After watching the beginning of season four of Big Love, I think we can safely give up on ever having a premiere of this show that isn’t a busy and exhausting whirlwind. The show will always set an overwhelming number of balls rolling at the beginning of each season, leaving us only to hope that the threads will be weaved together in a fulfilling manner throughout the season. That said, the season four premiere is somewhat deceptively messy—though it packs in a lot, it also seems to indicate the paths it intends to follow throughout the season.
Bill Henrickson’s (Bill Paxton) business endeavors and his roles as a husband, a religious leader to his family, and now a church that extends only slightly outside his family, have always been inextricably linked. As someone who was never really exposed to religion personally, it was one of the first things that intrigued me about the show even back in season one, when, during the first Henrickson family dinner, Bill said grace and prayed for a successful store opening, establishing a relationship with God that is often best described as self-serving.
In the somewhat ironically titled “Free At Last”, written by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Daniel Attias, so much of the plot revolves around various moneymaking endeavors that it’s clear that this season, the show means business, literally.
But before getting into the business side of things, let’s note that the first scene of the episode picked up on a different kind of endeavor for the Henrickson family: the establishment of their own church, which has been a long time coming. After the events of last season, namely the revelation that the Woodruff letter (proving that the Mormon Church never intended to truly ban polygamy) was a fake, as well as Barb’s (Jeanne Tripplehorn) excommunication from the Mormon church, it is perhaps the moment the family needs this most. The congregation of this unnamed church consists of the Henrickson clan and the remainder of Don Embry’s (Joel McKinnon Miller) sundered family. Though we never learned much about Don’s wives, he’s clearly a broken and humbled man in comparison to the, well, kind of prickish guy we met at the beginning, and the testimony he offers in the newly established church, that he feels it will be “manna to a starving people” is kind of heartbreaking, though, like with the other testimonies, it is clear that he is talking primarily about his own needs.
The testimonies offered by the Henrickson women seem to be the show’s way of picking up from last year, and are perhaps an indication of what we can expect from each of them this season. Though the episode doesn’t revisit the setting beyond this scene, or even reference the church after it, it’s crucial in setting up the episode’s, and presumably the season’s, key arcs and ideas. Barb’s and Nicki’s (Chloë Sevigny) testimonies both indicate a desire to pick up the pieces after shattering events, namely Barb’s aforementioned excommunication and Nicki’s near-extrication from the marriage after exploring her feelings for Ray the DA (Chip Esten, who appears briefly in this episode, and is totally not amused about anything) in the case against her father.
And if Barb and Nicki are lumped together in a way, in this same scene, third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is clearly distinguished in a way she hasn’t been before, which is to say that here the distinguishing factor is not just her youth and sexuality. Barb’s later statement that Margie is blossoming is demonstrated pretty much right away, being established visually, at first, in the long shot of the congregation singing, with Margie dressed in colors that are much brighter than the whites and pastels and grays of everyone else in the room. This is evidence to hopefully prove what Todd has predicted in the past, that season four will be Margie’s turn in the spotlight. If this episode doesn’t necessarily embark on some big plot for Margie, it does connect her closely to the themes that the show seems to be setting itself up to explore this season.
Because of the way Big Love’s world tangles religion, romance and business, it is often almost as important to find a business partner as it is a romantic partner, and relationships seem to work the best when those involved are on the same page and have a mutually beneficial business arrangement, no matter who they are or where they live. It’s why Barb was happier when she could be the face of HomePlus, Bill’s only enterprise at that time; it’s why Laura is the wife Alby has given the most power to; it’s why, we can perhaps speculate, Don lost his second and third wives. In this episode we see Lois seemingly try to fix her relationship with Frank with, oh, let’s call it love (in a bizarre scene where she forces him, at gunpoint, to take her out for ice cream) and when that fails, she attempts to repair things (granted, which in this case means that her husband doesn’t attempt to kill her, but let’s go with it) with a financial arrangement.
To get back to Margie, what season three established, and what this season looks to expound upon, is her entrepreneurial ambitions and skills, as well as the compatibility of her business relationship with Bill. When it’s her turn to give testimony in the opening scene, she hopes that the casino that Weber Gaming is opening, in partnership with the Blackfoot Indians, will be successful. Her home shopping channel-type jewelry business seems to be thriving, and the naïveté that’s been thus far associated with her character seems to be turning into an odd sort of integrity, as she passes off tasks at home so as to keep her promise to her boss at the television station that the jewelry business will be her sole focus.
Unlike with Barb and Nicki, it seems that if we get a season that offers a deeper exploration of Margie, it may not include as much probing of her past as the other two, and may rather focus on who she is becoming, as this is clearly a formative time in her adult life. Much of the character’s struggles with her past seemed to be put to rest in “Come, Ye Saints,” where she finally dealt with the death of her mother. She has no other family that we know of, unlike her sister wives, who bring a lot of baggage in this regard. Though her ties to the Principle are arguably the most tenuous, for this reason, they have also wavered less than those of Barb and Nicki, especially as their troubled pasts were explored in seasons two and three, respectively. And Margie’s relationship with Bill has remained the most stable over the last three seasons, though it’s mostly her sunny disposition and eagerness-to-please that have kept her obedient, for lack of a better word. It will be interesting to see if Margie’s growing role as a moneymaker will bring her closer to Bill as it largely did in season three, or if she’ll struggle with staying in a patriarchal relationship as she comes to understand her potential in a way she never had before. The fact that she has to keep her business secret from Bill for the time being is already an indication that it may be Margie’s turn to question her marriage, something we’ve yet to see her do.
