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‘Love and Death’ Premiere Review: Elizabeth Olsen Shines within a Painstakingly Slow Introduction

Elizabeth Olsen and Krysten Ritter in Episode 1 of "Love and Death."
Elizabeth Olsen and Krysten Ritter in Episode 1 of "Love and Death." By Courtesy of Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max
By Mikel J. Davies, Crimson Staff Writer

As one of Max (formerly known as HBO Max)’s newest shows, “Love and Death” is set up as an enticing retelling of a small town Texas true story. In the ’80s, an otherwise white picket town is sent reeling after a brutal ax murder is committed and dark secrets seep into the spotlight.

Candace “Candy” Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen) is a bored housewife seeking fulfillment who falls into an affair with a married man, Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons). Throughout the premiere episodes, the story progresses through the extent of the affair and the impacts it has on both of the marriages involved. Everything seems cozy in Wylie, Texas until Betty Gore (Lily Rabe), Allan’s wife, confronts Candy about the past affair, pulling an ax from behind her back. The following episodes explore both the shocking murder and the disgraceful affair which may have caused it.

In the first three episodes, it feels as if the story’s accuracy comes at the expense of audience satisfaction or pacing. With the series description focusing on the effects of a murder on a small town, it seems odd to spend three episodes of a one season limited series devoted to background information. Yes, the intimacy developed with the characters is necessary for viewers to be invested in the outcome of the story. However, the slow introduction could have performed better as a single, traditional premiere episode. With only seven episodes to complete the story, “Love and Death” suffers from false marketing. With the increasing popularity in true crime, and the way that “Love and Death” was situated as the next up and coming true crime show, it is disingenuous to instead present an audience with yet another bored housewife drama.

As a true story, the tale of Betty Gore’s murder may demand an emphasis and exploration of the years leading up to the event, a sacrifice by David E. Kelley to portray the story as honestly as possible.

The coming episodes might still redeem the first three, but currently they feel like a cheap recreation of the compelling narrative used in Kelley’s “Big Little Lies.” There are the same initial teases of what tantalizing, blood-wrenching event will befall a comfortable community, but perhaps this true story didn’t require a tease and instead a succinct introduction — allowing for the victim’s narrative to shine through as these true stories garner the attention they deserve. True crime shouldn’t be about pulling drama out of the woodwork, but should be an opportunity to bring previously-silenced stories to the forefront. As it stands, “Love and Death” seems more focused on dramatizing Betty Gore’s life than telling the horrible tale of how it came to an end.

Despite the frustratingly dramatic and slow crawl of the first three episodes, there are some occasional highlights. The first of which is Elizabeth Olsen’s harrowing depiction of a mother and wife turned unabashed adulterer. Olsen’s portrayal is calculated, down to the cunning looks shared during coffee hour at church or the tense laughs when spouses are nearby. Every scene revolves around Candy because Olsen makes this character come to life.

The second redeeming quality of “Love and Death” so far is the scoring, done by Jeff Russo. With subtle emphasis given to the tense moments where Allan and Candy begin outlining the rules of their affair and the crescendos as they begin falling in love over the course of their forbidden relationship, the music throughout the show acts as the perfect emphatic device. Not a single interaction or scene contains generic music simply intended to fill empty space. Instead, the variety of ’70s and ’80s era chart-toppers bounce perfectly off of composed auditory backdrops to even the most mundane tupperware-laden pre-lunch scene.

At its core, “Love and Death” is a story worth telling, but it currently feels like none of the story has been unearthed. While Olsen shines in her role and is excellently emboldened by compelling scoring, the rest of the show is noticeably lacking. With new episodes coming out every Thursday, it will be interesting to see if the rest of the show can find its footing once the infamous crime finally takes place.

—Staff writer Mikel J. Davies can be reached at mikel.davies@thecrimson.com

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