It’s apparently pure coincidence that two limited dramatic series based on the Candy Montgomery case—Hulu’s Candy and HBO Max’s Love & Death—have appeared in the past year. But the reasons this true-crime story about a shocking slaying in suburban Texas more than 40 years ago proves so fascinating to filmmakers and viewers alike is no mystery. No amount of evidence and no jury verdict can answer the one burning question of the case: How could bubbly housewife Candy—a pillar of her small-town Methodist church, and a petite woman with no history of violence—end up butchering her fellow church member and onetime friend Betty Gore with a staggering 41 blows of an ax?
Both series closely follow the definitive account of the crime written by journalists John Bloom and Jim Atkinson—first as a feature story for Texas Monthly and later as a book, the true-crime classic Evidence of Love—but it’s startling how two versions that hew so faithfully to the facts can present such disparate views of the central character. Furthermore, you can tell everything you need to know about the differences between the series from the hairstyles worn by their respective lead actresses. Love & Death’s Candy, played by Elizabeth Olsen, wears her dirty-blond locks in smooth waves, side-parted and shoulder-length, with a few tasteful layers. It’s a cut that, while conservative, wouldn’t look out of place in the suburbs of 2023 or on a television anchorwoman. In a show that otherwise fetishizes the cars, decor, and domestic architecture of the late 1970s, Candy’s look stands out as anachronistic. Similarly, Lily Rabe’s Betty gets a longer, softer, more flattering version of the real-life Betty’s mushroom-shaped pageboy.
The HBO Max series, written by David E. Kelley, encourages its viewers to empathize with Candy—and, to a lesser degree, with Betty as well. The series features several shots of Candy framed by her kitchen appliances, mechanically grinding hamburger or cracking eggs with a dazed expression on her face, the very image of a housewife drowning in domestic vacuity. Her life—a strenuously wholesome round of church picnics, volleyball tournaments, kids’ activities, and cookie baking—is depicted with a hokey gloss. Top 40 hits from the period kick in whenever Candy feels restless or craves thrills. In one scene, she moves dreamily around the house to the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” until she spots her husband, Pat, mowing the lawn while wearing dorky shorts with black socks, and the music abruptly cuts out.
Kelley, whose credits include shows like Ally McBeal and Big Little Lies, specializes in dramas about sleek, upper-middle-class women presented as everywomen with relatable, contemporary problems. This is a tall order when it comes to an alleged ax murderer with a truly dreadful perm, but Love & Death tries all the same, and changing Candy’s hair is only the beginning. Kelley’s series subscribes to the defense successfully mounted by Candy’s attorneys during the real trial. They argued that Candy killed Betty not out of jealousy over Betty’s husband, Allan—with whom Candy had had an affair—but because a lifetime of repressive feminine conformity had built up within her a massive reservoir of inchoate rage that burst forth when Betty attacked her. The trigger, according to the dubious theory of the psychologist the defense hired to evaluate Candy before the trial, came during the struggle between the two women, when, according to Candy, Betty told her to shush. That single exclamation dredged up a trauma from Candy’s childhood and caused her to dissociate.
Candy’s problem, according to the therapist in Love & Death, is that she was raised to care too much what other people thought of her, and where is the woman who can’t identify with that? Betty, on the other hand, is plagued by a serious anxiety disorder and postpartum depression that no one takes seriously enough—also pretty relatable. Love & Death’s hairstyle signaling becomes even more baroque when Candy is ordered by her lawyer to adopt a more conservative look for the trial and she gets a short cut that seems designed to play up Olsen’s resemblance to Hillary Clinton, that supreme avatar of persecuted middle-class womanhood.
But then there are those appalling 41 ax blows. Love & Death hovers unsteadily between asking its viewers to sympathize with its characters and playing them for camp like one of those “funny” refrigerator magnets that pairs retro advertising–inspired clip art with threats of female mayhem. Of course Candy flipped out, because what woman wouldn’t go nuts trying to be the perfect suburban church mom, amirite? Only what about poor Betty, whose agonizing and gruesome end at Candy’s hands can’t be waved away with a cute joke about testy moms and their need for wine? Olsen strives mightily to bridge this gap in the series’ conception of her character—the desperate housewife turned brutal killer—but the slick surface of Love & Death doesn’t give her enough purchase. She’s believable as everything but a murderer, and if Candy weren’t an accused murderer, then her life story wouldn’t be on HBO.
Hulu’s Candy, released last year, doesn’t try to present what happened in the Gores’ utility room in 1980 as a product of the travails of contemporary womanhood. The series, created by Nick Antosca and Robin Veith, embraces the oversized glasses and poodle perm that the real-life Candy Montgomery sported until her attorney instructed her to tone it down. In this onscreen get-up, Jessica Biel resembles a faintly alien being. Like one of those optical illusions that sometimes appears to be a rabbit and sometimes a duck, she flickers between radiant and grotesque. Melanie Lynskey’s magnificent Betty is similarly unstable, by turns pitiful and frightening in her awful bangs. Both women are a bit monstrous, but never campy. Candy itself remains consistent in tone, a depiction of the late ’70s in a muted palette of browns, the Methodist church less an oppressive lid on its congregants’ urges than a life raft that promises them continuity and community in world beset by change.
When, in Love & Death, Candy blames herself for initiating the affair that led to Betty’s death, no one seems inclined to agree with her, besides the hateful protestors waving “Sinner!” signs outside the courtroom, and we all know they can’t be right—it must be the patriarchy instead! But this sort of lazy, reflexive feminism makes a poor fit in Candy’s case. Then again, every lazy, reflexive overlay does. In both dramatizations and in real life, Candy and Allan’s affair—the result of a methodical discussion involving a wall chart of pros and cons—lacked the passion you’d expect in a liaison leading to such a gruesome killing. Similarly, the brooding, volatile, fearful Betty seems a more likely candidate for killer than the popular, sunny Candy, who plausibly argued that she had lost all interest in Allan by the time Betty confronted her about the affair. During the trial, Candy testified that Betty attacked her first, a credible claim because Betty often lashed out verbally when she felt desperate and cornered, but the cascade of violence—41 blows!—that ended their struggle was a bizarre, unfathomable eruption, resistant to any rational explanation, including the one that got Candy off. She did it, but the jury found it so inconceivable that she did it that they could only conclude she was not guilty.
The Candy Montgomery of Hulu’s Candy is a bit of a shapeshifter, the uncanny resident of a murky world trying to persuade itself of its own stability. If the mop of curls and the owlish glasses make her look freaky, that seems appropriate, as well as true to the facts. Candy was no everywoman, because—at the risk of stating the obvious—not many women kill other women with axes, whatever their motivation. What makes this story so enthralling is its resistance to any conclusive interpretation, demonstrated by the way people can argue endlessly about what really happened between Betty and Candy. Just because there’s an absence of answers doesn’t mean there’s an absence of truth.