“It all seems so pointless,” says Candy Montgomery in the middle of her murder trial.
“That’s it?” says the ghost of Betty Gore as the trial ends.
It takes some serious guts to end your true crime drama with its two main characters – one alive and one dead, one killer and one killed – wondering aloud what the fuss was all about. I mean, what a slam dunk these quotes are for anyone who wants to write a bad review, right? Candyby this standard, has courage.
And from where I sit, Candy gained that courage. I mean, with his pedigree, there’s an extent to which I’m like “How could he do not be wise? The responsible woman loves everything the best Mad Men episodes co-created a small town murder show with the guy who made it String zero and you can watch the whole thing in about four hours – that’s practically the definition of good TV. Its latest episode sees the series both funniest and darkest, most cynical and most sentimental. And when that final verdict comes in, it’s as stunning to us as it must have been to the assembled Texas crowd.
The events of the episode are easy to summarize. After an opening segment in which Justin Timberlake’s cop character tells prosecutors the official version of how the crime unfolded, we sped up a trial that would take multiple episodes over a longer broadcast. Via her showboating attorney Don Crowder (Raúl Mendoza is a gorgeous bastard in the role), Candy drops a bombshell on everyone by admitting to the murder. She claims it was a matter of self-defense against a jealous wife, and that repressed memories of her mean mother led her to break and deliver the infamous 41 ax kicks against her friend. Somewhere along the way, Candy also admits to having another affair after the one with Betty’s husband Allan ended, though she refuses to say with whom. (Her friend and business partner Sherri disappears from the courtroom when the verdict is read, strongly implying that she suspects her own husband.)
In the end, the jury finds Candy not guilty. She and Allan and her husband Pat all move on with their lives: Allan remarries one of the local women on the outskirts of the story; Candy and Pat get divorced and Candy starts a new life under a new name as a mental health counselor. Oh, and his attorney, who is immediately jailed for contempt of court after the case is over, is running for Governor of Texas. (It’s hard to imagine him doing a worse job than the current asshole.)
But all this talk of facts ignores the centerpiece of the episode: Candy’s brutal and bloody murder of Betty. The show uses a technique that dates back at least to Truman Capote In cold blood: State the facts, spend a lot of time fleshing out the characters to the point where the anticipation of the act of killing becomes almost unbearable, then let them do it, rubbing everyone’s face in horror until no one can bear it.
And you better believe that the 41 blows with this ax are depicted. It’s a physical acting tour de force from Jessica Biel and a masterclass in gore; the few seconds you see what’s left of Betty’s face after her eyeballs are cut out will stick in my memory for a long, long time.
But — and it’s a telling move on the show’s part — just because Candy is the sole survivor of the incident doesn’t mean it’s just her side of the story that’s being depicted. The filmmakers cast Melanie Lynskey as Betty in this courtroom, offering some brief commentary that only us and maybe Candy can hear. She said to Candy “It’s your story.” When it turns out that Candy is having another affair and she refuses to name the man involved for fear of hurting her family, Betty says “Another family.” When the defense and prosecution are resting, she says, “Is that it?” And when the verdict is read, she says plaintively, in a heartbreaking way, “She left my baby.” Then she disappears , unable to tell his story any longer.
Which side does the show take then? Candy’s side of the story is plausibly presented – a distraught Betty cornering her with the ax on the case, a triggered childhood memory triggering “overkill” on Candy’s part. But Betty’s dissenting presence can’t be ignored, nor can a climax of Candy eating candy while smiling at the camera. That’s not what innocent people look like, you know?
There’s also the fact that, at least according to the cops, they found a broken sunglasses lens in the Gore family’s garage, indicating that the fight started there; this contradicts Candy’s otherwise plausible version of events, though the tampering of a young cop at the crime scene rendered this evidence inadmissible. Given that Timberlake’s cop character genuinely cries over the fate of Betty’s abandoned baby, a show of emotion that makes his fellow Texan lawmen uncomfortable, I think we’re supposed to give credit to his interpretation of what happened.
But in the end, there is no solid foundation to stand on. We’ll never know for sure what made Candy Montgomery cut Betty Gore into ribbons, and that’s also true of the filmmakers behind it. Candy as it is for us viewers. If that bothers you, well, I understand.
But I don’t think art exists to give us answers. Good art asks questions and trusts us to answer them ourselves. It is Candy, very good art indeed, in a word. To echo Betty, that’s it.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) written on television for rolling stone, Vulture, The New York Timesand anywhere that will have it, really. He and his family live on Long Island.