What do you do with a television protagonist like Olive Kitteridge? HBO’s eponymous miniseries is a force to watch, and that’s mostly because of Olive, who is one of the most interesting and difficult characters on television. Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s so-called un-adaptable novel of the same name, the four episodes of “Olive Kitteridge” follow Olive and her husband Henry through 25 years against the austere backdrop of fictional New England town of Crosby. Like “Boyhood,” the time span is handled elegantly; director Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids are All Right”) selects discrete moments rather than attempting to check off the major life events. The miniseries format is also well-suited: the delicacy of its character study would be eroded by a standard episode run and its four hours allow more nuance than a movie’s length would.
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The show’s psychological heft is wielded by Francis McDormand (“Fargo”) as the thorny Olive Kitteridge. Beneath the seemingly impenetrable façade of her character, McDormand furnishes the psychic interior of Olive with meticulous facial expressions and line delivery. The strong cast also includes Richard Jenkins (“Six Feet Under”) as Henry and a late-in-life love interest by Bill Murray (“Groundhog Day”), who both deliver captivating performances.
The show introduces Olive as barbed Maine schoolteacher who has a knack for pissing people off — at a family dinner, she calls her son Christopher’s (Devin Druid, “Louie” & John Gallagher Jr., “Jonah Hex”) homework “lazy, slapdash crap,” before turning to Henry to say “Jim O’Casey understands your son’s abilities more than you do.” What it makes it cruel isn’t Olive’s maliciousness (she has none) but the careless quality of her barbs — which stick — because more often than not, they’re true.
For all her abuse, Henry is the rose to Olive’s thorn, even if his unfailing deference and kindness is perpetually cloying to her. While their marriage miraculously remains one of steadfast devotion, it isn’t placid. Early on, Olive is emotionally involved with a fellow teacher with her same acerbic tongue (Peter Mullan, “Trainspotting”), and Henry lusts after a young employee in his pharmacy played by Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”). Years later, Olive will bitterly snap at his soft spot for helpless “mice” (her catch-all term for dull, anodyne women) and he will taunt her of her not quite dalliance. Regardless, their marriage is a contractual and voluntary lifetime bond, for better or for worse, and “Olive Kitteridge” grapples with the implications of that dynamic. As Olive marvels to Henry, “You married a beast and loved her.”
Olive isn’t a beast, but she is a wholly different type of woman — or person. She constantly misses social cues, if not outright ignores them. Olive burps without apology, noisily eats peanuts during Christopher’s wedding and doesn’t see the point of keeping a Valentine’s Day card after she reads it. If the first episode emphasizes Olive’s many alienating flaws, the other three illuminate the isolation of being someone like Olive.
One of the most compelling aspects of Olive’s personality is how despite her failings as a mother, she has an intuitive kindness for other alienated sons, like a student of hers with a bipolar mother who she saves years later from a suicide attempt. During a scene where she’s held hostage, Olive sees the acne-ridden face of her captor and maternally reminds him not to pick his scars. It seems the parentless and the clinically lost strike a personal nerve for Olive, whose own dark childhood is hinted at.
As the years unfold, intergenerational fate becomes a theme: is Olive’s depression a genetic curse or was it hammered into her by her own flawed parents as she does to Christopher? Mental illness is not the overt focus of the series, but its shadow looms. After all, there is something wrong about Olive to the therapeutically trained eye of the modern viewer. She is caustic and harsh to those she loves — today we would recognize that irritability as symptom of faulty neurological wiring; there would SSRIs or cognitive behavioral therapy. But in Olive’s world, mental illness is endured. It’s something of a catharsis for the viewer to see Christopher later embrace therapy and medication. The series doesn’t deliver Olive an artificial happiness via deus es machina; it shows a woman changing, and also not changing quite enough — this is what makes “Olive Kitteridge” so heartrending.
Both uncomfortably familiar and strange, Olive has a knack for getting under the viewer’s skin. Usually the adjectives “difficult” and “interesting” connote a whole knot of gendered behavior that the female protagonist has not conformed to. Indeed, even as a proclaimed feminist, it’s challenging to tease out the exact reasons Olive Kitteridge simultaneously jars and interests me. And this is exactly why the complex, knotty “Olive Kitteridge” is such a welcome presence on TV.