As soon as I saw the opening credits sequence for HBO Max‘s new crime drama Love & Death, I understood the show was taking the “Big Little Lies approach” to the grisly source material. Nina Simone croons “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” over bright, breezy images of 1970s suburban Texas. An angelically sad Elizabeth Olsen plays house with a vintage meat grinder and broken china. The show’s vibe is so Big Little Lies-core that it even shares that HBO hit’s creator, David E. Kelley. And therein lies the total assonance in this project. BLL was a glossy, star-studded show adapted from a best-selling beach read, but Love & Death is based on a true story about a real murder victim who deserved so much more than this uninspired schlock.
In giving the tale of Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen) and Betty Gore (Lily Rabe) the glossy BLL treatment, real human beings are flattened into Lifetime movie archetypes. Love & Death‘s treatment of Betty Gore is one of the most heinous portraits of a murder victim I’ve ever seen in any true crime series. Instead of lending Gore any shred of dignity, she is depicted as a shrill, egocentric, annoying hindrance to the happiness of those around her. Treated appropriately, this could actually play out just fine if it were in the realm of fiction. In fact, many mystery classics play on the audience’s sympathies to illuminate complexities about morality. (Murder on the Orient Express, anyone?) But Betty Gore was a real woman who was murdered and Love & Death only massacres her all over again.
Love & Death is prestige TV’s latest swing at dramatizing the horrific 1980 murder of Texas housewife Betty Gore; Jessica Biel’s Candy covered the same story over on Hulu at this time last year (more on that in a bit). What made the real life case so scandalous was the sheer outrageousness of the crime and its circumstances. Betty Gore was struck 41 times with a wood-splitting axe in her own home by Candy Montgomery, a family friend who had just concluded an extramarital affair with Gore’s husband Allen eight months prior. While the evidence is overwhelming that Candy killed Betty, a jury found her not guilty of murder, per se, deciding she was acting in self defense. Candy’s story was that when she visiting Betty’s home to pick up the Gores’ eldest daughter’s swimsuit, Betty confronted her about the affair and then threatened her with said axe. After Betty swung it hard twice at Candy, the other woman acted in self defense…by striking Betty 41 times.
Love & Death retells this story largely from Candy Montgomery’s point-of-view. When we first meet bubbly Candy, she is an active member of her local Methodist church where she sings in the choir, plays on the volleyball team, and gossips with the hip female minister Jackie (Elizabeth Marvel). After Jackie leaves the parish, Candy is adrift. When a chance collision on the volleyball court gives her a whiff of married pal Allen Gore’s (Jesse Plemons) natural musk, she confesses to gal pal Sherry (Krysten Ritter) that the paunchy dad smells like “sex.”
Candy becomes obsessed with the idea of having an affair with Allen just for that sex. Over a course of several awkwardly straight-forward conversations, the two bored adults agree on some extramarital schtupping. Just as Candy starts to catch real feelings, though, Allen and his wife Betty work through their issues in a marriage camp. The adulterers amicably split, but their lives are still intertwined thanks to their kids, who are friends. So when Candy stops by the Gore residence to pick up the aforementioned swimsuit, a tense conversation with a post-partum depressed Betty goes south really fast.
Candy is repeatedly presented to us as a sweet, beautiful, likable woman who accidentally hacked her friend to death in self-defense. Betty, on the other hand, is so intensely dislikable, you spend the first few episodes wondering what’s taking so long to off her. It’s incredibly uncomfortable whenever you remember Betty Gore wasn’t an annoying paperback villainess, but a real human being.
There are many shows that sympathize with killers and vilify their victims, but Love & Death never earns privilege. That’s because outside of Elizabeth Olsen’s devastatingly layered performance, Love & Death is a disaster. The usually wonderful Jesse Plemons is acting on autopilot, Lily Rabe is borderline deranged, and Krysten Ritter seems to be performing in an SNL skit set in Texas. Hurting matters even more are the show’s flat, uninspired visuals and atrocious styling. The plotting is staid and boring; the dialogue cliché. More effort seems to have been put in sourcing Candy’s gorgeous era-appropriate kitchen dishes than giving any character besides Candy a modicum of depth.
Also dogging Love & Death is the aforementioned fact that another streamer got to the Candy Montgomery story first. Hulu’s Candy, executive produced by and starring Jessica Biel as the titular axe-murderer, did a much better job handling both the darkness of the subject matter and the humanity of its real life participants. Melanie Lynskey’s Betty Gore isn’t a campy take on a shrew, but a deeply depressed woman suffocated by her circumstances. (As is Candy!) But while Love & Death is hyper-fixated on sympathizing with Candy, and only Candy, Hulu’s Candy gives Betty a chance to counter her killer’s courtroom confession. Through its stark visual aesthetics and narrative calls, Candy is able to drive home that even if you can understand how Candy Montgomery could have been cornered into killing Betty Gore, it was Betty whose disfigured corpse was left for a day in pool of blood while her baby daughter was left to cry alone in her crib. Betty was the victim of the crime, not Candy.