Big Love’s season finales often have a bit of an out-of-control feel to them, as though any given season’s plotlines have gotten so all-encompassing that it’s all the show can do to race just ahead of the giant boulder of story that threatens to overtake it at any moment. “Sacrament,” written by Victoria Morrow from a story by Coleman Herbert and directed by Dan Attias, managed this feat more elegantly than last season’s finale, and it mostly brought the series’ sporadically brilliant third season to a close, even if the finale was, itself, only sporadically brilliant. I suspect everyone here is tired of hearing me diagnose the show’s problem as spending too much time at Juniper Creek (even if I’m more charitable toward those characters and storylines than some commentators), but the four episodes following “Come, Ye Saints,” the best episode the show has ever done, just got too bogged down in compound morass. Still, developments in the finale suggest that the focus of the show will shift decisively to the Henrickson compound in Sandy, Utah, and to stories of Bill Henrickson’s (Bill Paxton) third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) in the show’s fourth season.
In particular, “Sacrament” ended with Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) apparently dead at the hand of Joey (Shawn Doyle) and Alby (Matt Ross) in the hospital after his plan to kill his parents with a bomb went seriously awry and ended up only hurting him and an unlucky hotel maid. Spoilers had been floating around the Internet for weeks detailing that a major Big Love character would come to his or her end in the finale, and the smart money was always on Roman or Alby, so it was perhaps a good move by the show to have BOTH of them end up in jeopardy throughout the episode. While I doubt the show will get rid of both antagonists, it might be even richer if it did. Juniper Creek would have no default leader, so Hollis Greene (still projecting casual menace somewhere in the American underbelly) might try to lay claim to it, and Bill would perhaps be sorely tempted to return to the compound and seize the mantle Roman took from his family so long ago. Alby will probably live, and he’ll probably be up to his ineffectual shenanigans again next season, but a leaderless Juniper Creek would instantly become a much more interesting Juniper Creek. After all, so much of what makes the Henrickson scenes so compelling is the sense that there’s a subtle political dance going on between the characters, so injecting a sense of politics (though perhaps more ruthless politics) into Juniper Creek couldn’t hurt.
I’ve long suspected Big Love has some sort of five-year plan that will work to bring Bill to a point where he’s ready to step up to take over the UEB, but his three wives will have all reached points where they really don’t want anything to do with that plan. There’s been some discussion in comments in recent weeks about how much we viewers of the show might want Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to leave Bill, and I’m sure similar discussion will be held over the character of Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), though I’m not immediately certain all fences are mended between her and Bill. While I can see that point-of-view and I agree that it can be frustrating as a viewer to see these women trapped in a lifestyle that frequently causes them deep unhappiness, I don’t think it would be as easy for Barb to leave her husband as it was for, say, Carmela Soprano (a comparative storyline floated by a commenter last week).
Barb’s entire belief system is wrapped up in Bill, and while we may see this as unhealthy, we have to remember that this is the way it has been for her for some time—at least seven years, if not even longer than that. Fundamentalist religions make it very, VERY hard to leave, since the entire support system tends to be constructed out of other branches of the fundamentalist creed. Leaving the church (or, in this case, a family) tends to leave the person leaving completely bereft and wayward. Without a strong backup support system, they’re often left unable to cope or find themselves returning to the comforting world of the church. Barb, much as she might want to leave at some base level, just doesn’t have some other life to transition into from the one she’s living in (to say nothing of Nicki, who could conceivably go off with Ray the DA (Chip Esten) or something but would still have to deal with the fact that she’s lived her ENTIRE LIFE in this setup). Her family offers her none of the kind of support she would need to take this big step, and it’s clear she doesn’t have much of a life outside of her sister wives and husband. Barb’s fretting about how much she screwed up her life when she let Bill take a second wife is clearly some sort of psychological attempt to deal with a strong desire to leave that she can’t quite verbalize even to herself (as is her desire to go to India and rent a womb in this episode), but she simply has not been pushed FAR enough to make the radical life change that a divorce would require. Bill deciding to take up the mantle of prophet of Juniper Creek, though? That would almost certainly do it, and it’s where I ever more strongly suspect we’re headed.
All of that said, though, Big Love always does a pretty good job of showing just how seductive the trappings of the Henricksons’ lifestyle can be, how comforting and assuring the certainty of their creed must feel to someone like, say, Margie, who has spent her entire life adrift. The final scene of the finale ranks as one of Big Love’s best ever, returning to the series’ penchant for mixing the mundane with the mystic. Standing beside his backyard pool like an old-time revival preacher, Bill gets out the white bread and water (no alcohol for these folks) and passes out a simple communion as he welcomes his family into a new covenant, a new church. For Barb, so rattled by her clinical excommunication from the mainline Mormon church, this moment seems to carry a wealth of meaning. Her differences with Nicki, already eroding in the face of Nicki’s revelation that she has a long-lost daughter from her first marriage who has suddenly re-entered her life, are swept away in this moment, and she grasps for her sister wife’s hand. Attias films this whole sequence with a knowing eye for the way that ritual can make even the most every day of moments seem transcendent. When the light flips on in Nicki’s house and, oh, there she is, even after you were certain the show would cliffhang on her character staying at the compound, it seems almost miraculous through Attias’ lens, as does the smile on Nicki’s daughter’s face as she is welcomed by people she will likely come to see as her new family, as she takes communion with them. The scene is a perfect contrast to the endowment ceremony scene from last week’s episode (even some of the shots are similar), and it reminds us that those of us who carry our faiths in our hearts can find God in the least likely of places all too often.
