In some ways, “Damage Control,” the season premiere of Big Love’s second season, is all about the aftermath. In many ways, the whole series is all about the aftermath. The foremost expression of this is in the series’ central question: How much of yourself do you have to give up to be married to a person? Or, if you’re a polygamist, how much of yourself do you have to give up to be married to three people (or share a husband with two others)? “Damage Control” is probably the weakest of the season’s first five episodes, but it does most of the heavy lifting required to get the plot away from the revelation of the Henrickson family’s polygamous lifestyle at the governor’s mansion in last season’s finale (the revelation sunk Barb—Jeanne Tripplehorn—in her chance to win the mother of the year award) and on to other business. This mildly irritating plot won’t go away completely, but this week’s episode deals with it the most fully.
The reason this whole mildly soapy storyline works is because of Tripplehorn, who reasserts her character as the show’s center in the premiere. Sure, Bill (the do-gooding Bill Paxton) is first-billed and at the center of most of the show’s storylines, but the series often feels like Barb’s story—the story of how she became the closest thing there is to an independent woman in a strict religious setting, then lost it all because of her commitment to her beliefs above self. Tripplehorn tells this entire story in throwaway lines and telltale sighs since the show takes place several years after all of these events happened (the show has done nothing so gauche as a flashback episode—yet). “Damage Control” was the most overt acknowledgment yet of all that Barb gave up and just how much Bill depends on the maturity of his relationship with her to get through his day-to-day life.
We first spot Barb frantically churning through the waters of the backyard pool, ostensibly trying to forget all that happened to her at the governor’s mansion. Barb returns to the pool again later in the episode after she loses an argument with Bill (who wants her to attend a dinner with the neighbors to begin to piece together who leaked the family secrets), unable and ultimately unwilling to stand up to him and demand her rights. As Barb churns through the water, we watch her move toward the camera from the bottom of the pool, like underwater voyeurs. And, indeed, she seems to reach some moment of painful emotional catharsis while swimming.
Barb leaves Bill and the other wives to go and stay with family friends. In a witty and perfectly constructed scene, she calls to let her youngest daughter know she isn’t coming home tonight (while the family watches a movie about a moral, upstanding cowboy in a white hat—surely the sort of man Bill thinks he is), only to find herself trapped in a conversation where Nikki (Chloë Sevigny, showing new, more caring sides of her character in this episode) gives her a purported moral upbraiding and Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin, who gets more mileage out of looking hurt than almost anyone on television) clumsily and childishly tries to manipulate her into returning (by giving the phone to one of the smaller children). One of Big Love’s greatest strengths is the way it understands how these three women relate to each other, and how Nikki tries to gain the upper hand over Barb while Margie tries to befriend her, and neither ever quite succeeds, simply because Barb still seems mildly shell-shocked to see them around the house.
The episode ultimately turns on the aftermath of a decision we never get to see Barb make—the decision to step aside and let her husband take multiple wives. Bill is nothing so simple as a villain, but he is often emotionally callous, unaware of how his actions hurt his family members, especially his first wife, who has trouble reconciling who she was before Nikki became the second wife with who she is now. At one point, she lectures her daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), asking her to not make the same mistakes Barb did, perhaps to not turn over her own freedom so completely to another individual. Sarah asks her if Bill would join Barb if Barb left, and Barb is forced to admit she has no idea.
It’s fitting that Barb has this discussion with Sarah, who is going through her own crisis of faith. Sarah has finally realized that she doesn’t believe in polygamy, and she’s not sure where else to turn. She joins (of all things) an ex-Mormon group at a Baptist church where she discusses her feelings on how she was raised. It’s a remarkable scene, especially for Seyfried, who perfectly captures the terror of realizing both that you no longer believe what you always said you did and that everyone thinks you’re an idiot for ever believing that in the first place. Sarah vacillates between teary gulps of gratitude at having a place to express herself freely and trying to defend her lifestyle with explanations and snide jokes. She’s taking the first steps toward the life her mother would want for her, no matter how tentative those steps may be (and the boy she meets at the support group becomes important in episodes to come).
There were other storylines in “Damage Control”, most having to do with the Juniper Creek compound and a crisis of the group’s confidence in Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, who’s great but a shade too obviously evil). Federal agents are closing in around Roman, and Bill feels the noose tightening around his neck too (though he gets a promise from the state attorney general’s office that as long as he stays clean otherwise, he’s OK). In addition, Bill and his co-workers at Home Plus are trying to figure out if his secretary ratted him out. For the most part, all of these storylines feel like padding, though watching Stanton is always interesting. Still, the scene where the secretary races from a dark Hummer and crashes her car, complete with the strains of David Byrne’s slightly-too-twee score was a low point for the episode.
But the stuff back at the Henrickson home was so good that it really didn’t matter. Barb finally forced herself to join her husband and the neighbors at the Hawaiian-themed dinner (where the neighbor husband banally discusses how the Mormons of Utah could rise up and become independent from the U.S. again if they really wanted to, as if it were just another topic of conversation). Caught in a lie, Barb is forced to lie again to make peace with both the neighbors and Bill. She quells her emotions to make Bill happy and to keep her family safe (as any spouse or parent must do at some time), and the look on Bill’s face is one of sweet relief—he can’t do this without her.
The final scene, where Bill talks Barb into returning, giving up all of her almost independence with only minor concessions, must frustrate those who watch the show and wish the women would be more assertive. But that would be unrealistic and not in keeping with the characters or their milieu. Bill holds the priesthood for Barb—the only way she knows to see him are as moral center and emotional compass. To question him would be to reorder her cosmos (indeed, many who leave fundamentalist religions and rebuke them are often profoundly depressed for this very reason), and Barb is not to that point yet. For now, we just have to live with the taste we get of her as her own person—Barb, not Barb Henrickson—and wonder, just as much as she does, how she got to this point.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.