If the show’s first episode was a slow-burning game of hide-and-seek with a murder weapon, Candy episode 2, “Happy Wife, Happy Life,” is a more pointed exercise in world-building. Candy achieves that end by deepening its look at its title character (Jessica Biel) and especially at Betty Gore (Melanie Lynskey), with whom the show is attempting its trickiest narrative maneuver. Because if you only knew that one of these two women was murdered and the other woman was the murderer, you’d most likely guess that Betty was the latter. Lynskey’s portrayal through two episodes is of a quietly vindictive, often mean-spirited person clearly struggling with a host of mental health issues in a setting where both the phrase “mental health issues” and the means to treat them were largely inaccessible.
Of course, we know from the first episode that Candy is the murderer, not the victim. But that’s precisely what makes the show’s attempt so tricky. Because Betty is largely unpleasant to watch, and since Lynskey does such a terrific job making Betty Gore a supremely unsympathetic character – which is in no way a criticism of Lynskey – Candy runs the risk of its audience rooting for her murder. Or, at the very least, not minding that she was chopped up with an axe. Betty hasn’t yet gotten much humanizing, except in a few scenes with her husband Allan (Pablo Schreiber, whose scenes as a frantic husband trying to locate his wife were the highlight of the first episode). When Allan is about to leave the house – something he does rather often! – Betty’s desperation gets as near to the surface as it can without ever finding articulation. The closest she comes is the one time, very late in Candy episode 2, when Betty finally says to Allan, “Don’t go.”
And when Betty is alone at home (or with children, which to her is the same thing), she tries to find some measure of control to cling to. In “Happy Wife, Happy Life,” that search is entwined with the heartbreaking story of David, a foster child the Gores take in after Betty gets fired from her job as a teacher. (Why was Betty fired? For giving her entire class detention in retaliation for her house getting egged by three kids bicycling under cover of night). Things start off sweetly enough, but, before long, mother and son are in an escalating war of chastisement and acting out.
The climactic battle comes when Betty gives David a stack of birthday party invitations to hand out at school. The invitations are Raggedy Ann-themed leftovers from her daughter Christina’s last birthday, and seven-year-old David doesn’t want to hand them out because “those are for girls.” Of course, no one attends the party despite Betty’s initial good intentions and all her party decorations. (Bertha Russell can sympathize.) Christina suggests they drive around to the classmates’ houses and invite them in person, and Allan points out that Betty should have followed up with phone calls to the other kids’ parents – but Betty takes her confusion and humiliation out on David, berating him for not being grown-up enough – Allan: “He’s a seven-year-old.” Betty: “He’s eight.” – to handle his birthday party himself. So their war culminates the only way it could have: David is sent away with a social worker, and Betty is left to defend her actions before her wounded husband, feeling more isolated than ever.
All of which is to say that Candy will have to give us more of Betty, and specifically more of Betty in entirely different, non-domestic settings, to build audience sympathy. The inverse is already true for Candy. Sure, she’s a murderer – but she wants something specific and understandable, and her personality better equips her to search for it in visible and understandable ways. The previous episode’s shots of Candy and Allan’s mouths while they talked on the phone about Betty’s disappearance and whether Candy should go over to the Gores’ house to check on things? That was the show’s surprisingly daring way of setting up what episode two puts into motion: the story behind the pair’s affair.
What begins as a joke for Candy – that she should have an affair to spice up her life – becomes something far more urgent after her more benign attempts at adding spice all come up short. And her plan has an audacious, almost perverted origin in that it comes, however indirectly, from the pastor of the Montgomerys’ church, with whom Candy is also good friends. When Jackie Ponder (Selena Anduze) announces she’s getting a divorce (and will have to step down as pastor), Candy finds herself envious of her friend’s newfound freedom and opportunities. She spends Candy episode 2 salivating over Jackie’s tales of sexy times with the new beau she brought to volleyball practice just one month after announcing her divorce, trying to inspire her husband to exploratory lust with a book of love poems, and kind of generally singing the Reba McIntyre song “Is There Life Out There?” twelve years before it existed.
When nothing gets her where she wants to be, Candy decides against Jackie’s explicit and very patient advice to not have an affair and instead finds herself a suitable side piece. (It’s also worth pointing out that Jackie tells Candy several times that neither she nor her ex-husband cheated on each other. They simply “grew apart” – an answer that’s just as understandable but far more nebulous and therefore more frightening for a woman who fears the same thing may be happening to her marriage.) As with the murder in episode one, though, we don’t see the affair yet. We instead get the entire setup and the almost charmingly awkward proposition. “I find you attractive,” Candy says, “and…I’d like to have an affair.” Before exiting the front seat of his car, Candy gives the shocked Allan a kiss on the cheek.
And then we get the episode’s real shock. Its final scene wrenches us two years forward, with Candy on the stand in her murder trial. Offscreen, a prosecutor asks what she did next, to which Candy replies, “I grabbed the axe.” It’s a jarring and effective way of reminding us that while the truth about what happened between Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore remains shrouded in mystery, the center of their story is an event horizon, fixed and dominant and impossible to avoid.
–The first of this episode’s two throwaway comedy gems come from the splendidly understated Timothy Simons. He plays Candy’s husband Pat Montgomery with just the right mix of good-natured familial investment and completely immutable doofusitude. When Candy, determined to prove to herself that her life can move beyond its comfortable routine, encourages Pat to try some new activities as a way of making more friends, he gives her the absolute worst possible response:
The disgusting beauty of Pat’s response is that he doesn’t say it with a smirk, the way an 11-year-old would. He says it with a blend of naïveté and disbelief – like how a 12-year-old would. So he’s technically correct!
The second unexpected comic gem comes during the first volleyball practice, which, with its short shorts and 1980 über-bop soundtrack, could easily be mistaken for an outtake from Wet Hot American Summer. During a break, Candy approaches Allan with a breathless demand that she stretches her hamstrings. She throws a short-shorted leg up on the first bleacher like Commander Riker mounting a computer stand on the bridge of the USS Enterprise.
She and Allan then have a detailed conversation about getting sneakers with better grip and exactly where Candy might find them for sale in town. This might not sound absurd or even funny on the surface, but I promise: it’s the minutiae that makes it art.
–Also lol @ the title of the erotic novel (“Open Not the Door”) Candy was reading while trying to masturbate in the bathtub.
–Was Candy signing during choir practice? It looked like she repeated some of her hand and arm gestures during certain words in the verse. Candy knowing ASL would be a strange detail to just drop into a scene for no reason. I’m interested to see how the show will employ it. (Or if I’m just wrong.)