So let’s talk about God.
I mean, He’s arguably the most important character in Big Love, even if we never directly see Him, even if we never are sure how He feels about the Henricksons. Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is always so concerned about how the two of them are getting along that we are forced to take these sorts of things into account, even if we don’t particularly believe in God in any way, shape or form. Bill’s deteriorating relationship with his faith has provided a hidden spine to Big Love’s third season, and it finally erupts in tonight’s episode, in one of the all-time great television images to my mind.
Bill, having just traveled from Utah to upstate New York in the hopes of burying a time capsule in the soil where Joseph Smith found the gold tablets after being prompted by the angel Moroni, has realized just how little his family regards this whole odyssey, which Bill has managed to make central to his entire belief system. Bill’s faith, like his life in general, tends to be filled with little tasks designed to build up to a greater whole. Bill, abandoned by his family, who have all raced off to watch a pageant recreation of Moroni’s visitation to Smith, kneels in the green grass, turning his concerns skyward, asking God why He’s seemingly hiding from Bill, why his family seems to be falling apart. The camera dollies in on his face as he says this and then cuts to an evocative wide shot, Bill kneeling on the frame’s left, a medium distance from the camera, the pageant grounds rumbling to life with light and sound behind him. And then, an actor from the pageant, playing the part of Moroni, rises into the sky so high that he rises above the walls surrounding the pageant grounds. From our perspective, he seems to be blessing BILL, not Joseph Smith, offering Bill a path to find what he wants most. It’s a gorgeous shot, highly symbolic and yet somehow prosaic at the same time, and it feels almost like something out of Fellini.
And then, through unsettling means, God answers Bill’s prayers.
One of my favorite television scenes of all time is from the first season finale of Deadwood, “Sold Under Sin.” If you’ve never seen the series, all you need to know is that, throughout the first season, the character of Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) has been built up as both a fascinating self-made man and an adversary to the growing pressures of civilization, best represented by Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). Throughout the first season, the town preacher (Ray McKinnon) has been increasingly descending into dementia, brought on by a brain tumor (and I haven’t seen this scene in some time and don’t happen to have my Deadwood DVDs by me at the moment, so if I’m getting the details wrong, feel free to correct me). As the doctor (Brad Dourif) works to save him, he comes to realize that his cause is hopeless. The preacher isn’t going to be saved by the crude medicine of the time, and, indeed, might not even have been saved by MODERN medicine. The doctor cries out to God, asking for Him to spare the preacher further pain. And at that very moment, Al Swearengen happens upon the struggling preacher and, moved, puts him out of his misery swiftly and quietly. God answers the doctor’s prayers, so far as the doctor is concerned, at least, but He does so through a very unusual instrument, through murder, through a mercy killing.
Deadwood argued that even if you didn’t believe in a higher power, just the very serendipity of being a human being, of living in a larger community, could occasionally take on the same effect as believing in God anyway. Big Love doesn’t go that far—the Henricksons are deliberately set apart from everyone else in their lives—but it does argue that the process of living in a family, especially a big one, is a lot like being a part of a religious congregation, and I’d say the final answer to Bill’s prayer in this episode comes close to matching the brilliant poetry of the Deadwood scene, especially as it digs into the messy faith of the man at Big Love’s center.
Television doesn’t do terribly well in portraying people of faith. To a real degree, this is a function of television being a mass medium and mass media wanting to do their best to keep their audiences as mass as possible, even in today’s age of niche markets. To some degree, this has to do with fundamentalist Christian and Mormon audiences in the U.S. being deeply suspicious of a pop culture that portrays them as buffoons more often than not. Indeed, a good number of evangelical Christians have embraced The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, satirical warts and all, simply because he’s a nice guy trying to live up to his creed in a world that continually tests him. The Simpsons holds him up for laughter as often as it does any of its other characters, but because he’s not a hypocrite, because he cares about his kids and because he’s just trying to make his way in the world, a lot of Christians love the guy.
