A Difficult Woman

Even as an HBO miniseries, Olive Kitteridge feels like a novel—in the best way.

Frances McDormand in Olive Kitteridge
Frances McDormand in Olive Kitteridge.

Photo by Jojo Whilden/HBO

Like its heroine, Olive Kitteridge, the four-hour miniseries airing this Sunday and Monday on HBO, is quietly indomitable, more admirable than easily loveable, more likely to get under your skin than send a shock through your system. A decidedly not-warm wife, mother, and teacher, Olive (Frances McDormand) has a sharp tongue, a fast mind, a wicked temper, and a deep, seemingly biochemical sadness. However problematic the term may be, she is, in fact, a difficult woman, the sort of person who rarely looks up from what she is doing, even to receive a valentine. A math teacher at the public school in the small town of Crosby, Maine, where she was born and raised, she is the fearsome and fair type who gives deserving C’s. She is married to Henry (Richard Jenkins), a man as friendly, kind, and warm as Olive is not, and their marriage is flawed and taxing and also full of fierce devotion. She is immediately recognizable, though you are more likely to have encountered her in real life than on television.

The miniseries is a streamlined take on the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Elizabeth Strout, a series of interconnecting short stories orbiting loosely around Olive. The first episode, like the book’s first chapter, begins as the Kitteridges’ marriage enters a crisis—albeit, in their Yankee fashion, an unspoken, simmering, subtextual one. The routine of Henry, the town pharmacist, is altered when he hires a new assistant, Denise (Zoe Kazan), a young, ecstatically married “mouse,” as Olive puts it. Henry, movingly, menschily played by Jenkins, is smitten with Denise, in no small part because of just how different she is from Olive, how open, how sweet, how fragile—how much like Henry. Kazan is excellent despite (or perhaps because) she is more or less doing Marisa Tomei’s My Cousin Vinny accent and somehow making it scan as distinctly New England. (Also in the very strong cast: Bill Murray, being very Bill Murray–like.) As the hour unfolds, what initially appears to be the story of Henry’s affair of the heart reveals itself to be the story of Olive’s own extramarital love. Even in emotional betrayal, Olive and Henry are in sync.

Olive would have it that she sees the truth in people, and Henry just the best in them: McDormand and Jenkins play off each other like salt and caramel, the one bringing out the strongest notes in the other. But while Olive is preternaturally attuned to those in emotional distress, she remains largely oblivious to the emotional distress she visits on her own family members, especially her son Christopher (John Gallagher Jr.). “Why are you nicer to the bad kids than you are to me,” Christopher wonders as a teenager. The second episode takes place some 15 or so years after the first, and it juxtaposes Christopher’s wedding and the travails of Kevin (Cory Michael Smith, heartbreaking), a bright ex-student of Olive’s who has returned to Crosby to kill himself just as his bipolar mother, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), did years before. Kevin is depressed and hallucinating—he imagines Olive as an elephant when she forces herself into his car—and Olive clocks him immediately, seeing his intentions and his pain even though he is taciturn about both. She has the sort of maternal intuition about Kevin that she does not have for Christopher. Somehow she knows what Kevin needs, but she cannot, even at his own wedding, intuit that Christopher is desperate for a kind, loving word.

Olive is, according to her son—either the only judge who matters or the only one who should recuse himself, depending on your point of view—a bad mother. Not because she didn’t care about his material well-being, believe in his intelligence, or rub his chest with camphor, but because she was Olive, mercurial and fierce and incidentally cruel. She hit, she yelled, she never apologized. There is something daring about the way that Olive Kitteridge presents all of this: Christopher is somehow not the center of Olive’s life (which maybe speaks to his own take on her). Olive loves Christopher, but she could and cannot change herself to become a better caregiver. She is immutable. As the series unfolds there is a subtle emphasis on the fact that children grow up and leave while it’s a spouse who is there indefinitely. Olive’s primary relationship is always with Henry, who, for better or worse, she chose. Children don’t choose their parents, but parents don’t really choose their children, either.

If her general acerbic-ness was not enough, the bad mothering is the ultimate tip-off that Olive is yet another ostensibly  “unlikable” female character, one of those deeply flawed woman who make for extremely engaging television but allegedly turn some viewers off. McDormand’s performance, though, explodes any easy designations of likable or unlikable, thanks to her intelligence, wit, and authority. Olive behaves badly, she’s constantly burping, and she can’t admit her own mistakes, but it is hard not to respect and admire Olive’s good intentions, her insight, her honesty, and her mostly suppressed pain, all put over with piercing clarity by McDormand.

Olive Kitteridge is the kind of emotionally deep but “small” novel that—as Meghan O’Rourke, writing for this magazine, observed—doesn’t usually get the kind of credit that more outsized, grandiose, and “ambitious” (read, often: male) books get (though this novel did win the Pulitzer Prize, so there’s that). It is, after all, about a woman and life in the domestic sphere, full of quiet scenes from a marriage in a small town. But as the series illustrates, these allegedly “small” relationships are the stuff of most lives. If the long life of an intimate, fraught marriage, in which both people are known to one another, for better and worse, in their entirety, seems, somehow, not compelling enough, most of us are doomed to lives that don’t feel compelling enough.

Olive Kitteridge, directed by The Kids Are All Right’s Lisa Cholodenko, feels like an adaptation, though not in the negative sense of shoe-horning every must-see moment from the book into a new form. (That happens exactly once in the adaptation, when Olive tells a class of seventh-graders, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else,” with all the subtlety of a highlighted and asterisked phrase in a textbook. It is much more gracefully deployed in the book, as part of one of her student’s recollections.) Rather, there is a sense of density to all of the characters, a depth of detail and personality that an apple-peeling English teacher or a miscarrying waitress rarely have on television.

The stories have been altered to add drama. For a series about quiet Maine life, there are regular punctuation marks of violence and death, an element of every single one of the four episodes. Much of this—a student who becomes a murderer, a violent break-in, a deadly car crash—happens in the book, too, but it has been juiced up for HBO. In the book, Henry’s assistant, an older woman he doesn’t like very much, dies in her sleep; in the show, she collapses on the sidewalk, her undergarments exposed, foreshadowing a later moment when Olive is similarly disheveled. In both book and show a young man dies in a hunting accident, but only in the show is Henry on hand to witness it, telling the man to keep his eyes open, a moment that, as with the woman on the sidewalk, also gets a subsequent echo.

The biggest change, the biggest tithe to television’s endless demand for stakes, is that the series is framed by Olive’s potential suicide. The show begins with an older Olive walking through the woods, laying down a blanket, turning on the radio, and loading a bullet into a gun. As she stares up into the trees waving in the wind, the series moves back into the past, to Henry playing that same music on that same radio, music Olive always asks him to turn off because she finds it “depressing.” I won’t reveal what Olive decides to do, but I will say that there is something so implacable about Olive, so decisive, that by the time we return to that blanket and gun in the fourth episode, I, anyway, thought only a fool would question Olive’s right of self-determination. Having lived a full life, often with great pain, who is anyone to tell Olive Kitteridge what to do but Olive Kitteridge?