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Here’s why you need to watch HBO’s new miniseries Olive Kitteridge tonight

HBO's great new miniseries Olive Kitteridge follows the lives of small town citizens in Maine.
HBO's great new miniseries Olive Kitteridge follows the lives of small town citizens in Maine.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Olive Kitteridge says awful things to people, and she saves the most awful things for the people she loves. She treats her husband poorly, and she drives her only son away. She can't seem to make friends, and forget about bonding with the family of the woman her son marries. She, in so many stories, would be the monster, the unfeeling figure who ruined so many lives.

But the HBO miniseries debuting tonight is called Olive Kitteridge, based on the book of the same name. She's played by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, too, so you know it's going to be good. Olive is the protagonist of this story, if not quite the hero. Its unflinching willingness to watch Olive burn everything to the ground around her makes the miniseries one of the best things to air on television this year.

It might seem puzzling that the series is able to find sympathy for this woman, but it's all right there in the title. All of those insults and barbs, all of those terrible things Olive says to people — she's really saying them about herself.

Olive Kitteridge

Frances McDormand does some of the best work of her career as the title character. (HBO)

Rage turned inward

"Everything you say is about you," writes TV writer Julie Bush in this short blog post, one of the smartest things I've ever read about creative writing. She means that when we make accusations to other people we love — accusations rooted in raw emotion — what we're often doing is simply talking about our own failings, our own fears about the deeply hurt, deeply needy people we are at our cores.

This is not universally true, of course — though I suspect it's often more true than we'd like to admit. But it does tend to make for good fiction. Characters who are deluded about themselves, or even actively lying to themselves, are often the most interesting characters of all.

Olive thinks she's being honest with herself. She'll gladly admit to her young son that depression runs in the family, and that's why she can be so moody. And she'll spit bile at her husband under the guise of telling him the truth, too. But she's engaged in so much self-deception she sometimes can't see through it. She slings so much pain at others, because she wishes she were able to better articulate her own pain. Depression, the saying goes, is rage turned inwards. Olive has so much that it keeps bubbling over.

The miniseries gains much of its power from the way that McDormand isn't always at the center of the story. But she's always present, so when things turn to focus on her exclusively, we know so much about who she is and what drives her that her attempts to deflect from the real harm she's done to others fall by the wayside. We see her, ultimately, perhaps more honestly than she sees herself.

But that doesn't mean she becomes someone we hate or even dislike. No, in the hands of McDormand, director Lisa Cholodenko (best known for The Kids Are All Right), and screenwriter Jane Anderson, Olive becomes someone vital and necessary — a beautifully sketched portrait of the kind of woman who is too easy to write off elsewhere in pop culture. She is older. She is bitter. She is sometimes terrible. But she is also a survivor, and in that, there is something to admire.

Olive Kitteridge

Rosemarie DeWitt plays a woman struggling with a debilitating mental illness. (HBO)

The isolation of small towns

Olive Kitteridge is also a small-town story. Anderson has taken Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel/short-story collection and focused in on particular elements, to be sure, but she's kept some of Strout's pleasing sprawl nonetheless. Set in a fictional small town in Maine, the series turns that setting almost into an externalization of who Olive is.

The town is filled with bawdy humor, a strange obsession with death, suicide attempts, and a deep stubbornness. As the rest of the world marches forward, the town seems trapped in an eternal 1982. Modern accouterments appear but rarely dominate. It's appropriate for the kind of place Olive would live.

The miniseries also understands the acute, lonely isolation of a small town, the sheer terror that accompanies the notion that everybody might know your business. One minor character, played by the terrific Rosemarie DeWitt, struggles with an all-encompassing mental illness that often leaves her unable to leave her home. In some ways, the notion that everybody around her knows what she's struggling with is even worse than if she were simply another anonymous soul in the city. What makes Olive this story's protagonist is that she's one of the few to realize how many of her fellow citizens are bound up with her in this fight to survive the mind turning against the body.

In some ways, small town stories are played out. But there's little quirkiness or romance to Olive Kitteridge's portrayals of this space. The town is a tiny, seething ball of recriminations and resentments. There are the usual affairs and plot twists, yes, but they exist less as ways to move the plot forward and more as examples of characters quietly longing for a life they will never lead, one where they might be happier or more fulfilled or just different people.

Cholodenko's work is sparing, often isolating single characters in the frame, engulfed by space that could swallow them whole. She uses close-ups and moments of connection with a kind of meticulous patience, the better to make sure they truly count. She and Anderson have structured the series so that each of its four hours tells a different, separate story, but they've also teased it out in such a way that the whole thing turns into a roundabout character study of Olive herself, something conveyed beautifully in the masterful final half-hour.

Olive Kitteridge

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins sketch a wonderful portrayal of a long marriage. (HBO)

Persistence of vision

Of course, it helps that they have such a great cast to work with. McDormand could have turned Olive into a caricature, but she underplays almost everything about her, making her an all-too-human figure, the dreadfully unpleasant person in your life you nonetheless feel a fierce loyalty to.

As Olive's husband, Henry, Richard Jenkins instantly keys the audience in to just what this kind-hearted man sees in a woman who can be so hard on him. The relationship etched between the two actors is a phenomenal portrayal of just how difficult it can be to understand anybody's relationship from the outside, how easy it is to judge and come up wanting.

The supporting players are no less successful. John Gallagher, Jr., adds to an increasingly nuanced career with a frustrated take on Olive's son in adulthood, while Zoe Kazan plays a very particular type of isolated soul, yearning for connection, in the series' early hours. DeWitt is fantastic, and Bill Murray himself turns up at the very end to give the whole series a kind of benediction and statement of purpose.

That statement of purpose, ultimately, is as much about persistence as anything else. The human condition is one of struggling against all of the things inside of us that make us feel lesser or weaker. We play them close to our vest, or we, like Olive, shoot them back out into the world, hoping no one will notice how much of our true face we're showing.

But that struggle is long, so long, and so, so tiresome. As the series heads toward its waning moments, one character remarks to another that he has "soul pain," yet his body keeps "rattling" on. And that's the condition so many of the characters find themselves in. They — we — bound to this planet by gravity, bound to others by obligation, but looking for the next ticket out and never quite finding it.

The quality of that persistence, of continuing to enter the struggle day after day, even if it hurts some days more than others, is what Olive Kitteridge admires most about its characters, more than anything else. Olive could give up on so many things. She could give up on her marriage or her son. She could give up on her friends or fellow townspeople. She could give up on her dog or her students or the kids in her town or the town itself. She could give up on her life.

But she doesn't. And that makes her not just the hero of this story, but the kind of hero we need more of in fiction, the kind who understands that, sometimes, just to live is the greatest battle of them all.

Olive Kitteridge debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern. Part two airs Monday night at the same time.