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Candy (Elizabeth Olson) looks startled at Betty (Lily Rabe) on the ground, as shot through a doorway, in a still from Love & Death on HBO

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True-crime shows like Max’s Love & Death miss why people care about murder

True-crime shows are becoming just as exploitative as critics always claimed

Image: Max

“I’m gonna kill you,” Betty Gore (Lily Rabe) sputters as she fights her former friend Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen) for control of the ax that will soon end her own life. The declaration is blunt, leaving no room for interpretation. At least, not according to Candy. After all, by the end of the struggle, 30-year-old mother and schoolteacher Betty will be dead from 41 brutal ax wounds, and Candy will be the only one left alive to tell the story.

And oh, what a story it is. In terms of true-crime fare, the tale of Betty Gore’s death at the hands of Candace Montgomery has it all: infidelity, housewives behaving badly, feathered bangs, and, most importantly, bloody, bloody murder. So why does Love & Death, Max’s seven-episode limited series about the events and characters surrounding the case, feel like such a true-crime bust?

As the show serves us slices of sugary-sweet, heavily coded small-town drama (occasionally spiced up with a foreshadowed glimpse of the violence to come), we learn that appearance is everything in this community. Whether it’s the beloved pastor announcing the shameful end of her marriage, Betty catching side-eyes for openly criticizing the pastor’s replacement, or Candy arranging her alibi for Betty’s death around a laundry list of church events, each character in Love & Death feels the oppressive eyes of their community on them as they attempt to hide the cracks in their own performance of suburban bliss. But while a deep dive into the consequences of emotional repression and the myth of the nuclear family is certainly worthy fodder for TV, Love & Death takes things a step further. That’s where my opinion as a true-crime fan sours; there’s just something a bit yuck-o about adding “murder” to the list of deliciously sordid repercussions of mid-century malaise. It’s a move seemingly made to elevate a true-crime story out of the grime of the true-crime genre. Instead, it just muddies the waters.

There are certain known details about the crime at the center of this deadly drama that Love & Death candidly reports to its viewers: Betty Gore and Candy Montgomery were two housewives raising young children in suburban Texas when Candy initiated an affair with Betty’s husband, Allan (Jesse Plemons). By all accounts, the affair was long over when Candy entered Betty’s home on June 13, 1980. However, despite that fact, and despite testimony from Allan swearing that he had no idea how or if Betty could’ve known about his extramarital dalliance, Candy’s account claims that Betty chose that day to confront her about the affair. After confirming the accusation, Candy’s version of events describes Betty proclaiming her intention to kill Candy, then coming at her with a 3-foot ax from her garage.

Candy (Elizabeth Olsen) walking into the courthouse while mobbed by press in a still from Love & Death Image: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

If you were a member of the jury in 1980 tasked with determining whether Betty’s death was murder or justifiable self-defense, it would’ve been your monumentally important job to weigh accused killer Candy’s description of the events of that day together with what little forensic evidence was available and decide whether or not Candy’s plea was valid enough to preserve her freedom. In Love & Death, Candy’s trial and ultimate acquittal are depicted with sometimes painstaking ripped-from-the-transcripts accuracy. But the question of whether Candy deserves to be found guilty is made on behalf of the viewer the moment Betty utters those words in episode 4: “I’m gonna kill you.

The climactic scene (which is foreshadowed and revisited throughout all seven episodes) is not simply retold or described to us viewers; we literally see it. We see, through the camera’s omniscient eye, Betty accuse, threaten, and attack Candy (we even actually see the gnarly ax attack itself, up close and visceral). But if those crucial elements are unconfirmed by the only party who could ever corroborate them, then why would a show as lovingly and laboriously detailed as Love & Death include them in such a straightforward, un-nuanced way?

As far as the narrative is concerned, the answer is simple: The story of Candy Montgomery as told by Love & Death is not the story of a cold-blooded killer pulling the wool over the eyes of a naive Texas community. Instead, it’s the story of a well-intended housewife whose chipper foray into adultery takes a deadly turn, ultimately (and ironically) threatening to shatter her life and the very stasis she had originally longed to escape. It’s a great story, with just one problem: Betty Gore and, more specifically, her death.

In a world where Betty Gore is a secondary player in the story of her own demise, Love & Death needs us to move on from her annihilation as quickly and cleanly as Candy washes Betty’s blood off her body in the dead woman’s shower. Candy’s story is about growth and clarity — her renewed investment in her marriage, her resentment of having to care about appearance, her all-too-late appreciation for her reputation and community — and an exploration of what it means to have taken a human life is simply not on the menu. Dwelling too much on the gravity of Candy’s violent act would distract from her journey as a protagonist, and therefore the story she weaves of sympathetic self-defense cannot be simply one possible version of events, it must be immutable.

