'Love & Death' Turns a Well-Covered True-Crime Tale Into HBO's Latest Fascinating Miniseries

This real-life tale has reached the screen before, but not with Elizabeth Olsen at its centre and 'Big Little Lies' creator David E Kelley behind the scenes.
Sarah Ward
April 27, 2023

In the late 70s, when Texas housewife, mother of two and popular church choir singer Candy Montgomery had an affair with fellow congregation member Allan Gore, commenting about her being a scarlet woman only had one meaning. If anyone other than Elizabeth Olsen was stepping into her shoes in HBO miniseries Love & Death — which streams via Binge in Australia from Thursday, April 27 and Neon in New Zealand from Friday, April 28 — it would've remained that way, too; indeed, Jessica Biel just gave the IRL figure an on-screen portrayal in 2022 series Candy. Of course, Olsen is widely known for playing the Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as seen in WandaVision and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness most recently. So, mention 'scarlet' in a line of dialogue around her, and it calls attention to how far she is away from casting spells and breaking out superhero skills. And she is, although she's also again playing a woman succumbing to her darkest impulses.

There's a reason that Montgomery keeps fascinating Hollywood, dating back to 1990 TV movie A Killing in a Small Town (a film directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, dad to Ambulance's Jake and The Deuce's Maggie). There's also a reason that she's been the subject of plenty of true-crime podcast episodes since — and had journalists John Bloom and Jim Atkinson writing the 1983 non-fiction book Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs before that, plus Texas Monthly articles 'Love & Death on Silicon Prairie, Part I & II'. On June 13, 1980, Allan's wife Betty was murdered with an axe. She wasn't just killed; she was bludgeoned 41 times. Within days, Candy was a suspect. From there, she was accused, arrested and put on trial. And, she ultimately admitted swinging the blade, albeit with a caveat: that after her friend discovered her relationship with Allan, Candy was defending herself.

It's with pluck and perkiness that Olsen brings Candy to the screen again, initially painting the picture of a perfect suburban wife and mum. She keeps exuding those traits when Candy decides that she'd quite fancy an extra-marital liaison with Allan (Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog) — slowly winning him over, but setting ground rules in the hope that her husband Pat (Patrick Fugit, Babylon) won't get hurt, nor Betty (Lily Rabe, Shrinking) as well. The quartet have known each other for years when Love & Death starts, through their faith and due to their pre-teen daughters Jenny (TV debutant Amelie Dallimore) and Alisa (Harper Heath, Forever and a Day). Then Allan bumps into Candy during a volleyball game, which gets her thinking about them slipping between the sheets. "He smelled like sex," she tells her pal Sherry Cleckler (Krysten Ritter, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie), convincing herself about getting adulterous with every word.

Candy is straightforward when she propositions Allan, as they both are when they meet for strategy sessions to work through the pros, cons and parameters of cheating on their partners together. A sense of foreboding hangs in the air, though; for viewers that don't know the outcome when first sitting down to the seven-episode series, Betty's bloody end is referenced in the first instalment. Much that eventuates between Candy and Allan until things get violent is a tale as old as time, with what was meant to be a purely carnal liaison becoming far more complex as affection blossoms. She feels stuck in a rut with the mild-mannered Pat, seeing her time with Allan as an adventure. He's so accustomed to a reserved form of romance with Betty that he doesn't even know how to French kiss. And when Allan and Betty choose to work on their marriage at a counselling weekend, Candy can't hide her jealously while she minds the pair's children.

As it leads up to Betty's death, Love & Death also surveys the local scandal when beloved pastor Jackie Ponder (Elizabeth Marvel, Mrs Davis) leaves for another town, with the younger Ron Adams (Keir Gilchrist, Atypical) her replacement. Jackie's move robs Candy of one of her closest confidants, while Ron's arrival, his visible youth and the changes he's intent on making upsets Betty. Series creator David E Kelley could've told this tale without dipping into church business, but this subplot is pivotal to his take on the story. He isn't just retelling the murder, as so many other projects have explored before. Rather, he's drawn in by who these women were in their everyday lives, and by the fact that they're ordinary folks with routine dramas before the worst occurs.

Of late, prolific TV producer and writer Kelley has carved himself a niche with twisty tales about existences upended, beginning with Big Little Lies, then following with The Undoing and Nine Perfect Strangers (Nicole Kidman, the star of all three, is also an executive producer on Love & Death). With directors Lesli Linka Glatter (Homeland) and Clark Johnson (Mayor of Kingstown), he isn't interested in sensationalising his latest narrative, instead crafting a series about a gruesome crime with restraint and sensitivity. That's one of the factors making yet another version of Candy and Betty's encounter so gripping — that, and the show's outstanding performances. Indeed, no past iteration has boasted Kelley behind the scenes, or the stellar Olsen in career-best form at its centre.

When Love & Death turns its attention to the inevitable law-and-order proceedings, Kelley also slides easily into one of his preferred modes: legal dramas. He's been bringing such shows to TV since late-80s/early-90s hit LA Law, with his resume also featuring everything from The Practice, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal to Goliath and The Lincoln Lawyer — and an episodic version of Presumed Innocent in the works as well. It's no wonder, then, that She Said's Tom Pelphrey is so magnetic as Candy's lawyer Don Crowder, who jumps into criminal defence for the first time with an immensely difficult case. Although Love & Death is never merely a courtroom series, it's canny about deepening its character study of Candy while she's protesting her innocence by self-defence, and in putting the attitudes and figures around her under a magnifying glass as her life becomes news fodder.

Even if there wasn't a 'scarlet woman' reference to remind audiences that Olsen isn't in the MCU here, her complicated lead portrayal makes that plain. Whether she's being bubbly, dutiful, calculating or unsettling, she's terrific, especially in the mid-series episode that depicts Candy's last meeting with Betty, then shows her returning to her errands afterwards. Olsen is particularly masterful at grappling internally with Candy's choices and emotions right in front of viewers' eyes — see also: the spark that clicks when she chooses to pursue Allan, and her reactions under interrogation — and with an also- (and always-) excellent Plemons, is similarly exceptional at selling the love part of series' title. Love & Death never forgets that it's about murder, or who is the victim, but it's always about people rather than headlines.

Check out the trailer for Love & Death below:

Love & Death streams via Binge in Australia from Thursday, April 27 and Neon in New Zealand from Friday, April 28.

Images: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max.

Published on April 27, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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