Jessica Biel & Melanie Lynskey are excellent in Hulu’s docudrama about a bizarre 1980 murder in smalltown Texas
Just when you think we’ve reached peak saturation in true crime adaptations, well…here’s one more. However, though Hulu’s Candy is the first of two takes on the same 40 year-old murder to come out this year (HBO Max’s Love and Death, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Lily Rabe, is the other, release date TBA), for the first few episodes at least it treats its gruesome, sobering subject with respect and seriousness, and the individuals involved as real people as opposed to caricatures and archetypes. It also goes beyond the crime itself, depicting a not-too-distant past when women admitting that they were bored and unhappy was treated as a grievous personal failing.
Based on the book Evidence of Love (its co-author, John Bloom, may be better known to audiences as Joe Bob Briggs), Candy depicts the events leading up to and following the 1980 horrific ax murder of Betty Gore by her friend (and apparent rival for Betty’s husband’s affections) Candy Montgomery. Candy, played here by Jessica Biel in a terrible perm wig (though, to be fair, Montgomery looked like that in real life), is a smalltown Texas housewife and mother, a popular member of her church, and thus a most unlikely murderer. But, as is almost always the point of these things, looks can be deceiving.
Candy wisely focuses less on the details of the murder, and more on Candy and Betty (Melanie Lynskey, wearing an equally unflattering Dorothy Hamill ‘do), and the circumstances leading up to their bloody confrontation. On the surface, though they’re both housewives in the same tiny everybody-knows-everybody’s-business town, they couldn’t be more different. Candy is polished, cheerful, organized and always on the go, while the frumpy, housecoat wearing Betty is fretful, clingy and barely leaves her house. Candy, married to Pat (Timothy Simons), seems to love being a housewife and mother, while Betty, married to Allen (Pablo Schreiber), is miserable, left alone for days at a time while Allen travels for his job. Candy is surrounded by adoring friends, while Betty is kept at a polite, passive-aggressive distance by the other women in town. Children adore Candy, while Betty can’t bond with a foster child, and even her own daughter complains that she’s “always crying.”
It isn’t very long until it becomes apparent that they’re more alike than they realize. Candy and Betty are both married to a couple of boring drips who, if not for Allen’s shitty mustache, could easily be mistaken for each other, and while they’re not bad husbands, exactly, they’re blind to their wives’ distress and take them for granted. Both women are doing everything they’re “supposed” to be doing as wives and mothers, keeping their houses spotless, ensuring that their husbands never have to do anything but go to work and come home, and serving pork chop dinners at six on the dot every night, all of which goes unremarked upon and unappreciated.
Further exacerbating Candy’s unhappiness is the fact that Pat would rather watch The Rockford Files than respond to her sexual advances. Desperate to get laid, she gobbles up romance novels, aggressively probes a friend for details about her new relationship, and masturbates in the tub. Deciding that the answer to her problem is to have a fling (which has never solved any relationship problem ever, in the history of relationships), Candy hungrily eyes the men on her volleyball team, and sets her cap for the shy, awkward Allen, with whom she engages in the most depressing for everyone involved affair since Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm.
One can assume that it’s the affair that ultimately leads to Betty’s murder (though it seems unlikely that anyone would fight over Allen), but it’s never made entirely clear, because it was never made clear in real life. Though Candy definitely killed Betty, she successfully claimed self-defense, never wavering from her story about an enraged Betty attacking her first. As a series, Candy takes the interesting approach of suggesting that both the prosecution and defense’s explanations of Betty’s death are somehow plausible and implausible at the same time. Perhaps Candy, fearful that Betty would tell Pat about the affair and destroy her perfect image, lashed out first. Yet Candy, well into her affair with Allen, befriends the desperately lonely Betty, acting as her confidante and even throwing her a baby shower. Considering she also talks openly with a friend about having “taken a lover,” it doesn’t seem like she’s worried much about getting caught.
Or, perhaps Betty, already emotionally unstable and given to flares of anger, attacked Candy in in a jealous fury. Yet, there’s no evidence that Betty actually knew what was going on. Whatever the case, the end result was the same: Betty was killed, two young children were left motherless, and a small town was never the same. It was a tragedy regardless of the circumstances, and more so when you realize that either Candy or Betty being in therapy, with an actual therapist as opposed to a pastor with an agenda, or the cult-like “Marriage Encounter,” might have prevented everything that happened. But this was still in the days when “therapy” for a woman meant being given a prescription for Valium, and divorce was treated as something so scandalous that you were forced to leave town.
Though the final two episodes sag a bit when they lean into the camp luridness aspect that far too many true crime docudramas enjoy (see Peacock’s The Thing About Pam as a recent example), and the courtroom antics of Candy’s showboating attorney (Raul Esparza, who should be able to play these kinds of roles in his sleep by now), Candy for the most part is understated and sensitive. It helps that Biel and Lynskey (fast becoming one of the best working actors today), play their characters as faceted people, and not nefarious villain and virtuous victim. While there’s definitely something unsettling about Candy’s tight, phony smile and desire for perfection, she’s also strangely likable at the same time. You can see why people would want to be her friend (and it’s impossible to understand why Pat doesn’t want to have sex with her, except maybe that atrocious perm). Meanwhile, while Betty is sympathetic, and you wish one single person (other than Candy, who’s sleeping with her husband) would reach out to her in friendship, she’s also a real pill. They’re very much like real people you might know, and that makes it all the more disturbing.
Bolstered by solid supporting performances from Schreiber and Simons, Candy is a tightly paced five episodes, airing over the course of a single week. Because the first episode opens on the day of Betty’s murder, the next two are subtly tense, its bucolic portrayal of soothingly boring suburban life, and the gradual crumbling of Candy and Betty’s marriages working together to create a deceptively bland setup for a Lizzie Borden-style death. Because it takes place in 1980, everything is in shades of dreary brown and dull beige. If you’re old enough to remember this era (I was about the same age as Candy and Betty’s kids), you’ll be impressed with the attention to period detail, right down to the macrame owl on Betty’s front door, and jazz trumpeter Chuck Mangione on the soundtrack.
Candy depicts a strange time in history, when women were aware that there was more to life than just wiping little noses and making casseroles, but they weren’t allowed to admit that they wanted it. So they simmered and marinated in their own anger and frustration, and sometimes they lashed out. I’m not saying it’s right. But I am saying it’s understandable.
Candy premieres today on Hulu.