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HBO's 'Olive Kitteridge' May Be The Best Depiction Of Marriage On TV

Frances McDormand, left, stars with Richard Jenkins, right and Devin McKenzie Druid in HBO's <em>Olive Kitteridge</em>.
Jojo Whilden
Frances McDormand, left, stars with Richard Jenkins, right and Devin McKenzie Druid in HBO's Olive Kitteridge.

Marriages, especially long ones, are among the most complex and misunderstood relationships regularly depicted on television.

On the small screen, marriages are usually static things; they are good or bad and continue along in whatever way is needed to further the week's plotlines, from Mike and Carol Brady's upbeat union to Walt and Skyler White's perpetually doomed partnership. But marriage veterans know it's often a complicated, evolving thing, as two people negotiate a continued relationship even as time and circumstance transform them into different people.

That's the 25-year journey at the heart of HBO's book-to-TV miniseries masterpiece, Olive Kitteridge, which concludes tonight. The first two hours, aired Sunday, seem to document the most quietly troubled marriage in Maine — as Frances McDormand's no-nonsense middle school math teacher Olive tortures almost everyone in her life with a blunt, unsparing attitude.

No one gets it worse than Olive's long-suffering husband Henry, played with an uneasy affability by Richard Jenkins. Henry is the town's pharmacist, known as a caring soul and pretty much the opposite of his sharp-tongued wife. He's also quick to cover tension with a tight smile and a nice word, even when it's just an awkwardly transparent attempt to temper Olive's sharper actions.

In Sunday's episodes, we saw both of them chafe at the other's shortcomings; Olive was drawn to a more dashing, iconoclastic teacher at her school, while Henry doted on a young employee at his pharmacy who expressed admiration for him in a way Olive never would. But circumstances kept both of them from leaving the marriage which had come to define their lives so deeply.

Looming in the background is the effect of depression and mental illness: Viewers learned Sunday that Olive's father committed suicide, leaving her convinced depression and mental illness run in her family (she doesn't actually see a therapist, of course). Perhaps this explains her fondness for a young woman who suffers from delusions and suicidal impulses, along with the woman's son — who returns to his hometown as an adult, planning to kill himself.

In tonight's conclusion, Olive and Henry settle into their lives together, even as events test their connection. Caught inside a building during an armed robbery, they both reveal their true feelings in a frenzied rush of recrimination and frustration.

Bill Murray makes an unexpectedly perfect cameo in HBO's <em>Olive Kitteridge</em>.
Jojo Whilden / HBO
Bill Murray makes an unexpectedly perfect cameo in HBO's Olive Kitteridge.

But these are also the hours which give even more dimension to Olive. Tonight, we learn to see her as more than just a needlessly cruel wife and mother, even as she begins to discover her own mistakes. McDormand's performance is note-perfect and fearless, insisting on showing every weathered line on her face, every patch of blotchy skin and every moment Olive shrinks from emotional intimacy or connection.

Olive is a woman who has kept the world at bay for decades with a tart attitude, a ferocious focus on her garden and cooking and an insistence on avoiding others. In tonight's hours, we learn how much that approach has cost those closest to her, and we get an unexpected, amazing cameo from Bill Murray besides.

As some critics have noted, this is yet another HBO miniseries focused on an entirely white cast. And there remains something troubling about the fact that a so-called "quality TV" cable show can expect every viewer to find commonality with a middle-aged white couple in Maine, while HBO these days rarely asks for the same kind of leap involving a black, Latino or Asian family.

Still, Olive Kitteridge tells a poignant, slow-burn story that is too long for a movie theater and too subtle for a typical TV series — the kind of creative storytelling outlets like HBO were made to showcase. And in four hours, it manages something amazing.

It shows how time and tragedy can bring you full circle in a marriage, leading you from love to hatred, despair and back to love again. If you're lucky enough to survive it all.

The final two hours of Olive Kitteridge air at 9 p.m. EST Monday, Nov. 3, on HBO.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.