When we first meet the title character in Olive Kitteridge, she considers the revolver in her hands and looks up at the cloudless sky above the woods one last time. The 25-year journey (and the accumulation of mistakes and bad luck therein) that leads the elderly Olive to that moment of despair unfurls in director Lisa Cholodenko’s (The Kids Are All Right) two-night, four-hour HBO miniseries (airing at 9 p.m. on Sunday, November 2, and Monday, November 3).
Olive’s played by Frances McDormand, who optioned Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning novel and, with Cholodenko, has created one of the most captivatingly complicated screen characters in recent memory: a small-town wife, mother, and math teacher with a zealotry for frankness that accelerates her undoing. In possession of an acid tongue that could corrode steel, Olive wears her intelligence like a crown. She even holds up her family’s history of depression to her adoring husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), and resentful son, Christopher (Devin Druid as a teenager and John Gallagher Jr. as an adult), as a badge of superiority: “Happy to have it. Comes with being smart.”
The miniseries allows us to indulge in the unkind pleasures of Olive’s truth-bombs, but it’s also keenly interested in exploring the inevitable results of her callous honesty: her social isolation, her self-importance and self-doubt, and the eventual erosion of her ability to feel compassion. Olive is no simple lovable curmudgeon like the one co-star Bill Murray plays in the current theatrical release St. Vincent. Her tragedy lies not in her imperious mistreatment of others, but in her genuine bafflement when told she’s intolerably cruel, even if her assessments are wholly correct.
Olive wasn’t always so clueless. Cholodenko’s masterful miniseries, told mostly in chronological order with the occasional flashback or -forward, is a fascinating study of the transition from middle to old age, as well as a poignant portrait of hard-to-bridge parent-child relationships. It also paints impressionistic pictures of the kind of New England hamlet where all the smart kids leave and know better than to come back as it changes over a quarter of a century: Chain stores take over; vacationers have to be tolerated. Suddenly it’s no longer fashionable to sew one’s own dress.
But Olive Kitteridge is most powerful when it focuses on the central couple’s mutually admiring, equally wandering-eyed, entirely codependent union. Theirs is the kind of marriage rarely seen on screen — an obviously imperfect match, but a sufficiently functional one nonetheless. The miniseries’ first chapter illustrates how well they work together even while projecting most of their romantic sentiments elsewhere. Henry gives a local depressive (Rosemarie DeWitt) pep talks when she comes in to fill her prescriptions, while Olive visits her at home after school. Meanwhile, Henry nurses a crush on his new, doll-like assistant (Zoe Kazan), whose doe-eyed helplessness makes him feel important, while Olive steals flirty moments with the English teacher at the school (Peter Mullan).
And yet, Olive and Henry’s relationship isn’t without passion, even ardor, at least on his part. Henry buys her greeting cards and flowers just because, and even when she tries to justify throwing them out with the dinner leftovers with explanations like “I already read it” and “you know I don’t like clutter,” she fishes them out of the garbage can and displays it by the kitchen window for his sake. Some years later, he brings her another uxorious greeting card, signed only with a simple “H.” She rewards his spontaneous affectionateness with a deep hug even while wordlessly judging him for his slight effort.
Cholodenko ably blends heartrending drama and black humor, especially when Olive opens her mouth to add her sardonic commentary to the proceedings. (Sometimes she needn’t even say a word; in a delightfully earthy detail, Olive intermittently punctuates a conversation with a burp, especially around those she believes to be putting on airs.) The absolute comic highlight of the miniseries happens to be one of its most devastating scenes, when Olive and Henry can’t help bickering about long-held grudges — which leads to confessions of some potentially marriage-threatening secrets — as they have a gun held to their heads by a robber. Winning an argument for the Kitteridges is graver than a life-or-death situation.
The first installment also boasts a sizable body count, with a pair of violent deaths in the first hour and a couple of possible suicide attempts in the second. There’s no need for a dead blonde to wash ashore in a plastic sheet — ordinary life holds plenty of mysteries and misfortune. “Save us from shotguns and fathers’ suicides,” reads a note at the local bar, quoting the poet John Berryman. Since the narrative skips over months and years, the miniseries occasionally feels lacking in any other momentum than the inexorableness of death, especially in the first half. But the changes in Olive’s relationships with Henry and Christopher reveal just how crucial that overall sense of storytelling over two decades and a half is to where our protagonist ends up — and how she might survive it.
The passage of time isn’t as visible on McDormand’s face as it is in the costumes and sets, but otherwise the Fargo actress is superb: formidable as a mountain and moody as the sea. Her droll one-liners land in the most cutting way possible, and she manages a kind of pugnacious verbal tango with Jenkins, who movingly evinces Henry’s innocence and emotional neediness, as well as his inadequacies as a spouse.
“People are never as helpless as they think they are,” declares Olive at a funeral, partly to reassure a mourner that she’ll survive the death of her loved one, partly so she can be done with comforting that mourner already. Just because she’s self-reliant doesn’t mean Olive can’t use all the help she can get.