Love and Death
As she allows her mind to drift toward the image of Betty Gore’s mangled corpse lying in the Gore home utility room, Candy Montgomery’s lawyers tell her: It’s time. It’s time for her to take the witness stand, and she must hold nothing back if she hopes to win over the jury. It’s also go time for Love & Death: Here’s where the show is supposed to pull its various sociological and true-crime threads together and leave its audience with something of substance — or more implicitly, something that more fully illuminates the reasons for giving this potentially tabloid-ish TV-movie material the expanded, prestigious, HBO-level treatment.
The showcase sequence of “Ssssshh” is indeed Candy’s testimony; she is on the stand for around a third of the episode’s actual (sans-credits) runtime. She recounts her visit to Betty Gore, intercut with the footage we remember (or adjacent to what we remember) from our first look at this encounter–only this time it goes on, and we finally see the struggle in full, exposing some gory details elided in past glimpses, as well as in Candy’s narration of the event. In this telling (visually, anyway; I don’t think we’re supposed to assume that everything shown on screen is being described by Candy), Betty refuses to stop, even after she’s seriously wounded by Candy’s defenses. Then, in turn, Candy refuses to stop once she’s regained the upper hand, hacking away at her former friend in a terrifying fury, supposedly brought on by Betty’s relentlessness and (somewhat inexplicable, very likely addled by her injury) admonishment to Candy: “Sssshhh.” But for a fugue-like impulse decision, Betty’s death appears agonizingly slow.
There’s a savvy, calculated or not, in Candy testifying that even when Betty brought out the ax, even when she attacked her with it, she didn’t quite believe that Betty was capable of killing her until she felt the force of a particular swing. Even then, she claims not to have put it into her mind to kill or be killed: “I never thought about it. It just happened.” A few minutes later, she describes her post-murder mentality a little differently: “It never happened.” Just as Allan Gore inadvertently sounded like a witness for the defense with his gentle, respectful description of his affair with Candy, Don sounds more like a prosecutor when he brandishes the murder weapon and makes Candy look at it, reducing her to tears. But of course, this is a tactic, one apparently not discussed with Candy beforehand; her reaction makes her look human and regretful while essentially neutralizing the actual prosecutor’s subsequent questions.
Don isn’t convinced that it worked, at least not at first. He fumes about the lens from Candy’s sunglasses found in the Gore garage, contradicting (or at least muddying) Candy’s testimony about her inability to escape Betty because of a closed door. (Objectively speaking, it very much seems as if Candy had a multitude of opportunities to escape rather than fight, especially after landing the first major blow to Betty’s head, and it’s a little odd that we don’t see the prosecutor fixating on that, though it could be chalked up to what the TV audience sees in the flashbacks that hasn’t been explicitly described by the characters.) Don decides to put Pat on the stand to mitigate the damage done by Candy’s status as an adulteress — which doesn’t exactly comport with his greatest concerns as outlined just a scene earlier, but okay.
Pat briefly takes the stand, followed by Dr. Fason (Brian d’Arcy James), the doctor who used hypnosis on Candy a few episodes ago. Dr. Fason discusses her “dissociative” reaction to the murder (though not before Don mouths off to the judge and gets hit with another contempt-of-court fee, plus jail time) and reveals more about a flashback earlier glimpsed, of Candy as a 4-year-old, bleeding and screaming following an accident. Her mother admonishes her to ssssshh, a memory Candy had no previous conscious memory of, but the defense connects to Betty Gore saying the same thing, which supposedly set Candy off, accounting for the severity of her self-defense.
The witnesses don’t end there — pastor Ron Adams returns to describe Betty as “mean,” revenge for her refusal to accept him in the church, causing Don’s wife, Carol, to feel that he’s crossed the line, maybe committing the lawyer equivalent of 40 whacks with an ax: “This whole thing is gonna eat at you, and may rot at you.” Don brushes this off and makes his closing statement, followed by the prosecution’s. Here, the show feels like it (accidentally?) takes on the qualities of a real trial in that the audience is hearing these arguments repeated for the umpteenth time, with their eyes trained on the reactions of Candy, as interpreted by Olsen’s still-compelling performance: lots of close-ups of, and different angles on, the composed surface that has regained its image of placidity following her witness-stand tears.
As the characters wait for the verdict, a final dinner-table scene, this one sans kids, springs a minor surprise, as a counterpart to the version of Candy’s mom previously seen in an upsetting flashback and a disturbing dream: She has talked to her mother — the real her, not the dream-vision version — and she has sent along her prayers. Pat asks if she’s mad about being featured so heavily in Candy’s testimony, and Candy uses her whispery emotional-denial voice: “I just told her to stay away from the newspapers or anything like that.” She then sinks deeper into denial, remarking that she can’t wait for the trial to be over so she can resume her normal life and, say, go to the market without people staring at her. Pat, who in the early episodes seemed pragmatic and literal-minded to a fault, now gently voices the only reasonable response: The jury won’t find her “innocent,” as Candy says, only “not guilty,” and that the best-case scenario still involves them leaving town and starting over elsewhere. “I don’t know if I deserve you, Pat,” Candy understates. “But I’m sure lucky to have you.”
