The public’s fixation on true crime, from documentaries to dramatic retellings, only increases in popularity year after year. Perhaps it’s the innate human fascination with the grim that makes murder and crime such intriguing subjects to explore. Whatever that may be, it’s propelling an abundance of new media that caters to true crime fanatics, often leading to incredibly mixed if not hollow results. The streaming domination of Netflix’s controversial Dahmer limited series and the HBO Max original The Staircase (which was also previously a Netflix documentary) proved that true crime isn’t going away any time soon. HBO Max, soon to be rebranded as Max, once again adds to this demand with Love & Death, a new original mini series that falls on the lesser side despite its stellar leads in Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons.
Developed by writer David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, The Undoing) and director Lesli Linka Glatter (Mad Men, Homeland), Love & Death follows the true story of Candace “Candy” Montgomery (Olsen) who was accused in 1980 of murdering Betty Gore (Lily Rabe), the wife of her “manstress” Allan Gore (Plemmons). She had struck Gore with an axe over 40 times, claiming self-defense in court. Ultimately, a jury found her not guilty and she was set free, leaving behind a tainted legacy that has been re-examined countless times in pop culture. Just last year, Montgomery’s tale received similar treatment on the small screen via the Hulu original limited series Candy, wherein Jessica Biel took a turn at portraying the axe-wielding housewife with Melanie Lynskey playing the victim, Betty.
Viewers are introduced, at quite a slow pace, to the mundane town and inhabitants of Wylie, Texas. Bible school, home-cooked meals, and the “American Dream” is what keep this community alive on a daily basis. Suddenly, this peace is disrupted by the most exciting gossip possible: the extramarital affair between Candy and Allan. Both are loyal church-goers with their own families. Candy sings in the church choir while her husband Pat Montgomery (Patrick Fugit) is on the church council – it appears that there’s nothing more she could possibly dream of. That is until a somewhat steamy interaction with Allan during a church volleyball game piques her interest in the married man. She confides in her close friend Sherry Cleckler (Krysten Ritter) about her feelings, acknowledging that as a woman of faith and good upstanding in the community, an affair isn’t exactly the best choice.
Regardless of this, Candy is soon fully caught up in this whirlwind of an affair, meeting secretly at hotels, fixing up nice lunch for the two of them, and even making a list of crucial rules to follow in order to cause the least amount of harm to their families and themselves. This goes on for some time until Allan returns from a marriage retreat with his wife and decides it would be better to end their forbidden romance. Candy reluctantly complies, and things seem back to normal until she finds herself alone at the Gore house with Betty, who surprisingly brings up the affair. When an axe is brought into the already tense equation, things go south very fast and suddenly we see a wide-eyed, dripping-wet Candy robotically get into her car and drive away from what just became a crime scene.
One thing that Love & Death keeps from the audience is the ability to question Candy’s motives whatsoever. The series provides us with nothing other than Candy’s point of view; a lens that makes it quite easy to empathize with the housewife and very much understand her side of the story. But, in actuality, no one knows what truly happened at the Gore house that summer afternoon. Love & Death bases its facts and information on the book Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, as well as numerous Texas Monthly archives. Still, for all the research put into this miniseries, it never goes far enough to justify its own righteous-leaning interpretation of Candy’s pov. Betty, the show’s central victim, is left feeling undercooked by this approach, which is a questionable choice in and of itself.
Once the plot fully commits to becoming yet another stale courtroom drama, taking place after the murder of Betty, it loses whatever momentum it had going for it. Candy claims self-defense and with the final verdict of this case already being well-known and easily searchable online, we are merely left to watch lawyers and attorneys fiddle with her until she eventually gets off scot-free. It almost feels like a disservice to Betty and the Gore family that despite the numerous true crime documentaries and dramas that have come before, very few succeed at shedding new light on this tragic true story. No one may ever know what really played out that day, but to show this victim’s hacked body and brutal death in another lacking television adaptation in less than a year comes off in really poor taste.
The performances in Love and Death are more than sufficient, with Elizabeth Olsen as the obvious standout. Her radiating screen presence is the best thing about this adaptation, as she portrays Candy Montgomery and her messy downfall with a naturally felt imperfection. She evidently puts lots of care and energy into nailing every mannerism and expression in selling her complex rage and desires to the audience. From her dissociative state in the courtroom as a fish out of water housewife who has never been involved in nearly anything like this in her life to the uncharacteristic moment she snaps with an axe in her hand, Olsen puts her all into the role, and it shows.
Likewise, Jesse Plemmons gives an exemplary take on Allen Gore, a dedicated lover turned widower. He takes a more subtle approach in showing Allen’s heavy journey from an infatuated adulterer, sneaking around his postpartum-stricken wife to bed Montgomery regularly, to a grieving husband and father who has nearly lost it all at the end. Just like in his Oscar-nominated role in The Power of the Dog, Plemmons is an expert at telling the most while doing the least, expressing every emotion needed by just the look in his eyes. But, again, this all comes at what cost? The show’s two leading performances alone perhaps warrant a watch of this adaptation. Beyond that, there isn’t much not already seen or done before here.
Love & Death, try as it might, just never breaks free from the rut of the unoriginal true crime recipe. Lesli Linka Glatter presents her exceptional skills as the director and the production value is impressive enough. Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons are outstanding as always in their own respective ways. It’s really saying something that not even the talent of its packed ensemble cast – also featuring Elizabeth Marvel, Keir Gilchrist, and Tom Pelphrey – and visual qualities are enough to save Love & Death from its own predictable plight. After this and WandaVision, you would still hope Elizabeth Olsen gets her due in another show sooner than later. This Max Original limited series never strays away from a very formulaic layout, ultimately giving a wild and interesting case in American history a dull do-over that probably didn’t need to be told once again.