Love and Death
Warning: This is a recap of the first three episodes of Love & Death: “The Huntress,” “Encounters,” and “Stepping Stone.”
The extramarital affair at the center of the new Max miniseries Love & Death should be completely quotidian: Two fairly unremarkable and mostly well-meaning denizens of suburban Texas, both in long-standing marriages to other people, wind up in bed together as an escape from the frustrations of their stable but not always satisfying regular lives. What makes Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen) and Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons) compelling at first isn’t necessarily that they’re played here by familiar actors imitating a normal American family in 1978; or even the pre-existing true-crime notoriety of what happens after their affair. (Enough so that another bunch of well-known actors played this out last year in the Hulu miniseries Candy.) No, what makes the affair between Candy and Allan so oddly mesmerizing, at least in the first three episodes of the series, is the methodical deliberateness of it — a passionate coupling that’s nonetheless arranged with a square, fumbling awkwardness, along with the faintest hint of a clinical chill.
The attraction itself isn’t manufactured, at least on Candy’s side. The merest casual brush with Allan at a church-sponsored volleyball game seems to react chemically with the dissatisfaction lurking beneath one of those classic suburban façades. Suddenly, in light of her nerdy husband, Pat (Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous), showing more interest in Rodney Dangerfield on The Tonight Show than reading her writing-class short story, Candy yearns for something new. It’s not as if Allan is the picture of escapism; early in “The Huntress,” the show’s first episode, he and his wife, Betty (Lily Rabe), excuse themselves from a post-church gossip session to have the kind of unsexy, mostly clothed, instruction-filled, conception-focused sex so often used as a heavy-handed cue for a marriage drained of passion and spontaneity.
Viewers of Love & Death see this, of course, and Candy doesn’t, but there’s never any sense that she suspects secret sexual prowess lurks beneath Allan’s quiet, dutiful exterior. (In other words, he’s a Jesse Plemons character, taking Patrick Wilson characters to their next level in hapless quasi-dependability.) She later tells her bestie, Sherry (Krysten Ritter), that he “smelled like sex” but admits that it may be a simple matter of that smell: pheromones more than genuine human connection. The scenes in “The Huntress” where Candy verbalizes her desires before acting on them are probably true to life, but in the context of this series, they don’t seem strictly necessary. The show, written and directed by TV veterans David E. Kelley and Lesli Linka Glatter, respectively, is best when it just observes those desires and Candy’s calculations in pursuing them through close-ups of Elizabeth Olsen’s face. “You do some of your best commentary with silence” is something Allan says, a little exasperated, to his unhappy wife, but it applies to Olsen’s performance here, too.
Candy talking out her feelings with Sherry also seems unnecessary because it diminishes some of the shocks from the nonetheless deeply strange (and therefore quite effective) scenes where Candy takes Allan aside and lets him know what she’s been thinking: about him, quite often. She eventually asks him to have an affair the way a high-school girl of this era might take the initiative in asking a boy to the movies, or a parent might ask a neighbor to join a PTA committee: “Would you be interested in having an affair?” In the context of a busy, put-together housewife doing the asking, it seems like Candy is employing a kind of therapy or self-help approach to infidelity, something the show vaguely connects to a kind of Me Decade experimentation taking the place of ’60s wildness. In the third episode, she announces her new mantra is “rediscover me.”
The result is an emphasis on formality and practicality: “Shall we set a date for the affair to begin?” Allan asks in “Huntress,” pushing the boundary of believability once they’ve agreed they want to pursue it. Much of the first episode consists of this long lead-up. Candy and Allan don’t just meet to discuss the possibility; they have a series of meetings over what seems like several weeks, employing multiple pro-and-con lists and a flip-chart of rules. Is it pure suburban dorkiness or a kind of kink expression? Most likely a bit of both, though the fact that Candy realizes (or assumes out loud, without contradiction to correct her) that Allan may never have tongue-kissed before makes his pre-affair fastidiousness seem more like the former. For all of the increased focus on pleasure, rather than “fornication,” as Betty refers to it in the second episode, Candy and Allan still don’t take their clothes all the way off.
For Candy, though, perhaps the extensiveness of the planning is something of a game. Their rules include demands for the utmost care and secrecy, even though Candy has already told multiple people about the prospective affair before it begins (though only Sherry knows the Allan-related specifics). By six minutes into the second episode, “Encounters,” Betty notices meaningful looks between her husband and the other woman.
That second episode follows the affair as it blooms and starts to wane; the third episode takes the show through the aftermath of the affair, right up to the middle of what you might call That Fateful Day. (The particular fatefulness is described in most loglines for Love & Death; let’s just say it involves an ax, though it’s not really wielded in this first triptych of episodes.) As unusual as the affair’s origins are, the arc of it is pretty familiar, which makes both “Encounters” and “Stepping Stone” less grabby than the first hour. Candy performs domesticity, making impeccable picnic-ready lunches for her and Allan to eat at their sleazy (though from a modern point-of-view, retro-chic!) motel, neatly showering afterward; Allan enjoys elevated moods and even thinks the affair is helping his marriage.