Shortly thereafter, the verdict is in — Candy is indeed found not guilty (which is not to say innocent). Candy weeps in gratitude, Pat trembles and then rushes to his wife, and Allan looks on, his feelings still somewhat opaque. That opacity continues eight days later when Candy, in one last minor-key weirdo decision, decides to stop off at the Gore residence before the Montgomery family blows town. She drops by unannounced, just as she did that day with Betty, and their interaction is uncomfortably formal, as it was in the early days of planning their affair. She wants to say good-bye and apologizes for “everything.” In his weirdly under-reactive way, Allan returns the apology: “I’m sorry, too.” Most chilling is Candy’s borderline-inane and certainly insensitive compulsion to keep talking about Betty, musing that “we were a lot alike in some ways,” as if discussing a regrettable estrangement and not an ax murder. The ex-lovers wish each other a good life, and Allan curtails the interaction, seemingly more out of decorum than disgust. Candy, amazingly, smiles to herself like catharsis was just achieved, and the family drives off in silence. The Como Motel, where Allan and Candy met up, catches Candy’s eye, and she seems lost in thought.
And that’s it. Love & Death resolves sort of predictably (if you know anything about the case or saw the previous miniseries) and sort of discomfortingly, courtesy of Olsen and Plemons and their fascinatingly mismatched dynamic. Less productive of a match is the meeting between procedural neatness, quirky David E. Kelley characterizations, and the unsettled, messy, dark heart of a true-crime story that purposefully lacks an emotionally resolved conclusion. Even the number of episodes feels kinda off: So they did seven of these? Not six, or eight, or four? Large chunks of Love & Death have been undeniably entertaining, full of odd details and good acting, but in the end, it’s not unlike a conversation you might have with this version of Candy Montgomery: You see what it’s getting at, and it looks the part, but you walk away feeling like maybe you’ve just seen an imitation of human behavior, rather than a product of it.
• Get to the cards with the photos! The real ending to any true-crime story, the catch-up cards reveal that Candy and Pat did subsequently divorce after their move to Georgia; Allan soon married church organist Elaine (Kira Pozehl), then divorced her and eventually married someone else; Betty’s parents adopted Betty and Allan’s children; and Don Crowder killed himself years later. Candy went on to work as a family therapist.
• That information about Allan is seeded with an earlier clue to his quiet reticence (beyond his general personality): the revelation, earlier in the episode, that he’s been seeing Elaine (or is about to? It’s not completely clear). Some of the show’s most fascinating ambiguities belong to Allan, who characteristically tells the prosecutor, “Whatever happens, I’m sure it’ll all be for the best.” But I’m not sure how genuinely interested the show is in them, considering how little attention it pays to, say, him abdicating the raising of his kids.
• Soundtrack watch: It’s a real hit parade to close out the series: “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart nudges along the hard cut to the scene outside the courthouse, with protesters, reporters, and onlookers creating a clamor, which then fades into an echoey void as Candy enters the courtroom. The Shirelles performing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” accompanies a ghostly appearance from Candy’s mother in her dream. Don, meanwhile, practically has his own mini-mixtape, with “Slippin’ Into Darkness” by War and “Hold the Line” by Toto scores his lawyerly determination. Now that the series is over, I can say that its use of pop music was best when offering an imperfect view into Candy’s psyche and casually depicting the way radio hits can waver between distraction and background noise. (Elsewhere, the cues don’t always transcend their roteness.)
• This isn’t really the show’s purview, but there’s something striking about this real-life story taking place in 1980, which feels like the dawn of the slasher era, especially considering how early proto-slashers took inspiration from real-life killers like Ed Gein. Halloween really ushered in the modern slasher in 1978, but 1980 was the year of Halloween knockoff Friday the 13th, which spawned decade-defining sequels and was released just a month or so before the murder depicted in Love & Death on Mother’s Day weekend by the way. This is all to say that the brief Psycho-style blood-swirling-the-drain shot during the aftermath of Candy’s ax rampage made me almost wish this show had gone in a less tasteful direction, more in tune with the original erroneous assumption that this was a Shining copycat killing.
• Thanks for reading these recaps the last bunch of weeks, and may none of you ever receive this bitter postscript to your eulogy: “She was beautiful, as are all of God’s creatures. But she had a streak.”