“I’ve done all the things a wife is supposed to do: the house, the kids, the meals. Where is the payback?” says Candy Montgomery, while speaking with her best friend Jackie. Jackie is going through a recent divorce, so Montgomery is consoling her through the disapproval that a marriage separation brings in their Catholic church. Yet, Candy isn’t frowning upon the act like other folks in the Texas community, but is almost envious of the fresh start. She advises Jackie to look at the divorce as a “new beginning, a new destiny.”
Although HBO Max’s Love & Death, which premieres Thursday, is set in the 1980s, Candy’s discontent with her mundane life echoes how American women feel today. A 2017 Pew Research study found that 77% of women face pressure to be an involved parent, while 30% of women say society values a nurturing and empathetic woman above all other qualities. While the pressure women face from the people in their life (parents, husband, friends, or just society in general) doesn’t justify any wrongdoings, it does make us understand how that burden of responsibility can affect the decisions some make.
Women often are forced to put on a facade and claim that everything is okay in order to keep the people in their life happy — whether kids and a wholesome family are in the picture or not. There’s so much outside pressure on a woman to be perfect, whether it’s to be physically beautiful, confident (but not too confident), maternal, or friendly (most women know exactly what it means when we’re told to smile more). Love & Death portrays the extreme conclusions on where life dissatisfaction can lead by depicting a woman tiredly bearing the responsibility of these societal expectations of consistent optimism, patience, and overall life acceptance— and feeling like they get nothing in return.
Based on actual events, the true crime show follows Candy’s story as a small town church wife beloved by her Texas community who has an extramarital affair and the events that lead her to becoming a killer. In Thursday’s season premiere, we meet Candy, a woman who achieved the picture perfect suburban life that many people dream about, but instead falls victim to the feeling of ever growing discontent. She justifies her “bad” thoughts as a byproduct of human nature while the absences of commonalities between her and her husband, Pat, fail to subside. Candy asks Pat’s opinion on her latest piece, but her husband clearly has no interest in reading it. Her poem, “My Heart Asked,” is a blanket statement of the entirety of her unsatisfactory feelings while simultaneously vowing to never accept her situation.
You can feel her need for wanting more after settling for too much in her life. As Candy realizes early, society’s view of a female’s life purpose is to cook, clean, take care of the babies, and look pretty. That’s why Candy approaches Alan Gore, after feeling a hint of sexual energy from both parties during a community volleyball game, and outright expresses her attraction to him in a parked car outside of their church.
The show initially frames Candy as hardly a born killer, but a woman who feels lost in her life and looking to breathe again. “We all think that we can change our lives with stuff, ya know. I do it all the time with the shoes or whatever. If I could just have that or just get this, things would be different,” Candy says to her writers group in episode one. When Candy brings her children and their friends to the movie theater to see Grease, the kids are laughing and singing along to the upbeat music. But Candy’s not. She blankly and meaninglessly stares toward the screen, dreaming of a separate life — one devoid of emptiness and filled with desire and adventure. Candy is even jealous of the children, who have a sort of freedom that she claims to have lost long ago. “They are more alive than we are,” she tells her friend Sherry while watching her kids frolic in a park.
When the affair between Candy and Alan begins, it’s two people looking for a different reality and instead find a friendship (with benefits). Candy and Alan eat lunch together before sex while talking about their lives. Despite knowing that both Candy and Alan are in the wrong, we’re prompted to feel empathetic with her. It’s frightening to think that you can actually understand where the killer is coming from in projects like Love & Death, and that you can empathize with them. Just like with Zac Efron’s interpretation of Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile. And like with Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg in You. Even Evan Peters’ portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer, a dramatization of true events, glorified the serial killer by centering his horrific murders. You often forget about the victim and, in Betty Gore’s case, her family. And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Candy Montgomery's story on the small screen. Jessica Biel took on the role in Hulu’s true crime drama Candy, proving that our society is fascinated by people who are driven to commit terrible acts.
It makes us wonder about our own intuitions, and how we allow for true crime to interest us so deeply despite the ploys that this kind of entertainment emulates. In some sort of twisted and unfathomable way are we living vicariously through the killers? It seems that society is so obsessed with the notion of criminals because to some unforeseen extent we not only relate to their childhood trauma, unhappiness, etc., but we also understand what it’s like to dream of a life beyond ourselves — just like Candy Montgomery does. And it may be the warning sign we need on how we cope with realizations we are not entirely happy with our own lives. Dissatisfaction is a tricky feeling, and it can drive people to do things that they normally wouldn’t. Not all situations are fixable or black and white, but as Candy quotes her father, “If you ain’t searching, you’re lost.”
New episodes of Love & Death drop Thursdays on HBO Max.