True crime as a genre of storytelling is inescapable. People are drawn to it for a plethora of reasons: fascination with the macabre, a desire to understand why people do the things they do, and critically, a desire to gain some knowledge, perhaps, of how to avoid becoming a victim of violence.
There has been a significant social discussion about the genre in recent years. Does it glamorize the perpetrator? Does it offer any insight into broader social conditions in which the crime took place? Does it sensationalize violence? The answers to these, and significantly more questions about the genre, of course depend on the project and the audience.
HBO Max’s Love & Death is the network’s latest entry in the white-woman-life-crisis-involving-murder subgenre, but unlike Sharp Objects (still HBO’s greatest achievement in this subgenre), Mare of Easttown, or Big Little Lies, Love & Death is about a real-life murder that occurred. As a result, it hits differently, my mind grappling with a lot of the thoughts and questions I’ve been engaging with re: true crime.
The performances, in particular from Elizabeth Olsen, Jesse Plemons, and Lily Rabe, are fantastic. The direction is precise. The writing is paced effectively and it doesn’t feel like the story needed more or less time to tell the story it wants to tell. But its real heft comes from the reality it draws from.
Love & Death knows that you know what the story is. You may not know the specifics, but from the intro alone you can gleam where the story is going. Small town Americana is a place where everyone knows everything about everyone or, just as importantly, are under the impression that they do. People who are unfulfilled in their lives are searching for some excitement where they can find it. And someone gets murdered.
But because the show is aware of what people expect, it makes sense some interesting choices that work to its benefit. Most critically, the show largely skips a lot of the expected legwork to establish the banality of life in 1970s Wylie, Texas. The characters express the banality of their lives through their actions and relationships and that is kind of refreshing.
Elizabeth Olsen’s Candy Montgomery is also not the kind of character you would expect from this kind of story. She’s deeply bored with her life, asking herself what exactly she has gotten in return for performing the societal roles expected of her. In an act of happenstance, she has a feeling and after processing that feeling and what it means, goes forward and makes a decisive and fateful decision.
The entire show is cloaked within an inevitability of tragedy. The writing and directing in particular draw on the simple reality that, more often than not, tragedy is pervasive not just because we know what happens, but also because we can see the small decisions building upon each other in a way that literally no one could have foreseen as an inevitable consequence.
I don’t know too much about the real-life case of Candy Montgomery, nor have I seen other versions of this story. But even within the confines of this show’s story, I felt a deep sense of sadness. The show post-murder, in particular, captures the grotesque fixation through which real life tragedy can become a circus of entertainment for others. References to the trial as being “the hottest ticket in town.” People driving for hours just to get a glimpse of Candy. Wondering out loud how you would do something different if you were in the victim’s situation. It seemed to get lost for many that a human being’s life had been taken away.
Trials like Candy’s become sensations for many reasons. They eat at the image of what a woman like Candy is supposed to act like. The “shock” that a white suburb could be a place where something like this could happen. How the puritanism and “tender” zealotry around sex can have such devastating consequences in a country where, as one character puts it, people can forgive murder but not adultery.
The truth of the situation, as depicted in the show, is a truth some who consume true crime tend to willfully ignore: that there is no individual-based solution to violent crime, only societal and structural ones, that opining about what the victim could have done is victim-blaming, that finding justice in a carceral system may not, and often will not, lead to justice that prevents something like this from happening again.
Did Love & Death need to exist is not a question I can answer on my own and is, honestly, probably not a useful question to ask. What I can say is that I found the series to be a compelling exploration of humanity in a tragedy where such humanity tends to be removed. It made me not just sad, but contemplative and uncomfortable about a society where this happened and people reacted in the ways they did.
– Always a pleasure to see Mad Men and Homeland alum Lesli Linka Glatter behind the camera.
– The pilot is the weakest episode of the season, so if the first episode doesn’t entirely do it for you, maybe stick around for episode two and see if you feel differently.
– For folks who are better oriented at Texas accents, do the ones in the show do the trick?
– The murder is depicted in an episode and it did make me feel quite sick, so if you end up feeling the same way, fast forwarding through these scenes might be a good option for you.
– Perception of people in a society built upon whiteness and patriarchy is a cornerstone of any drama that tackles tragedies like the one centered in this show: any deviation from the accused from “how they ought to behave” can obfuscate the truth and there’s some excellent nods at that in the trial phase of the series.
The first three episodes of Love & Death premiere Thursday, April 27, only on Crave, with new episodes releasing weekly.