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Review: ‘Love & Death’ Finds the Humor in Tragedy

Review: ‘Love & Death’ Finds the Humor in Tragedy

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These days audiences can find true crime programming and its various sub-genres on every network and streaming platform, whether it’s a documentary or a dramatization. Even though the stories are fascinating, participating in the exploitation of tragedies can sometimes leave us feeling icky. Really, it comes down to the creator’s intentions. To tell the true story about a seemingly normal Texas housewife killing her church friend with an axe requires someone behind the camera who intends to explore the people and circumstances rather than the sensationalized murder.

That’s where writer/creator David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, The Undoing) and director Lesli Linka Glatter (Homeland) come in. The Emmy-winning duo took on the story of Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore for the Max Original series Love & Death. If those names sound familiar that’s because they were also at the center of Hulu’s Candy released last May. But Kelley and Glatter have their own take on the wild tale of infidelity, the outdated idea of the American Dream, and as Glatter put it, the ’70s/’80s culture of the “collective inability to express feelings.”

Love & Death begins with glimpses of the grisly crime scene at the Gore residence on Friday, June 13, 1980. We then go back two years earlier to a joyful church choir with Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen) front and center. This small-town Texas community of Methodists is full of (mostly) friendly parishioners including Candy’s nerdy husband Pat (Patrick Fugit), and their friends Allan (Jesse Plemons) and Betty Gore (Lily Rabe), who are noticeably less outgoing. 

Both couples are in their early 30s, have traditional marriages, and play into defined gender roles. For the Montgomery’s, there must’ve been some passion in the beginning but life moved fast and, two kids later, Candy is secretly unsatisfied. She only shares her desire for more with her close friend Sherry Cleckler (Krysten Ritter) and friend/pastor Pastor Jackie Ponder (Elizabeth Marvel). Candy keeps herself busy, shuttling the kids all over town, helping out at church, playing volleyball, and even taking a creative writing class. She loves her dorky husband, but she’s bored, and while Pat is appreciative and certainly doesn’t undervalue his wife, he’s clueless when it comes to her emotions. 

Candy decides an affair will quench her thirst. After colliding with Allan during a church volleyball game/practice, she becomes instantly attracted to him and later proposes they “go to bed” together. It’s a bizarre story in every sense, especially the objective unsexiness of the situation. Their extensive planning — strategy sessions, notecards, pros, and cons — is comical, down to their pre-romp picnic lunches at cheap motels. 

We see that Candy is filled with longing but Allan is just…Allan, like a character you’d see in a Coen Brothers movie. He’s not one to show his emotions and just trying to begin the affair is like pulling teeth, making for several hilariously awkward moments. He’s a frustratingly quiet type of guy, particularly with Betty, who comes off as generally unpleasant. She’s snappy, defensive, judgmental, and described as “universally unliked.” Basically, she’s the complete opposite of Candy, the life of the party. Although, it’s unfair to be critical considering she was struggling with depression, a second pregnancy, and raising their other daughter on her own when Allan travels for work. Glatter explained to Entertainment Weekly, “I didn’t in any way want to make her a villain in this.”

Betty and Candy radiate loneliness in different ways and it’s hard not to empathize with both of them. Neither have what they need to fill whatever emptiness they feel inside, and they externalize it in unhealthy ways. (However, I’d say being anxious and critical is much better than cheating on your spouse, so Betty wins that one.) 

Love & Death is about the characters and the tight-knit community rather than the murder itself, which makes the series more of a character study and not the salacious true crime drama people might expect. The tonal shifts had me feeling all the emotions, especially in Elizabeth Olsen’s scenes simply because when Elizabeth cries, I cry. She’s perfectly unhinged whether Candy’s rattling off her convoluted alibi to anyone and everyone or having an emotional breakdown with a psychiatrist (an incredible scene). 

The overall tone is noticeably different from last year’s heavy and dramatic Candy, which totally worked for that series. The story itself is darkly funny just because it’s too ridiculous not to be true. I’m not sure anyone could/would write about a highly organized affair between two Methodist Texans that ultimately ended in an axe murder. 

Candy’s attorney Don Crowder (Tom Pelphrey) is largely responsible for Love & Death’s darkly comedic tone. He goes to the same church but isn’t uptight like some folks and probably has the most explicit language out of everyone. Don processes the shocking reveals and events like the audience and has similar reactions to Candy’s odd behavior. The court scenes were the most riveting, mostly due to his strong dislike for authority, or maybe just that particular judge. 

Music plays a big part in the levity of the series. The songs are upbeat and familiar without being an overload of ’70s/’80s nostalgia. Candy often sings along at varying levels of intensity, like she’s trying to mentally escape whatever emotions she’s feeling at the moment. The opening credits feature a rendition of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which leans to the dramatic end of the show’s tonal spectrum. After the murder, the score becomes moodier and more atmospheric to convey that everyone’s lives have been drastically altered. 

With a stellar performance from Elizabeth Olsen and an incredible ensemble cast, Love & Death examines the absurdity of a real-life tragedy and how the baffling decisions of a few people led to a shockingly brutal murder in an unlikely place. The series balances dark humor with high-stakes dramatic moments and avoids glamorizing or minimizing the severity of the crime, instead digging deep into the complexities of the people involved.

Even though we already know the outcome, the series manages to be intriguing and almost makes you think it could end differently. For anyone skeptical about watching another series about Candy Montgomery, know that there are enough differences between the two that make watching Love & Death worthwhile. 

Love & Death debuts its first three episodes April 27 on HBO Max, followed by one episode weekly through May 25. The first episode of the series made its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

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