By Todd VanDerWerff
Big Love's second season finale tries to do so many things at once that it periodically flies off the rails, only to find itself righted again by a single powerful scene or moment.
The episode is perhaps the best evidence yet that the show can always rely on its phenomenal cast to grab hold of it and wrench it down to earth when it seems likely to go floating off into the stratosphere. The episode isn't an awful one, by any means, but it commits one of the cardinal sins of the season finale: It turns into the "And then this happened! And this happened! And this happened!" like a child breathlessly recounting a series of events instead of an actual dramatic recreation of those events. A lot of season finales, trying to tie up everything that happened in the season preceding, fall into this trap, and it's hard to skate past all of those plot points and make them feel like they have some resonance to them (the Battlestar Galactica season three finale, of all things, is just about the best recent example of how to make the overstuffed finale work).
Normally, I complain that Big Love spends too much time with the Juniper Creek gang (though I know many of you disagree—thanks for the e-mails!) to the detriment of the more interesting, more believable Henricksons, working their way through life on their mini-compound in Sandy, Utah. This week, though the best scenes and moments are all Henrickson-centric, the Juniper Creek storyline is actually more compelling for once, as it illustrates perfectly how the compound's tendrils wrap into the life of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his wives. What's more, the Juniper Creek storyline (featuring Alby (Matt Ross) trying to seize power while Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) worked to recover in time to reclaim his power) feels focused and assured, even as the Henrickson stories are jumping back and forth from plot point to plot point. In rough order, we retouch on Bill's flirtation with taking a waitress (Branka Katic) as a fourth wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) entertains an offer of being a surrogate for a neighbor, Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) struggles with her boyfriend AND her brother, Barb's (Jeanne Tripplehorn) doubts about her polygamist life, and a host of other minor moments and storylines (from Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) suspecting Bill of having her father shot to the whole Weber Gaming situation). That's a lot of story to service in one episode, and it meant that the show got to do very little in regards to its favorite themes of compromise, honesty, and choosing between the self and a greater creed. To actually do the episode justice would be to write a basic plot summary, as that's what "Oh, Pioneers!" feels like at moments.
By far the material that is the most interesting on the Henrickson front involves the two teenagers. Sarah's scene where she pretends to seduce a sleeping Roman don't feel real or quite work, but her scenes where she confronts her brother, Ben (Douglas Smith), asking him if he plans to leave the polygamist life are pretty great. Seyfried has grown substantially as an actress this season, and her final moment with Ben, where she weeps as he drives off, is quietly soulful. Near episode's end, she chooses to have sex with her boyfriend, giving up the chastity she has been so certain is important to her life. Whether consciously as an act of rebellion or subconsciously as a way to gain some control over her own life, Sarah has finally made a decisive break with her family (obviously, she'll still live and interact with them, but it's becoming impossible to imagine her becoming just another wife for some guy someday). It isn't the best way to do it (Sarah's boyfriend obviously doesn't have her best interests in mind), but Sarah has made a choice for the self over the greater creed—both the creed of her religion and the creed of her family (though, in many ways, these creeds are the same). Ben, meanwhile, draws even closer to the family circle, wordlessly reconciling with his mother at the Pioneer Days party that closes the episode by stretching a comforting arm around her neck.
Barb, in the foreground of so much of the best stuff this season, takes a back seat role this week, but her big moment is another highlight of the episode. She finally makes a decision on whether she is going to stay in the life or try to find something better, and she chooses her family. While this might be disappointing when it comes to season three (an estranged Barb might make for an interesting story arc), it's in keeping with the show's belief that successful families can come in all shapes and sizes so long as the participants listen to each other and care for each other's needs (Bill seemingly forgot Barb, to his own peril, but this episode, he begins pulling her into his circle of trusted confidants again, asking her to join the Weber board of directors). The moment when she goes over with Margie to the neighbor's house to explain why Margie would be a surrogate for the neighbor turns into nothing so much as a coming out scene. Big Love has often played this polygamy-as-homosexuality allegory (and typically a bit uneasily or a bit sketchily), but the choice to write Barb's tearful confession as a coming out is one of the times when it works quite well (thanks, also, to Tripplehorn). It feels honest and truthful, where other moments of confession have felt forced. And Barb's insistence that she be number one (leading to Bill's seemingly renewed fervor for her) is interesting on a variety of levels, restoring Barb as one of the family's true power centers and seemingly suggesting that Bill likes his wives best when they're playing his predefined roles for them (despite all of the times he says this isn't the case, other episodes have borne this out as well, as when he suggested that he liked Margie to be a "bad girl" and Nicki a "good girl").
But the other major Henrickson storyline is kind of a mess. Thrusting Ana the waitress back into the thick of things might have seemed like a promising idea at one time (she did, after all, lead to two of the season's best episodes), but hers comes off as one storyline too many. The way the Ana storyline was set up and rounded off earlier this season made for an engaging and entertaining mini-arc that examined some of Big Love's most intriguing themes and ideas. Bringing her back shuts off the absolutely perfect resolution to that storyline (Bill reaffirming his love for Margie while standing Ana up). Obviously, real life doesn't have resolutions and it makes sense that Margie would seek out Ana again when she needed someone to talk to, but the choice for Margie to bring Ana in on her secret about whom "Phil" really is feels rushed. I'm still interested to see Bill consider taking a fourth wife, and Ana's an interesting and vital character, but bringing her back in season three might have been a better idea. It would have given some distance from that perfect resolution and would have given much of the other stuff in this episode more room to breathe.
The Juniper Creek stories, however, work, especially in relation to Bill. Bill's political machinations with Roman and Alby are often yawn-inducing precisely because we know that Bill will always prevail (if he winds up dead or something, the show would have nowhere to go). Bill's not exactly Entourage's Vincent Chase, prevailing simply by dumb luck, but his business savvy and general ambition make him too much better than the often needlessly stupid Juniper Creek gang. Season two tried to rectify some of this by making Bill and Roman uneasy partners, but then it seemed to get away from this by having Bill set Roman's group at war with another polygamist group. Then, Alby succeeded his father and immediately put himself at odds with Bill. The finale sees Alby successfully seize power, even as his plot to kill Roman is foiled by Nicki's mom (Mary Kay Place, always excellent even when she has nothing to do). Roman ends up taken away by the police while Alby continues to consolidate his own power (Nicki points out that he's got 8,000 people at his beck and call now, ready to kill for him). Alby isn't as developed of a character as his father (his pure evil seems motivated largely by his own frustrations with his father's coddling of him and his self-loathing over his possible homosexuality), but it's interesting to continue to see him prevail. As a cliffhanger, Alby's ascension rather works, and I'm interested to see how much of his ability is intelligence and how much is pure luck.
The episode ends at the Pioneer Days party, right after Barb tells the neighbors who she is and what she stands for. The long-absent Don Embry (Joel McKinnon Miller) returns to commiserate with Bill, and a group of children do a choreographed dance to the song "Windy." (This is perhaps a personal issue more than a criticism, but I simply never find these scenes of young children dancing in a pseudo-suggestive fashion—and lots of shows and movies use them—to be anything other than unpalatable. What does anyone try to suggest with these sequences? Our children are being sexualized? I guess. But it doesn't fit most of the time, and it certainly doesn't fit here.) Bill looks over at his wives, clustered together, then sees as they whisper a secret to each other. He looks on, obliviously. Bill feels as though he's in charge in his family, but as long as the wives are together, he's only in charge so much as they let him be. As the second season makes clear, he'll always be on the outside, looking on at them as they share things he cannot hear.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.