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Love & Death Proves a Murderer Can Be Aggressively Normal

David E. Kelley’s series knows regular people can do terrible things.
  • Elizabeth Olsen in Love & Death (Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO)
    Elizabeth Olsen in Love & Death (Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO)

    In their 1984 article about Betty Gore’s murder, Jim Atkinson and John Bloom stressed that the ghastly crime happened in an aggressively normal place. Betty and her friend Candy Montgomery were churchgoers, mothers, and friends. In their small town of Wylie, Texas, it was shocking enough when Candy had an affair with Betty’s husband Allan, so when Candy eventually killed Betty with an axe, it was unthinkable. Nobody in that community seemed capable of such horror, and certainly not a woman like Candy, whom the article asserted “really was as likable and good and normal as she appeared — except for one dark corner of her soul that even she did not know about.”

    That contradiction — homicidal rage in a benign body — has recently made Betty and Candy’s story irresistible. In 2022, Hulu turned it into Candy, a limited series with a streak of dark comedy that emphasized the ludicrous performance of perfect suburban contentment. Less than 12 months later, HBO Max revisits the same terrain with Love & Death, a limited series written by the ever-prolific David E. Kelley. But while Kelley is certainly no stranger to edgy humor, he plays this project as straight as they come. It’s not the violence that defines the show’s seven hours, or even Candy’s eventual trial with its showboating lawyers, cantankerous judge, and gossipy spectators. Instead, it’s the perfectly ordinary people connected to the crime.

    For long stretches, in fact, it’s almost easy to forget Love & Death is about a murder at all. Many scenes are spent with Candy (Elizabeth Olsen) and Betty (Lily Rabe) at their church, where the biggest drama involves a new pastor (Keir Gilchrist) who thinks homemade Christmas ornaments aren’t nice enough for the upscale congregation he’s hoping to attract. Their home lives are equally uneventful, though Betty wishes Allan (Jesse Plemons) wouldn’t travel so much and Candy feels ignored by her husband Pat (Patrick Fugit). Unlike Candy, which used leering camera angles and an oppressive soundtrack of mewling babies to inject horror into the domesticity, Kelley and directors like Lesli Linka Glatter display something close to detachment: This is just how it is for these people.

    There’s a similar matter-of-factness to Candy and Allan’s affair, from her blunt pronouncement that she fancies him to the flipchart they use to write out the dos and don’ts of their dalliance. In the Hulu series, their illicit sex evolved into something torrid and raw, but except for a few flashes of passion, Olsen and Plemons keep their performances restrained. And while this occasionally feels flat, especially in Plemons’ almost affectless work, it also makes the show resistant to simple interpretations. Olsen gives Candy the high-energy efficiency of a woman managing her entire family’s schedule, but she never uses the bug-eyed stares or almost-manic vocal tones that performers often rely on to indicate their character is barely suppressing a dark side.

    Betty comes closer to caricature. She’s played by Rabe as a world-class sourpuss, and though she’s in relatively little of the show, she stands out as the most obviously miserable character. There are even aspects of her fatal confrontation with Candy that suggest Betty herself started the fight that killed her. When Candy’s lawyer argues Candy attacked Betty in self-defense, viewers are primed to believe it.

    The pro-Candy stance is further supported by the depiction of Sherry Cleckler (Krysten Ritter), Candy’s endlessly supportive friend. In one pointed confrontation, she berates townspeople who are bad-mouthing Candy during the trial, and it feels like the show itself is rebuking anyone who would judge someone before a verdict comes down. It’s no spoiler to say that Montgomery was found not guilty all those decades ago, but unlike Candy, which allowed Betty’s ghost to comment disgustedly on this result, Love & Death just shows Candy crying with relief, then moving out of state.

    But even though it frames Betty as an irritating pill and Candy as a woman who was pushed to commit violence, Love & Death acknowledges Candy's flaws. Late in the series, there’s a gruesome depiction of Betty’s final moments that reminds us how much she suffered and suggests Candy crossed the line from self-defense to overkill. There are also frequent depictions of Candy being so absolutely normal that she lacks self knowledge. In early episodes, she psychs herself up for another busy day by singing along to pop songs, and later, when she’s driving to her lawyer’s office before turning herself into the police, she does the same thing. There’s something tragic about her use of the same radio-flavored pick-me-up, even when her life is falling apart. It’s also telling that after she's killed someone, she still needs a hypnotherapist to access her anger. She’s so good at being fine all the time that she requires professional intervention to understand herself.

    These are dark moral waters: Was Candy a good person whose buried emotions enabled a terrible moment? Was Betty a decent woman whose glass-half-empty outlook was uniquely positioned to unlock Candy’s horrible instincts? The show refuses to answer. There are no closing monologues from morally upright characters. There are no slow pans across a statue of Lady Justice. Really, there are no grand statements at all. There are just everyday people, tossed about by the inexplicable mysteries of human behavior.

    Love & Death premieres Thursday, April 27 on HBO Max. New episodes weekly through May 25. 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: Love and Death, HBO, David E. Kelley, Elizabeth Olsen, Jesse Plemons, Krysten Ritter, Patrick Fugit