As it is the most divisive aspect of Big Love, I should probably state my personal opinion and admit that I like the Juniper Creek element of the show more than most, and I do think that the compound continues to play an important role in the show’s universe. I still find many of the Juniper Creek scenes engaging and revealing, and while these scenes sometimes have tonal problems, their sheer bizarreness is itself essential to the show.
The original function of the compound was largely to make the Henricksons appear as a normative version of polygamy in contrast, and while three seasons have been more than enough to establish the central family within this context and Juniper Creek isn’t really needed for that purpose, it still can be seen as representing an aspect of American life, which in my take is that of unassimilated immigrants, or any unassimilated fringe group, really. I have a pretty strange family, immigrants from the USSR, many of whom never made it a goal to fit in cleanly in American society. It may sound crazy, but sometimes the Juniper Creek-ers just make more sense to me, the strange squalor of their homes being more reminiscent of my childhood home than any of the Henricksons’ three little boxes. I’ve got to imagine (read: hope) that there are some other people out there who feel this way.
But to get back to the episode at hand, “Free At Last” demonstrated some of more effective ways that the show uses compound characters, in terms of intersections between those characters and the Henricksons. In terms of tone, the scene in which Adaleen (Mary Kay Place) informs Nicki of Roman Grant’s, Nicki’s father, death is a great showcase of what Big Love is so uniquely good at, with much of this owing to Place’s understanding of the show’s dark humor. Adaleen doesn’t know how to break the news to Nicki, so she despairingly sends her to the freezer where she’s stored Roman’s body (“Just get the bacon! Get me bacon please!”), so as to have Nicki discover the body herself. It’s so absurdly abnormal, but with Place’s slyly dark take on the scene, and Sevigny’s dead serious one, the scene is a tiny yet perfect example of Nicky’s disturbed upbringing, and I found it extremely moving and sad.
As a whole, this very hectic and exhausting episode brought everything together using an idea that Big Love established from the beginning, one that has remained a constant theme, which is that greed and the desire for wealth know no barriers across the various groups that we encounter–this is one of the biggest uniting factors for all characters on the show, and the contrast is primarily in the way the characters go about obtaining these things. In the final scene, set at the casino after its successful opening night, the Henrickson’s are brought together when the case of cash they earned is opened for them to look at. Bill started the episode by establishing a new church, and ended it with the opening of a successful business, and as far as Bill is concerned, his riches are bestowed upon him by God, for being righteous and following the Principle.
Take Lois, on the other hand, who has gotten herself involved in any number of dodgy schemes, the latest of which is bird smuggling, and doesn’t care that she’s completely outside of the boundaries of what is legal and, further to the point, normal. I love the idea of Lois living in an apartment in the middle of town, away from the compound, completely unwilling to change her behavior or demeanor despite the change of setting. I don’t know if the show intends to just use this as a darkly comic diversion, or if they plan to go somewhere with it, but I’m actually quite hoping it’s the latter. In any case, I think there is always a place on this show for a group of people who live even more deeply in the outliers of society than the Henricksons.
1. Sorry for the delay with this piece. I’m in the midst of a grand move to a different country (okay, so it’s from Canada to the United States) and don’t currently have HBO. Or a TV. Or a home, for that matter. By the end of the month, these should be up in a timelier manner (though next week’s may be super late since it’s moving week.) I also want to thank Todd for letting me write up Big Love, and while I don’t expect to fill his shoes, I’ll do…something.
2. This episode had some pretty wonderful humorous moments, and Barb’s terrifically bizarre declaration that “Mormons don’t like salmon, we like crab legs” was way up there for me. I did some, admittedly hasty, googling on the topic and didn’t really come up with any interesting sources that reference Mormons and crab legs. Does anyone know if there’s any truth to Barb’s assertion, or are we just to take that moment as a sort of desperate grasp for control on her part?
3. I hope they give Ben some sort of actual plotline this season, because suddenly being lead singer for a teen Christian rock band doesn’t quite count. I was pleased, though, to see his band validate a theory that a friend of mine has, that all musicians who are fat are bass players. Ok, while this isn’t always true, think about it, it’s true most of the time.
4. That phone call from Teenie was kind of ridiculous, I’m just sayin’. And the poor girl has been away at camp for way too long. All she did was show some neighborhood boys dirty pictures. One would expect at least Bill to be proud of her business prowess and keen understanding of supply and demand at a young age.
5. How did people feel about the image of Bill taking Roman’s white cowboy hat? I personally found the symbolism to be a bit heavy-handed. It also let us know that Jerry and Tommy (really—Tommy and Jerry, Big Love?) are not letting up on Bill yet, but I honestly hope this isn’t a plotline that is dragged out even further.
6. I did mean to include a discussion of the new credits sequence in the main discussion, but it didn’t really fit in. The consensus seems to be that most people are okay with the new sequence, but I haven’t heard anyone who prefers it to the original. If you do, I’d love to hear your take. Personally, I don’t see why this had to be changed: It clearly indicates something of a change in direction, and lets us know that the show, and the paths of these characters, may be getting darker, but these things are well enough explored in the show itself. I liked having that sequence there at the beginning, because it’s a constant reminder of the purpose of the Principle and the characters’ original goal, no matter how far they may stray from it.
For more recaps of Big Love, click here.