But it’s not quite. As Betty grows and gives birth to their second child, she feels increasingly neglected and depressed. Allan agrees to take her to a weekend of Marriage Encounter, a real and extant thing where churchgoing couples are supposed to reconnect and share their feelings. Allan doesn’t confess to his affair, but he shares other feelings with Betty, and their marriage improves. This means that by the beginning of “Stepping Stone,” Allan doesn’t think his affair with Candy can go on even though his passivity essentially leaves Candy with the messy business of deciding whether to end it. She cuts them off but has lost some of her carefree emotional detachment over the situation.
It’s sometimes hard to tell, in these first three episodes, how self-aware and/or self-deluded Candy is supposed to be. A repeated shot of her smoking in the dark on her balcony implies a kind of secret brooding beneath her chipper exterior. Still, some of her attempts to put a happy face on her suburban angst are pretty convincing: She tells Sherry that despite Allan’s “perfectly shaped penis” (!), he’s not exactly a champion bedroom performer (this seems true), and that post-affair, she won’t miss the sex as much as the friendship. Though this is a somewhat rude thing to say to your actual best friend, it does speak to the sometimes-uncomfortable human networks that can form around churches and other communities; when they’re seeing each other, Allan and Candy often discuss Betty as if she’s their mutual friend, not Allan’s wife.
Similarly, it’s not always easy to get a bead on supporting characters like Pat: Is he revealing more depth when he and Candy attend their own Marriage Encounter session in “Stepping Stone”? He first enrages her by quoting Carole King lyrics in place of his feelings, then appears to move her by explaining why he did it; in an earlier scene, his apparent rejection of Candy’s question about why they’re here is backed up with surprising thoughtfulness, even tenderness. Betty, too, sees shifts that could be character changes or could be the audience getting some distance from our lead characters’ points of view.
Some of this has to do with how this true-crime show has to spend some time with its characters while nudging them toward That Fateful Day, which in this case means dramatizing the gradual ebb of a long-term affair that’s not built to last. Roughly a year and a half passes over the course of episodes two and three, which nonetheless fails to sync up with how Allan and Betty’s younger child seems to yo-yo in age and size (at one point, she’s clearly aged up to five or six months, only to be newborn-size and gurgling in a subsequent scene). That’s both a minor nitpick and a sign that, ultimately, these people are a bit like pieces moving around the board until it’s time for other characters to find out about the affair.
And they do, in seemingly unrelated incidents in “Stepping Stone”: Pat, looking for an old love letter, finds one that Allan wrote to Candy. Betty, meanwhile, appears to simply intuit the connection shared between Candy and her husband. It doesn’t come from any of the more obviously risky things the two of them do together (like dining together in public, albeit “out of town,” or chatting on the phone during the day), but simply a focus, with increasing horror, on the mildly friendly body language as the two of them linger by Candy’s car, finishing up a conversation after Candy checks in on Betty following a doctor visit (she has a lump in her breast, but it’s benign). Later, when Candy pops by the Gores’ place on one of her busy supermom errands, Betty confronts her about the long-dormant affair: First with quiet fury, and then with … something else. Something ax-shaped. The last shot is like something out of a horror movie, the kind of moment that makes the gradual ebb of an affair seem a lot more sudden in retrospect.
• Not having read the nonfiction book Love & Death is based on, nor being familiar with the case apart from the usual Wikipedia outlines, I’m not going to be doing much fact-checking with the real case of Candy Montgomery. Rather, I’ll be looking at Love & Death as a drama series and part of “true crime” as a genre more than as a piece of, well, truth.
• Soundtrack watch: Oh, man, there’s certainly something to be said for period pieces that don’t feel the need to dig for deep cuts that vanishingly few normal-presenting American families would be jamming out to in 1978, but Love & Death really pushes the limits of its normie needle-drops in the first three episodes, breaking out obscurities like “Stayin’ Alive” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” by the Bee Gees, “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin, “Turn the Beat Around” by Vicki Sue Robinson, and “Baby I’m Burnin’” by Dolly Parton, among others. I’m not sure this was a particularly taxing music-supervising gig, is what I’m saying.
• Related: Elizabeth Olsen’s car-dancing has slight Annette Bening-in–American Beauty energy.
• Some of the action is colored, if not necessarily informed, by Methodist church drama: In the first episode, Pastor Jackie Ponder (Elizabeth Marvel) leaves the church, much to the consternation of Betty, who is further alienated by the arrival of a fussy, uncharismatic young replacement (Keir Gilchrist, from It Follows). This inspires a nicely written Kelley line for Allan, who explains that his wife doesn’t love change or even particularly “like contingencies.”
• Period watch: This is not really a big pop-culture-saturated show, but the first episode features a family trip to see Grease in theaters, while the third episode takes place largely on the day that the family plans to see the big summer movie The Empire Strikes Back.
• Both Kelley, who wrote all seven episodes of the show, and Glatter, who directed the first four, have storied TV careers stretching back to the days of network domination. Kelley, of course, created Picket Fences, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and my personal (fairly ridiculous) favorite, Boston Public, among others, before flailing a bit and then pivoting to a time-consuming job as Nicole Kidman’s streaming whisperer. Kidman starred in his Big Little Lies, Nine Perfect Strangers, and The Undoing, and produces here. Glatter, meanwhile, has directed episodes of a stunning number of all-timer shows: Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, Freaks and Geeks, and Mad Men are all on her CV. Needless to say, neither worked on Candy.