You ever have one of those days? You’ve got to get the kids to their swimming lessons, but only after their Bible pageant at Sunday school. They’ve been bugging you to go see the new Star Wars movie too, so that has to go on the schedule. You murder your best friend with an axe. Father’s Day is coming up, so it’s off to Target to pick up a card. Busy, busy, busy!
That’s the based-on-a-true-story plot of Candy, Hulu’s new true-crime drama. And as axe murders go, this one comes with a heck of a pedigree. Candy is co-created by Nick Antosca (Channel Zero, The Act, Brand New Cherry Flavor) and showrunner Robin Veith, a collaborator of Antosca’s on The Act who was also one of the aces in the Mad Men writers’ room. Unusually, Hulu is rolling out all five episodes of the limited series this week, one episode per day. Based on the premiere (“Friday the 13th”), it’s going to be a deliciously dark week.
Jessica Biel stars as the title character, a Texas homemaker and Bible school teacher who spends her days busily running errands, doing chores, and ferrying her kids around from activity to activity. On this particular day in the summer of 1980, she has to pay a visit to her friend Betty (Melanie Lynskey), whose older daughter has been staying at Candy’s house for a couple of days to play with the other kids and go see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater, in order to pick up the little girl’s swimsuit. Even if on-screen text hadn’t identified this as “the day [Betty] died,” we’d know it from the way Candy returns from her friend’s house: soaking wet, large-framed glasses off, frantically running through her house nude in order to whisk the clothes she was wearing into the wash. (She also vomits when one of the kids recounts the bit in Empire where Darth Vader chops off Luke’s hand.)
But she recovers her poise quickly enough to resume the day’s activities, supplemented with a little story of how she visited Betty, got to talking, lost track of time, went to Target to shop, noticed her watch had stopped, and ran back to the church to be with the kids. She tells the story so often that her husband Pat (Timothy Simons) notes that she’s told it to him twice. I’m not sure “I went to Target but saw my watch had stopped” counts as an alibi, however. (This isn’t exactly crime-of-the-century territory.)
Writer/showrunner Robin Veith and director Michael Uppendahl play some of the material for laughs; the contrast between Candy’s chipper demeanor and the horror we know she has wrought is the stuff of black comedy for sure. But they also know how to build up a sense of dread. The big suburban homes in which the characters live are shot to look positively cavernous, with huge high ceilings and dark recesses. Shots of Betty’s house, its door shut, exist simply to remind you there’s a body inside. A review of The Shining, another story of axe murder, is on the front page of the day’s newspaper. And throughout the episode, Betty’s baby cries—first when Betty is around to take care of her, then again (and again, and again) when she’s not. The compulsion to reach out and take care of the poor little girl is nearly overwhelming. (It’s a good trick to make the audience deeply uncomfortable, reminiscent of an almost unbearable sequence of a similar nature in the Jonathan Glazer horror film Under the Skin, which I assure you is high praise indeed.)
The way the show depicts, or rather doesn’t depict, the crime is compelling as well. We don’t see it happen, only its aftermath; we don’t see the body, only the reactions of the trio of neighbors who go into the house at Betty’s husband’s request and find the crime scene. The regular use of time stamps let us know about when the killing occurred, but that’s it; the dynamics of the moment, the act of killing, even the motive are all left unseen for the moment. It’s like the universe blinked and suddenly someone who was there simply wasn’t anymore. (This is a true story and the information is all out there, but the show is wisely playing it coy for now.)
Biel and Lynskey make for an interesting contrast as Candy and Betty respectively. Candy is all high energy, constant movement, big smiles, a curly head of hair that would put Little Orphan Annie to shame. Betty, by contrast, is trapped alone in her home with a crying baby whom she alternately cares for and ignores, listlessly sitting around or vacuuming the carpet. Candy feels like a dynamo, Betty feels like a prisoner.
Perhaps the episode’s biggest revelation is Pablo Schreiber, playing Betty’s husband Allan. From the moment his first phone call home goes unanswered, he plays Allan as a man whose personality, whose life force, is slowly ebbing away, replaced by dread. His voice gets quieter. He loses his appetite. He abandons dinner plans. He sits waiting motionless for a call back. He leans agains the wall. He lies on the bed. When he finally calls Candy to give her the bad news (“She’s been shot.” “…Shot?” Candy replies, confused.) it’s like he’s calling her from under a two-ton pile of grief and guilt. His emotional exhaustion is total, and it’s grimly fascinating to watch it play out.
That’s not a bad way to describe the whole episode, actually. Candy looks like a bad dream, an earth-toned nightmare, with a title character who seems sweet enough, until your teeth rot away.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.