Olive Kitteredge is a one-off HBO mini-series, four installments and over and done. No fuss no bothuh, about which moah below.
It is adapted from the book of the same name by Elizabeth Strout which I have not read but was passed between the members of my wife’s book club and duly noted there. The book has an unusual structure for a novel: 13 short stories with a narrative thread running between them. Unusual for a novel, perhaps, but in an interesting way the book is set up like so much television nowadays. Shows like The Good Wife are structured explicitly in this fashion, with a self-contained story in each episode unfolding against a backdrop of a longer narrative.
But both book and mini-series are unusual in another way: no one pays much attention to New England any more, at least the Yankee side of it. So fuhst some thoughts on the region, then Olive.
New England was by necessity the setting for early American fiction, and Boston was of course the Athens of America for a time, at least in its own mind. But the slow fade of the Yankee elite eventually doomed what was considered distinctive about the region.
Take John P. Marquand. He was a really big deal in the 1930s but by then he was chronicling an aristocracy that was already fading. The Yankee elite was within the historical memory of his readers, and they were fascinated to see him take it down. But you can only write those satires so long since after a time historical memory recedes and people no longer care. So with the fading of aristocracy came the fading of interest. Marquand graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1938. But no one much thinks about him nowadays, or his subjects.
Of course small town New England never went away. But it is a pretty placid place, unless you want to stir up interest under the covers. Peyton Place treated small town New Hampshire this way in the 1950s. But that was pretty rare.
Even All That Heaven Allows
and its remake Far From Heaven
have all that glorious foliage, Sirk style, but nonetheless evidence a drift to New York, and real Yankees are nowhere to be found. They were both set in suburban Connecticut, which is after all more New York than New England.
By the sixties, well after the passing of the Yankee elite, Marquand’s gentle satire hardened into crusty stereotypes and the New York drift continued. In The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming it is clear that the island “invaded” by the Russians was already being colonized by New Yorkers: Carl Reiner’s “Walt Whitaker” is a New York playwright on vacation. There are precious few real Yankees on the island, with the most noteworthy being the codger in this clip from the film, an old geezer who stands in for his people: cranky, unemotional, hahd of hearin’. And on the way out.
More recently, New England has been the setting of choice if certain conditions obtain:
if the subject is boarding schools (Dead Poets Society, Emperor’s Club, School Ties)
if it’s about bad Irish gansters from Southie (too many films to count)
if it is a Farrelly brothers film set in Rhode Island
if it is a historical drama requiring a New England setting
or if it set in Maine and based on a Steven King novel.
But for Yankees–for real Yankees–the pickens have been pretty slim. So Olive Kitteredge is that rare thing nowadays: a work that treats Yankee culture with a fair amount of honesty, adjusting for the inevitable reliance on stereotypes and fairly bad Downeast accents compared with the real thing.
I had a work colleague years back who grew up north–make that ‘noth’–of Boston, in New Hampshire. When I would comment with affection about what I observed to be the flinty honesty of people in his state he more or less agreed but pointed out that if someone were to drop dead in the street no one would much cayuh. Something like that happens in the very first scene of the movie, and I concluded I ought to take the film’s bona fides somewhat seriously.
The structure sets up a series of short stories that unfold over most of the adult life of the laconic and plain spoken (sometimes brutally so) Olive. Olive (Frances McDormand) plays a central role in the stories but not always the central role. In the first, center stage is taken by her long-suffering husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), the town pharmacist. Henry is as kind as Olive can be cruel. But as is often (always?) the case with marriage all is not exactly what it seems.
Olive’s hard-heartedness, while never portrayed as wholly positive, is shown to have an origin in flinty integrity as well as emotional pain. And Henry’s kindness–well, let’s just say it has served Henry quite well in terms of meeting his own emotional needs. The one exception to the success Henry has with his kindness thing is of course Olive, who sees right through his manipulative side and has little truck with it.
Indeed, Henry’s nice side is shown as being fully capable of generating its own monsters. Olive, while no doubt a piece of work even before she met Henry, may in fact owe some of her monstrous side to the effects of living with kind Henry–he may be in part responsible for her hard side, and in keeping her in a hard place. You are left to wonder why Henry would have chosen Olive in the first instance, and what he gets emotionally out of the continued exchange with her, beyond habit and fear of being on his own.
Eric Deggans at NPR concludes from this that Olive Kitteredge may be “the best depiction of marriage on television.” I think that’s right. Mind you, it is not at all the same thing as, say, American Beauty. That work, like many others, is intent on ripping the lid off the hypocrisy of suburban life and exposing the rot underneath but in truth Beauty is one-dimensional pabulum, and preachy and didactic to boot. Not so Olive. Olive has a good deal of the slippery, mercurial quality of the Linklater Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight movies, as I wrote here. Now it’s him now its her. Now you see it now you don’t.
The subject matter is rather dark, including a fair amount of suicide, mental illness and death, both human and pet. Since I chuckled and laughed throughout you might assume it is a black comedy. But I didn’t really take it in as such. In a black comedy like Harold and Maude or The Loved One, you are pushed pretty hard into that space between tragedy and laughs–it is clearly the intention of the narrative to jar. Here, in true Yankee fashion, what happens is just what happens. And sometimes it’s just funny is all. A-yuh.
Bonus feature: Yankee Magazine sponsored a contest for the best example of Yankee parsimony. Winners here. But here is the description of the first prize winner:
The some-expenses-paid trip to New Hampshire for the annual road kill pelt auction goes (appropriately) to William L. Stephenson of Decatur, Georgia, for a tale about a recycled rodent:
Annie Cutter, my wife’s grandmother, told an instructive tale of New England parsimony. While attending a church circle meeting near her home in Dracut, Massachusetts, she saw a lady near her strike her knees sharply with both hands. She squeezed her hands together firmly. After a few moments she reached discreetly under her dress and removed a dead mouse. She viewed it thoughtfully for a moment, then retrieved a used napkin from her plate and wrapped the mouse in it saying, “I’ll take that home for my cat.”
Olive would understand.