Why can’t chronic depression always be this much fun?
That is what I wondered during Olive Kitteridge, the new TV miniseries that premiered last week on HBO.
Four hours in length, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout, the film covers 25 years in the life of a depressed and difficult woman whose company, at first blush, would seem to be unbearable. Yet by the end—long before the end, actually—Olive Kitteridge manages, by some miracle, to make us not only listen to its protagonist, but to understand her, respect her and maybe even like her.
You wouldn’t expect such a thing to be possible, given the evidence. Here, after all, is a wife who is curt with her sensitive husband, a mother who is abusive (verbally and physically) to her son, a teacher who is severe with her students, and a member of an old-fashioned Maine community who is cold, bitter and vindictive toward nearly everyone in town. How could this woman ever be made sympathetic?
The explanation might simply be that she is played by Frances McDormand, long one of America’s finest actresses, who will almost surely earn her first Emmy Award for what she does here. Indeed, we can probably agree that a performer of McDormand’s caliber could make almost any character endearing, seemingly without trying.
Except that Olive Kitteridge, the book, won the Pulitzer Prize and wide critical acclaim long before McDormand was involved, so there is evidently more to this character than McDormand’s inherently appealing disposition.
Having twice seen the miniseries but not yet read the book, I would posit that Olive Kitteridge is as great as critics say it is because Olive herself possesses two of the most essential traits to any worthwhile character: Honesty and humor. They seem like fairly basic personality requirements, until you realize how very few people—in fiction and in real life—actually possess them. For Olive, they comprise her very essence and serve complementary functions: She is funny because she is so unsparing.
As Exhibit A, I offer her charming chance encounter, late into the film, with a whimsical local played by Bill Murray. She finds him sprawled on his side near a park bench, having spontaneously passed out and, after regaining consciousness, opted to just stay put. They begin to chat, and soon discover they’ve each recently suffered a great personal loss, from which neither intends to recover. Murray challenges her, “Give me a reason to get up in the morning.” Olive retorts, “Don’t have a clue. I’m waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself.”
This is no idle quip. Soon enough her beloved dachshund does indeed kick the bucket and Olive takes to the woods with a blanket, a radio and a revolver. In a way, the whole story had been leading up to this, and we all knew it was coming. Olive had been clinically depressed practically since birth—an affliction inherited from her father and passed down to her son—and by the time the Murray character enters the picture, she is resigned to the fact that her life will end by her own hand. It’s nothing that anyone can do anything about; as she says about so much else, “It’s just a fact.”
And yet, when she discloses her pending suicide to a disinterested Murray, it comes across as a punch line. Knowing full well that she is being perfectly serious, he (and we) cannot help but laugh at her unvarnished candor. (Along with the grim irony that she values her dog’s life more than her own.) Here is a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and the hell with anyone who might stand in her way.
Indeed, Olive is nothing if not supremely self-confident, and stubborn as all heck. In marked contrast to her husband, Henry—the sweetest and most sympathetic man in town—Olive has no patience for idle niceties or phoniness of any kind. She deals only in directness and absolutely cannot stand being patronized, condescended to or, for that matter, treated with undue kindness or compassion, however well-meaning it might be.
What she respects are honesty and intelligence. She invariably judges others’ worth as a function of how smart they appear, with the few people she actually likes being the brightest of all. (Conversely, she has a way of cutting down former students by reminding them of their poor grades in math class.)
What is more, the folks with whom she forms real emotional bonds—this for a woman otherwise incapable of feeling anything for anybody—are those who share her chronic propensity for the blues.
Perhaps her most worthwhile conversation in the whole film is with a former student of hers, Kevin, now in his mid-20s, with whom she compares notes about their families’ histories with depression. Kevin’s mother shot herself when he was still quite young—as did Olive’s father—and he now exhibits certain warning signs of following her lead—not least the shotgun half-buried in the back seat of his car.
Olive, sensing an impending tragedy as perhaps no one else does, engages Kevin’s intellect rather than talking down to him or treating him like damaged goods. She mentions how hurt her mother was that her father didn’t leave a suicide note. To this, Kevin chimes in that his mother mailed him a letter. “Did it help?” Olive asks. “She left instructions on how to use the washing machine,” he replies, “And to watch out for the purple snakes in the dryer.” They both smile. Later that evening, Olive coaxes Kevin to cast his shotgun into the sea, having accepted Olive’s implicit message that killing himself would be a highly regrettable decision.
The question, then, is why can’t Olive follow her own advice? Why is she such a hypocrite when it comes to suicide? If Kevin’s life is worth saving, why isn’t hers?
One answer to this—as Robin Williams demonstrated this past August—is that depression is inherently irrational, and suicide is rarely performed by someone is his or her right mind.
Olive, for her part, says early on that she would rather be depressed and smart than happy and dumb. But of course this is a false dichotomy she invents to justify her stubborn refusal to seek outside help. She isn’t interested in getting better: She simply accepts depression as her genetically-acquired fate, and behaves accordingly. We know today that this doesn’t have to be, and one unspoken message of the series is how many people have needlessly died through some combination of obstinacy and ignorance.
Not that Olive’s attitude toward her condition isn’t understandable, at least from her point of view. As we were also reminded by Robin Williams’ untimely demise—and those of innumerable entertainers before him—many who struggle with the blues are nonetheless highly functional most of the time. More often than not, depressed people are able to keep their mental demons at bay and convince the world that everything is just fine, largely by convincing themselves of the same thing.
In a way, the case of Olive Kitteridge is exactly the reverse: She prides herself on having no illusions whatsoever, and has no tolerance for people who behave with even a whiff of insincerity or condescension. (“I know when I’m being handled,” she tells her son as he tries to calm her down.) For her, depression is something to be acknowledged rather than suppressed. It’s the core of her identity, and by owning it, she considers herself stronger and better than if she surrendered to the temptation to consult a therapist and lighten up.
But it’s really all an act. In truth, she is every bit as vulnerable and insecure as the “dopes” she spends her life ridiculing. She is a lost soul silently crying out for help, even as she publicly maintains that she likes herself just the way she is.
This contradiction is, finally, what makes this ostensibly unappealing character so compelling and so companionable. Olive is a person who earns our sympathy by denying that she wants it. Who sacrifices her happiness to maintain her dignity, never quite realizing that it is possible to have both.