By Todd VanDerWerff
Growing up fundamentalist is a tricky balancing act, as the fundamentalist teenager constantly dances between new and potent urges (to have sex or to rebel against parents) and the way of life he or she has been taught, since childhood, is the one true way to eternal life. Try though the teen might, the dance can only end in one of the two camps. It's hard to stand in both. Either you give in to temptation and find yourself realizing there's more in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of, or you give in to temptation and find yourself crippled with guilt, racing back to the comfort of what you have known your whole life.
In one of this season of Big Love's longest-simmering plotlines, Ben Henrickson (Douglas Smith, turning in his finest performance yet) is finally forced to choose between his way of life and his sexual relationship with his girlfriend, Brynn (Sarah Jones). This season of Big Love has been particularly skillful at illuminating the conflicts between creed and self (especially in the case of the Henrickson wives and teens), and the season's eighth episode, "Kingdom Come," written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Daniel Attias, turns this overriding theme into a character-specific plotline as Ben struggles to find a way to reconcile both sides of his life.
If Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, almost scary when angered by his teenagers) has seemed blithely unaware of the way his plural marriage has hurt his first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, giving her best performance since the season premiere), he's completely oblivious when it comes to the way this life has affected his teenagers, who are still struggling to find some form of moral purchase in the world. His daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) has already received a lecture from Barb on why she shouldn't join a life of polygamy and joined a post-Mormon support group. When she and her boyfriend were threatened by Juniper Creek goon Alby Grant (Matt Ross), she didn't even bother to report it to Bill, perhaps because the whole incident didn't strike her as incredibly odd. Ben, meanwhile, has tried and tried to find a way to stop sleeping with Brynn, but it just feels too good. When he goes to his old pastor for guidance, the pastor comes to his house and nearly exposes the whole family (simply from Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) being in the wrong place at the wrong time). From there, Barb and Bill grill their son on why, exactly, the pastor felt they should talk with Ben.
Tearfully, Ben confesses to being a "deviant" and explains the whole situation to his father, who tries to respond with love at first, but later finds that drowned out by anger (even lashing out at Sarah, who knew of Ben and Brynn's coupling, but didn't tell anyone). He grounds Ben until further notice and stalks off. But when Ben comes to his parents later, it's to tell them that he has asked Brynn to marry him. When Barb expresses her concerns that he doesn't know that Brynn is the one, Ben expresses that she is the one for right now. And later he would find another one, and she would be the second wife. And so on and so on.
The looks of horror in Bill and Barb's eyes come from very different places. Bill can't believe that Ben has gotten a fundamental precept of the religion he belonged to wrong (as we were informed while Bill was courting that diner waitress, the impulse to take another wife must come from the Holy Spirit and not from a lustful place). And Barb can't believe that her choice to let Bill take a second wife so many years ago has reverberated out through her children, who now see this as the normal way of things, as the way that life has to order itself. The look on Tripplehorn's face suggests that this is the first time Barb has ever considered this very natural conclusion her children would jump to (despite her success at warning Sarah away from the polygamist life). But it makes perfect sense for Ben to jump to this conclusion. With no organization to the religion he's a part of and with no religious leaders to turn to outside of the family, Ben tries to find a way to forge ahead and keep the best of both worlds—to blend the world and God into something more palatable. After all, mightn't it seem that a long string of marriages for one man was just a case of that man getting tired of one wife and plucking up another?
Indeed, in this episode, it seems as though Bill is growing tired of his wives. He longs to have a night off every week, as work and his home life are taking their toll on him (his attempts to play both sides of the burgeoning war between Juniper Creek and the Hollis Greene clan are exhausting him). His desire to take a night off touches off a sexual power struggle, the likes of which we haven't seen since season one. Barb simply refuses to agree to the plan, drawing a line as to which husbandly duties Bill can back out on (as well as a line in the sand at three wives—insisting that he can't take another in a scene where all four players get to play off each other heatedly). Margie stands firm with Barb at first, but she's soon seduced by Bill. The two perform oral sex on each other as Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) looks on in shock. Nicki's insistence that sex is only for procreation and not recreation later surfaces when Bill tries to perform the same act on her and she flails in anger, hitting him on the head and chastising him (she tells him she prefers it face to face and finds him too far away when he's down there). This all resolves itself when a wounded Bill turns to Barb for forgiveness at the end of the episode (she agrees to two nights off per month, but he has to spend them with the kids), but the episode continues Barb's evolution as someone who's rediscovering a spine she seemed to have misplaced. The whole of season two has allowed us to see the hurt of Barb all over again, and Tripplehorn plays every little moment of hurt as a torrent that threatens to sweep her away.
In the midst of all of this domestic drama, the war between the Creek and the Greenes continued. This plot has dragged down the last two episodes, but it was subdued here, to the point where we didn't get to see anything actually happen in the war, only the aftereffects as one side or the other called Bill to yell at him for misleading them. (This all changed at episode's end as a tip from Bill sent the feds after the Greenes, though they had two agents out in the world who were able to shoot Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton).) I haven't enjoyed this plotline very much, but I liked the way it tied in here as almost an afterthought, especially in the scene where Roman and Bill meet at the diner to discuss strategy, and Roman orders two butterscotch sundaes and two 7-Ups—a somehow perfectly apropos choice for the character. And I must admit that the shooting of Roman has me intrigued—the Juniper Creek setting is at its best when it threatens to infect the carefully cultivated suburban life that Bill has built. I've pooh-poohed commentors throughout the season who have said that the end of the series will be Bill taking the place of Roman, but they seem to be picking up on something I was missing because between Bill's promise to his son of building a place where people could live the principle in peace and Roman's sudden absence from UEB meetings, Bill's certainly going to have to face that temptation.
But as wrapped up as the episode could become in these sorts of politics, it truly concludes with two beautifully executed and intimately shot scenes, one between Barb and Brynn and the other between Bill and Ben. The Barb and Brynn scene opens with a long shot that slowly pulls out and pans to reveal Barb speaking (to someone we don't know the identity of at first), delivering a monologue about how hard it was to learn to share Bill and to learn to love Nicki too. Tripplehorn (kept slightly off-center in the frame throughout) offers a taste of weary defeat here, but also seems bent on preserving her family (and perhaps protecting Brynn, who quickly leaves Ben) and holding on to what little she remembers of her life before Nicki.
After Brynn leaves Ben, he sits, sobbing, in the basement. Bill finally finds the gentle love needed for the situation and goes to his son, explaining to him his plan for Weber Gaming. Then, in a rare moment when we get to see a bit of the religious ceremony of the principle, Bill ushers Ben in as a priesthood holder (with all of the responsibility that entails), also taking his son in as his confidante on the Weber Gaming matter. Black also wrote the episode where Margie was baptized into the principle (in season one's tenth episode), and this episode once again combines the mundanity of every day life with that striving for the holy and the significant. Light trickles in to the ho-hum basement, and Bill and Ben both struggle to find something bigger and better than themselves, human failings be damned.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.