Olive Kitteridge Review: One might argue that a mini-series about a woman who has lived with depression all her life isn’t exactly the best kind of recommendation in the times we’re in. I’ll take that one and yet want people to discover this gem of a show starring Frances McDormand in the lead. Based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, this HBO show garnered many accolades on its release in 2014. A heads up – it’s not a crash course in understanding depression. So do not enter wanting to learn more about the condition or medical implications. However, what you can expect is the most brutally honest portrayal of marriage, parenthood & loneliness.

The frame opens with an old Olive Kitteridge (McDormand) walking in the woods with a transistor radio, a “to whom it may concern” note & a handgun. The story then shifts to 25 years ago, and we meet her family – her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) & son Chris (John Gallagher Jr.). He gives her a Valentine’s Day card and she doesn’t care as much for a heartfelt thank you. You immediately sense everything isn’t hunky-dory in the marriage. What’s more saddening though is that you eventually accept this portrayal as one grounded in reality.

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Olive, who has dealt with the tragedy of her father’s suicide early on in her life, is admittedly aware of her family’s history of mental health and has also pinned it upon her own self. She isn’t seen to be taking any medication. Ironically, her husband Henry is a pharmacist who jumps at the cause of helping anyone in need. She can’t stand this goodness. And in all fairness, he does seem to be bordering on infidelity when he goes out of the way to tend to Denise (Zoe Kazan), a recently widowed employee at his store. Henry is so drawn to her animated naivety; one isn’t entirely sure this affection is fatherly. There’s also the angle involving Olive’s colleague cum lover Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan). Marriage isn’t easy. And amidst all of this, there are moments to show that beneath all the loathing, there is genuine love between Olive & Henry. It’s a tricky equation & the result is the collateral damage that becomes of their son, Chris.

Frances McDormand, left, stars with Richard Jenkins, right and Devin McKenzie Druid in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge.

The troubled relationship between Olive & Chris becomes the focus of the second half of the series. Her need to tend to broken souls like herself has irked Chris since childhood – be it her colleague Jim or his own classmate, Kevin. To the outsider, Olive & Henry are just another married couple. However, it’s Chris who has grown up through this ticking time bomb of a relationship. It’s this understanding of his parents’ marriage that influences his own decisions as an adult. There are some difficult conversations between the mother & son, as the latter blames her for his own failed marriage.

In that sense, Olive Kitteridge becomes a character study of these people & their suppressed emotions. The atmospherics of the small town of Maine in New England only add to this grimness. The banality of the everyday lives of this family is nicely captured through the countryside life.

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It’s a challenge to pull off a depressed character without making it depressing, but at the hands of a veteran like McDormand, the performance is nothing short of perfection. Olive Kitteridge feels like the distant cousin of McDormand’s Academy award-winning act as Mildred Hayes from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri delivering similar tones of misanthropy & stoicism. Here too, Kitteridge is convinced way too early in her life that the world is rotten & there’s no salvation to be achieved. The constant hopelessness on her face is deeply affecting. The other achievement of the mini-series is in its ability to make us feel for every character. Richard Jenkins as Henry, the literal better half stuck in a lifeless marriage is endearing. And John Gallagher Jr., first as the product of this lifeless marriage, and later a man grappling with the inherited brokenness hits the right notes.

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The four-part miniseries, summed up in one word is about repression, more than depression. It’s about the things people leave unsaid, the building up of frustration & the resentments they carry forward all their lives as a result. It’s a deeply moving portrayal of human emotions & their fragility. By the end, one is convinced of the gun & handwritten note situation Kitteridge finds herself in right at the beginning of the show. The question of how the most ordinary, predictable life possible could push a woman towards this possible end; is for the viewer to ponder upon. This show isn’t one to be binged; it needs to be absorbed over time.

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