There’s just something about Elizabeth Olsen as a housewife with a dark side that is endlessly appealing. Not every Marvel star gets to turn their time as a CGI-laden superhero into heavier stuff, but the HBO miniseries “Love & Death” feels almost like a direct result of “WandaVision.” It’s full of Olsen doing her best to keep up appearances in a world that’s desperate to keep her from what she wants.
In “WandaVision,” her family was a literal illusion created by magic. In “Love & Death,” her family’s happiness is the illusion. Her happiness is the illusion, one that’s only sustained by her business-like affair with a friend’s husband and carefully but also casually crafted lies. She meant to have the affair, but she didn’t mean to hurt anyone.
The miniseries, from creator David E. Kelley and director Lesli Linka Glatter, tells the true story of Candy Montgomery (Olsen), a 1970s Texas housewife who was accused of murdering her friend Betty Gore (Lily Rabe), two years after having an affair with Betty’s husband Allan, a potato of a man played to perfection by Jesse Plemons.
The same story was also dramatized in Hulu’s 2022 miniseries “Candy,” which starred Jessica Biel, Melanie Lynskey and Pablo Schreiber, and that means it’s hard to watch either without comparison. It was difficult to watch Biel’s turn as Candy knowing that we’d eventually see Olsen in the same role; and unfortunately for Rabe, it feels like we’re all missing out on the chance to see Lynskey face off against Olsen. That’s not really a dig against Rabe, but it does feel like not enough of a choice was made about who Betty is, or was. Rabe is almost too good at disappearing into a character, but it’s as if there’s not enough character to disappear into here.
Betty isn’t really the focus, of course. “Love & Death” is about Candy, a busy wife and mother who was only 31 at the time of the murder. On June 13, 1980, she went over to Betty’s house for a swimsuit so she could take Betty’s daughter Alisa to swimming lessons. She very clearly didn’t go to Betty’s house intending to kill, but she very clearly did murder Betty. What happened in between is the question she was put on trial to answer.
Candy claimed self defense, but how could someone strike a person 41 times with an axe in self defense? The show puts itself in Candy’s shoes and offers her all its sympathies, with little regard for Betty. It results in an unsettling urge to root for this woman who had an affair and then murdered the wife of her lover, but that’s sort of the point.
One of the things that made this case so famous was the surprising outcome of its trial. That’s easy to Google. But what the show does well is explore the nuances behind the spectacle. We get to know Candy before the crime, and we follow in its aftermath. We understand why she lies about what happened with Betty, both to others and to herself, even before doctors and lawyers spell it out during the trial. We see her as a housewife bound by tradition and expectations and a commitment to her local church, and as a mother whose main purpose is to herd her children around to church puppet shows and sleepovers and movies and swimming lessons. And if she seems unhappy with any of that, or expresses any abnormal emotion whatsoever, she’ll have the whole congregation whispering behind her back. She doesn’t even allow herself to be truly expressive during her illicit affair.
When the series catches up to the gruesome crime, it plays like the first time Candy’s allowed herself to express some rage in her adult life. The direct result of bottled up emotions.
This isn’t the first time that Kelley has explored the true feelings of housewives, and there are certainly elements of “Love & Death” that will make you think of his previous work on “Big Little Lies.” The opening credits, set to Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” feel reminiscent of the “Big Little Lies” opener, with shots of Candy driving through rural Texas instead of across Northern California bridges. Instead of waves crashing violently against rocks, we get Candy gently slicing tomatoes and turning a meat grinder. All beautiful, but also unsettling, just like the show itself.
It’s unfortunate that “Love & Death” exists in a world where there’s already a recent miniseries about the same story. Luckily the best parts of this version are not about what actually happens, so it doesn’t take anything away to know how it ends. “Love & Death” shines in the moments where we fully understand who Olsen’s Candy really is — a young woman who’s done everything she’s supposed to do in life, other than seek her own happiness — and why she broke in the face of an axe.
The great thing is that now, we get it. There’s nothing more to tell of this story, and there might not have even been enough for the two shows we already got. So let’s all just agree to let Candy Montgomery rest, wherever she is.
“Love & Death” premieres Thursday, April 27, on HBO Max.