While watching Olive Kitteridge, the 2014 four-part HBO miniseries, I kept thinking back to Six Feet Under more than once. Both are HBO, both feature Richard Jenkins, and while SFU has a lot to say about death and dying, OK deals with depression and suicide. Before you quit reading: it is surprisingly upbeat and wise about it. All right, upbeat is probably the wrong word, but it is not as dark and… well, as depressing as you might think. It’s a well-told story about a Maine family, so there is also good reason to think of John Irving’s stories. The series never goes for broke with guns and gore, but skates over thin ice while hinting at the dark waters underneath.
Olive Kitteridge is based on a novel by Elizabeth Strout, unread by me. It stars Frances McDormand in the title role, but is basically an ensemble piece until about the half-mark. Olive is a teacher, married to Henry (Richard Jenkins), a pharmacist, and while he is a fount of goodness and patience, he intuits that his wife loves another man more than him. He is right. He takes on Olive’s vitriolic contempt for being stuck with him with an understanding that makes him either a saint or a coward. Probably both. Olive, meanwhile, sees that Henry’s new shop assistant Denise (Zoe Kazan) means more to him than he himself would admit. She lets it happen, but is not above teasing him for it in front of their son Christopher (Devin Druid and John Gallagher Jr.). They are two different people, caught in the same trap. Their marriage is difficult, and it might become unbearable.
Olive tries to help out many of the troubled kids in her school, for instance Kevin Coulson (John T. Mullen and Cory Michael Smith), whose mother Rachel is depressed and addicted to her pills. It’s a good thing that Henry is her pharmacist. The adult Kevin returns in part two, with a shotgun on the backseat. Olive knows what is going on, and helps him. He also helps her, because Christopher’s wedding is near, and Olive could use someone to talk to. On the other hand, Christopher protests that she is nicer to the other kids than to him. “Because I am your mother,” she snaps back. She is a complex character, this one, but so are most of the others. Christopher will go on blaming his mother for all that has gone wrong with his life; Denise, although a young widow, lets herself be treated by Henry like a child as long as it benefits her. This is a simple story on the surface, but lift a stone, and you will find complexity and torn loyalties.
The latter two hours are all Olive and her isolated life. It’s where suicide is no longer such a threat but an exit sign. After you’ve weathered marriage, kids, your kids’ marriage and divorce, your grandkids – what is there? The air, or maybe the ice, is getting thinner because you are on your own, and there might not be too much left of yourself. Enter Jack Kennison, played by Bill Murray. He has fallen off a park bench and can’t get back up on his own. This is how their first conversation takes place. Later, Jack tells her things she needs to hear, but they are also the very last things she wants to hear. Both have complaints about their kids, but it is no longer their prime concern.
There are two or three bad moments. In part three, there is a hospital stick-up that is much too dumb for the rest of the story, but the screenplay picks up immediately afterwards and deals with the situation with its usual dry wit. The grown-up Christopher turns into an Oedipal basket case with a stereotypical family. The end comes all too sudden, at the beginning of what could become another interesting conversation. And on the whole, the series needs a whole lot more donuts than the intro promises. Kudos to some of the performances: Peter Mullan plays a fellow teacher and Olive’s secret love, with his usual retentiveness and gruffness; Cory Michael Smith plays the adult Kevin with the right kind of insight into his own despair. And there is a criminally underused Ann Down in here. If you want to know what Richard Jenkins is capable of, watch The Visitor, or episode 6 from the first season of Six Feet Under, called The Room.
And let’s face it, people: Frances McDormand is one of the best actors ever. She plays Olive over a span of 25 years, and although she is tough and sometimes unforgiving, you are fascinated by her, whether you understand her or not. There are lines in the screenplay that only McDormand can deliver with the flat-out realness they need: “I’m waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself.” It’s a line that punches you in the gut, especially when McDormand delivers it. Olive’s version of I love you is this: “You were born kind. You grew up kind. And then you married a beast and loved her.” Maybe Olive, in the end, grows tired of the person she is, too.