Candy (Elizabeth Olsen) and Betty (Lily Rabe) sit at dinner with their husbands (Patrick Fugit and Jesse Plemons) in a still from Love & Death Image: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max
Betty (Lily Rabe) stares out her window in a still from Love & Death Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max
Candy (Elizabeth Olsen) stands and looks concerned on the phone Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

But it’s that exact determination — the dogged mission to give true-crime fans not just a story that is true, but one that is good, complete with a righteous conclusion and a sympathetic lead — that ends up being Love & Death’s downfall as a true-crime series. With such an obvious blunder as its central conceit (they made the murderer the protagonist??), it’s fair to wonder what business Love & Death has joining the canon of fictionalized true-crime shows. But, to that point, audiences’ hunger for true-crime content is obvious: In the past decade, countless podcasts, documentaries, films, and TV series have cashed in on the seemingly ever-increasing fervor for entertainment derived from real-life crime and tragedy. And for every new dark and gritty true-crime sensation, there is another crop of critics questioning who is out there enjoying it all. After all, they seem to say, true crime has long since passed being an idle cultural interest. Having a preoccupation with murder is now seen as a fun fact to put on your dating profile and not, as it maybe once was, a reason to have your school library access monitored by concerned guidance counselors.

At this point, these anxieties may be as ubiquitous as the media they’re criticizing, but they’re apparently of little concern to networks and streaming services who see fans of true crime for what they really are in the eyes of our capitalist overlords: walking, talking dollar signs. And as the mines of true-crime stories become increasingly picked over by storytellers and investigators alike, it’s no wonder that morally fraught stories like Love & Death are beginning to make their way to center stage on the heels of their more ethically straightforward predecessors. In the past few years alone, shows like The Thing About Pam, The Staircase, The Girl From Plainville, and Des have all (with varying degrees of sensitivity) presented us with fictionalized versions of real-life deadly tragedies, centering the person responsible for the loss of life as the audience’s focal point. To that end, Love & Death isn’t even the first retelling of the Betty Gore and Candy Montgomery saga, having been announced only days before the premiere of Candy, Hulu’s take on the same sordid affair. But with this new pattern of crafting a crime story at the expense of real-life victims, these shows have begun to not only alienate those who are disgusted by true crime, but true-crime devotees as well.

It might give the hand-wringers some comfort to know that the urge to dissect the psychological root of true crime has always been a hot topic of discussion even — and especially — within fan circles. But don’t take my word for it: Books like Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites and Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell’s Murder Book explore where the compulsion to be close to heinous crime comes from, and how enthusiasts can channel that attraction into either (or often, both) exploitative and ameliorating behaviors. Neither book offers up any one unifying reason why fascination with bloodshed is as popular as it is (nor, it seems, can anyone). But the sheer volume of the discussion is proof that true-crime fans aren’t universally ignorant of the real-world implications of their interests. To put it plainly, not every true-crime enthusiast is full-on horny for bloodshed.

Candy (Jessica Biel) sits and looks to her side in court in a still from Hulu’s Candy Photo: Tina Rowden/Hulu
Candy (Elizabeth Olsen) sits next to her lawyer in court in a still from Love & Death
Candy (as played by Jessica Biel, on the left) from Hulu’s Candy and Candy (as played by Elizabeth Olsen) from HBO’s Love & Death, pictured in court
Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

The notion that true-crime fans can use their dark interests for good isn’t a flash in the pan, either — the hosts of the monumentally popular My Favorite Murder podcast (often flagged for its comedic tone as a prime example of true crime’s desensitizing nature) have in recent years made a habit of donating profits to charities such as RAINN, The Trevor Project, the National Network of Abortion Funds, and more. The creator behind the MrBallen YouTube channel and podcast is also the founder of the MrBallen Foundation, whose website states that its mission is “to honor victims and support families of heinous crimes through education, training and financial support.” The team behind The Murdaugh Murders Podcast, after finding success through their investigation into a pattern of corruption and violence in their home state of South Carolina, have pledged to use their newfound platform to continue to shine a light on underrepresented cases and raise the standards for ethical investigative journalism everywhere.

But if the true-crime community at large is signaling that entertainment shouldn’t come at the expense of real victims, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to Hollywood. Love & Death episode 3 reveals Betty Gore was plagued by worry she might be pregnant on the last day of her life. And during the fatal confrontation with Candy, Betty’s dialogue clumsily cites this as a potential motivation behind the attack. (“I’m gonna have another baby,” she intones, almost just to herself. “You can’t have him.”) Yet as an uplifting church song plays over the final moments of episode 7, a parade of photos of the real characters in this tragedy appear along with biographical information about what became of them after the events of the show. Under the smiling photo of the real Betty Gore, text reads: “[Betty’s] autopsy concluded that she was not pregnant at the time of her death.”

So what did this detail add to the fictionalized version of Betty’s life that we are treated to in Love & Death? Is it merely a note of cold irony to leave us with the reminder that murder is a senseless act? This beat, like others in the show, unwittingly underscores just how inconsequential Betty really is in Love & Death’s account of her life. After all, following her murder at the midpoint of the series, Allan, Betty’s husband and ostensibly the reason behind the whole bloody affair, disappears almost entirely in favor of following Candy and her courtroom drama (he returns to explain Betty’s death to their young daughter, who seems utterly unmoved by the news).

Altogether, though Betty’s existence serves as a perfect engine to drive protagonist Candy’s journey, her validity as a life that was cherished in its presence and mourned in its absence is neatly compartmentalized by the show and deemed as, essentially, unimportant. To anyone who seeks out true-crime content at least in part as a way to empathize with the plight of victims of violence, that is simply not something that can be outweighed by skilled performances or slick production design. Unfortunately for Love & Death, an abundance of love (for flawed protagonists, for redemption, even for those fabulous feathered bangs) will never be enough to satiate an increasingly sensitive and savvy true-crime audience. You’re going to need the death, too. In all its ugliness and meaninglessness, you can’t forget about the death.

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