of the moment, to murder a child who might rat on one of his criminal operations. He was equally chilling (though much less homicidal) in the surreal thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in which his bizarre inner life warped his relationship with his girlfriend.

    Within this collection of “vaguely sinister weirdos,” there’s a notable strain of sad second bananas — passive men who lumber along behind a more dominant character. That describes Allan Gore, who’s overshadowed first by Betty’s strident unhappiness and then by Candy’s need to control their affair. The label also suits Ed Blumquist, a butcher from Fargo’s second season who gets pulled into the criminal underworld while trying to keep up with his wife Peggy (Kirsten Dunst, also Plemons’ real-life spouse). There’s a similar dynamic in the film The Power of the Dog, in which Plemons’ insecure rancher George Burbank is caught in the emotional crossfire between his wife and his brother. And in the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister,” Plemons plays Robert Daly, a sad-sack tech executive who can only escape his domineering business partner by playing a video game that lets him pretend to be a hero.

    At his best, Plemons injects these schlubs with occasional bouts of passion that contradict their passivity. When he’s inside the video game, for instance, Robert Daly reveals his inner fascist. In his unguarded moments, George Burbank flickers with devotion for the people he loves, and when Ed Blomquist is pushed to his limit, he kills someone then pulps the body in a meat grinder. These performances have risen to the top of Plemons’ resume — earning him two Emmy nominations and an Oscar nod — because their brief intensity complicates men who seem entirely beige.

    Yet the fire’s doused in “Do No Evil.” While Allan goes through the most traumatic period of his life, Plemons is so vacant he becomes inexpressive. This matches his flatness in earlier episodes, when Allan and Candy launch their affair. In their no-tell motel, he might say he’s happy lying next to her, but there’s no feeling to back him up. This is almost certainly a choice, but it’s a curious one, considering the show’s commitment to proving everyday people can land in tragic situations. Plemons’ affectless work makes Allen quite unordinary, more automaton than middle class Texan.

    Granted, he can only work with the tools he’s given. Series creator David E. Kelley keeps Allan so taciturn that it might be hard for any actor to build something rich from the silence. Plus, Plemons is strapped inside a hideous wig that counts as its own form of overacting. Underplaying may be the best way to combat the hairpiece.

    But no matter what caused it, this shallow performance exposes the limits of Plemons’ style. While he has occasionally played showier roles, including a fussy Disney villain and an intensely awkward neighbor, his minimalism has become his signature, and Love & Death proves he can coast on it. Though one misfire can’t derail a career, this show does feel like a fork in his artistic road. Jesse Plemons used to be a respected but fairly anonymous character actor, but now he’s an Oscar nominee who gets fawning tributes in major publications. This is the point where similarly lauded actors have calcified, whether that was Al Pacino turning his celebrated intensity into Scent of a Woman hamminess or Ryan Gosling letting his flinty intelligence devolve into the broody posturing of Only God Forgives and Place Beyond the Pines.

    Pacino and Gosling pulled out of their slumps, of course, but if Plemons can shake off the stupor of Love & Death, then he may never slump in the first place. His upcoming credits include Martin Scorsese’s crime film Killers of the Flower Moon and Zero Day, a Netflix limited series starring Robert De Niro. It will be telling if he does the Jesse Plemons thing in either project. Either way, those performances may predict his future.

    Love & Death streams new episodes Thursdays on HBO Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Jesse Plemons, HBO, Love and Death