Big Love’s third season has really deemphasized Bill, even after the first two seasons of the show managed to shoehorn him into just about every storyline. That made sense in the first season, which was really a season all about Bill, and in the second season, which told the story of Barb dealing with the ramifications of opening up her monogamous relationship with her husband years ago, but I think it was the right choice for the third season. The third season really focused on Sevigny’s stellar performance as Nicki and the character’s inherent contradictions. (Indeed, the relative weakness of this back stretch of episodes stemmed from the fact that the show struggled to find a way to incorporate Bill more thoroughly. After his marvelous prayer in “Come, Ye Saints,” he ended up chasing after a letter that he thought would legitimize polygamy—revealed, finally, to be a fake perpetrated by Alby in this episode—and he too often distracted from the story of Nicki losing herself ever more deeply in the throes of her crush on Ray.) The story placed as much pressure as it could on Nicki’s belief system, and finally, her unerring belief in her father’s wisdom seemed to have left her. She even playfully schemed to kill him (schemes that Alby took too literally). Big Love is often about impossible choices, and at the end of the finale, Nicki seemed to try to atone for an impossible choice she made long ago—the one to abandon her daughter—by taking the child with her to Sandy. Characters on this show can rarely have their cake and eat it too, but the sheer look of relief on Nicki’s face after she took the girl was enough to make anyone hope she might get away with it all.
While I half suspect Big Love will attempt to put Nicki’s near-affair behind it when it returns for the fourth season and have that old grudge come rocketing back out at awkward moments (as Barb’s re-buried anxiety about her living situation has a few times this season), I hope it’s not that easy. Bill and Nicki have been unsealed (even if it happened offscreen), and I could see a scenario where he was willing to let her live in her house in order to protect her daughter and let her see her sons while they were still, technically, separated. I kind of doubt the show will go this way, but I hope they at least show us some of the messy reconciliations between the two.
It’s Margene, the one principal character who has yet to really have the light shone on her, who seems most likely to step up in season four. As her world has slowly crumbled around her all season long, she seems to have reached a decisive point and finally come to a decision about building a new life where she can finally have a measure of independence. Goodwin’s performance as Margene is better than anyone’s ever given her credit for, simply because so much of what she’s asked to play is so one-note, but in this episode, she finally began to come into her own. Watch that scene where she goes on the home-shopping network to peddle her jewelry, baby clinging to her shoulder. As written, it’s a pretty standard sales monologue, but as performed, it’s a masterful little scene of a woman suddenly realizing that everyone, even she, has underestimated her and that she’s capable of so, so much more. Bill’s always been about 75 percent businessman/25 percent revival preacher, so it seems as though he’ll find out what a kindred spirit he has in the naturally business-savvy Margie if he can manage to stop treating her like the very young girl (25 years younger!) he married and realize who she really is, that is.
From all of that, it would seem that the finale was a strong hour of television, but, sadly, most of that was confined to the episode’s edges (aside from the Nicki stuff). The episode’s main thrust was the recovery of Kim Lee, Bill and Barb’s niece, who had been taken by the Greenes in the last episode. The constant scheming and the constant reversals between Roman and Hollis were old last season, and they were no more entertaining in this episode. As a dramatic device, the Kim Lee kidnapping just wasn’t the kind of thing we were invested in enough to really go in for it. However, if he’s really dead, the episode ended up being a fine farewell to Stanton’s Roman Grant. Roman always felt like the lead character of a very different, much weirder show, and Stanton always played the hell out of him. It was probably time for him to go (and his murder was shot beautifully, especially that early shot of Roman standing before the big, ostentatious house on his beloved compound, finally feeling at home), but Stanton almost made me wish he hadn’t died. From offering Bill a meatloaf sandwich to offering him a secondhand kiss from God to refusing to bow before Hollis, Stanton offered up a vivid portrayal of why no one was ever quite able to usurp Roman. I don’t know if I’ll miss the character next season, but I’ll certainly miss the performance.
Some other thoughts:
• The bomb plot was the sort of ridiculous device that Big Love doesn’t need to stoop to, but the whole sequence of Alby trying to leave the bomb at his parents’ door and then trying to shoo the maid who was coming to clean their room was terrifically edited and darkly funny.
• Ben (Douglas Smith) has gotten basically nothing to do this season other than talk to Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), which is too bad, since his storyline was so compelling last season. Sarah, meanwhile, is apparently going to marry Scott (Aaron Paul). Since Paul is a regular over on Breaking Bad, this seems distinctly unlikely, but by making Bill grudgingly accept their engagement, the writers drive another tiny wedge between him and Barb. If she ever does leave him, it will take a big straw to break the camel’s back, but there will also need to be dozens of tiny straws like this one already weighing her down.
• For a while there, I had a horrific sense that the series was going to pull a “Who Shot Roman Grant?” style mystery for next season, but, no, it was Joey with the pillow in the bedroom. Joey doesn’t seem to have put a ton of thought into this, but he also might just get away with it, since there were no witnesses. Can one leave fingerprints on a pillow?
• So, Nicki’s daughter: Carol Lynn or Cara Lynn?
• Bill always thinks he can deal his way out of anything, and he still pretty much can, but his deals are slowly growing more and more driven by desperation. One of the big faults of the second season finale was that it left you with the sense that everything had turned out all right in the end, which was somewhat improbable. The third season finale leaves you with the much more strong sense that things are all right, but only for the moment. The grudges and concerns that have grown over the season are still there, and they won’t go quietly into the night.
• I’ll be attending the Paley Center session for the show, and I’ll hope to get up a report on that here at The House, so be sure to check back here in late April for that.
• “You want half a sandwich?”