True Crime Tuesdays: Candy
Helen Archer | On 08, Nov 2022
Although it is best to come into this dramatisation with as little knowledge about the crime it’s based on as possible, it’s probably not giving too much away to say that in 1980, suburban churchgoing mom Candy Montgomery took an axe to fellow suburban churchgoing mom Betty Gore, striking her with it an astonishing 41 times – 28 of which were blows directly to the head. Leaving Betty’s blood-soaked body in the same house as her crying baby until she was discovered some 13 hours later, Candy returned to church. She also left her fingerprints, footprints and strands of her hair, so this series isn’t so much of a whodunnit as a whydunnit. Before, ultimately, becoming a how-could-she-do-it?
Based on Joe Bloom’s book Evidence of Love, by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, and created by Robin Veith (Mad Men) and Nick Antosca (The Act, Brand New Cherry Flavour), this five-part drama tracks the before, during and after of Betty’s death, starting with the day of the murder itself. The first episode is almost unbearably tense, as Betty (played by the always gloriously deadpan Melanie Lynskey) goes about her business with an ordinariness which is betrayed by the title card, which declares this “the day she died”, lending every mundane act a prophetic and ominous air. Her quiet and unfulfilled existence is juxtaposed with Candy’s busy-as-a-bee, Type A life, filled with laughing kids, busy schedules, and close confidantes. But when Candy (a terrifyingly effervescent Jessica Biel) drops in to fetch a swimsuit so she can take Betty’s daughter swimming, the surface peace is shattered.
While Betty’s husband, Allen (Pablo Schreiber), makes futile attempts to contact his wife from the work trip he is on – resulting in a ringing phone in a house where the only other sound is that of a hoarse, crying baby – it becomes a slow-motion phone-tag with neighbours and police, as he finally convinces them that something is wrong.
Often, period dramatisations of true crime drama possess a kind of ironic detachment, regardless of the nature of the crime. The 1980s is a superficial, colourful, “bad taste” decade, so this approach can, occasionally, be apt. Here, there is a much more muted air – the sky ever-overcast, interiors filmed in an orangey-brown sheen, the set and costume designs unshowy yet accurate. But most of all, it is the terrible slowness of information, the waiting for return calls on a rotary dial phone, which evoke not only the time period but the tension beneath the surface, suggestive of a child-like, innocent veneer, hiding monsters underneath. Even a macrame owl hanging on a front door becomes sinister.
We delve into the back story for the next couple of episodes, before we reach the courtroom, and it is here that the ironic “humour” – as black as black can be – makes its appearance. The tone shifts as Betty is forgotten about and the case for Candy’s defence gains traction. The true horror of the killing is fudged, as it was in real life, while excuses are made for the inexcusable. This detachment towards the end somewhat undermines Betty’s afterlife appearance at the courthouse, sorrowfully shaking her head at Candy as she spins a tale of self defence. Betty remains invisible to the characters – only the viewer can see her – and, aside from her parents and her daughter, only the viewer seems to care. Perhaps the most fascinating – and horrifying – aspect of the final episode is the reaction of the other characters to her crime, as eager to forgive an axe murder as they are to condemn infidelity.
The programme never really gets to the heart of Candy – regardless of Biel’s excellent performance – and the question of how such rage was unleashed remains unanswered, other than some lawyerly psychobabble about being told to “hush” as a child and the emotions she had suppressed ever since. Much like her oft-repeated “alibi” in early episodes, it comes off as rote. It is a somewhat unsatisfying end to a series that attempts to examine the inner life of unfulfilled housewives, but it is, presumably, the best they can do, as Candy – in life, as in this series – proves to be so chillingly, rigidly unbreakable.