The Simpsons, though, has always been more nuanced about faith than most other shows, which use faith as a prop for the guest star of the week (too many episodes of C.S.I.), mock people of faith for believing at all (House) or toss faith in as an all-purpose character-building concept, to be discarded blithely when the storyline calls for it (Friday Night Lights’ Lyla comes to mind as a current example of this time-old TV technique). Worse, because of fears of boycotts from fundamentalists (as slew NBC’s short-lived The Book of Daniel) or Catholics (as ended ABC’s short-lived Nothing Sacred—seeing a pattern?), TV pastors, when they’re not blinding hypocrites, tend to be absolutely uninteresting saints. Think of that dude on 7th Heaven or any character in any Christian film ever produced (especially the recent, unremittingly awful Fireproof). There’s probably a fascinating series to be made about the pressures of being a modern-day pastor, but the entrenched positions on both sides of the divide mean this show will probably never be produced, even with more daring networks like HBO and AMC diving into the content-production world.
Well, I say all of that, but Big Love has pretty much just gone ahead and MADE a show about the struggles of having faith in the modern world and has done so in a largely respectful and fascinating way on the network you’d least expect to be interested in broadcasting the good, clean fun of living by a strict religious creed. Big Love’s occasionally anthropological feel—the series tends to shoot the religious ceremonies of the Henricksons as though it’s a National Geographic documentary—is often overwhelmed by the sheer compassion it feels for all of its characters (outside of, arguably, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), who seems to be viewed as venal and unsalvageable). There’s another scene in “Come, Ye Saints,” scripted by Melanie Marnich and directed by Dan Attias, that struck me silent with its beauty. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), reeling from the death of her mother and the revelation that Bill’s oldest son Ben (Douglas Smith) is in love with her, is destroyed when she accidentally leaves the urn carrying her mother’s ashes atop a car and then drives off, scattering the ashes to the wind. She finally seems to let loose some of the grief she’s been carrying, and then, Bill baptizes first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) in a hotel room hot tub as a proxy for Margene’s mother, ensuring that when Margene dies, her mother will be there waiting for her on the other side.
It would be easy to play this scene for goofy laughs (it IS a pretty weird concept), but Big Love plays it for every ounce of poignancy it can muster, from the look of comfort on Goodwin’s face to the cool lighting of the hotel room. “No soul is lost,” says Bill, and for an instant, Big Love strikes you with the sensation of why these people are in this seemingly unsustainable setup, of why anyone would want to be a part of a religious tradition seemingly at odds with the modern world. In the Henricksons’ creed, everyone has a place to belong, so long as they follow the rules.
But it’s the rules that always mess you up, isn’t it? And that brings us back to the end of the episode and the answer to Bill’s prayer. Bill’s daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), you see, is pregnant. And she’s planning to keep the baby, drawing up a plan and slowly incorporating Ben and her friend Heather (Tina Majorino) into it. Granted, her plan is a bit too idealistic, but Sarah’s determination to make sure her baby is not raised by her polygamist parents OR an adoptive couple that would provide the baby with a strained upbringing (as with the man struggling not to be gay and his wife in the episode a couple of weeks ago) seems as though it would override most of the things life threw at her as a young single mother. Sarah has always been one of the strongest people in the series, so it’s easy to overestimate her maturity, and this episode served as a necessary reminder of just how young she really is. She gets excited when her dad, who doesn’t know about the pregnancy, promises her a special night out on the town in Chicago on the way back. She bristles at the involvement of her mom in her life. She can only keep quiet when her parents angrily yell at her about the birth control pills Barb found, knowing that they’re not HER pills, obviously, but also unable to correct them until Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) admits that they’re her pills, and the fury shifts to her. And then, at the end of the episode, immediately following Bill’s prayer, Sarah miscarries.
I normally hate miscarriages on TV (I railed against them in my latest BSG review) because they tend to be the easy way out of not dealing with adding a baby or the complications of an abortion or adoption to the storyline, but I thought the miscarriage was well-handled here, both for how seriously it was played by Seyfried, Sevigny, Tripplehorn and Paxton and for how complicated it makes the show’s issues of faith. Bill prays for God to make His presence felt in his life and for his family to be repaired, and Sarah’s miscarriage both draws the family together—after all, Nicki, who would seemingly be the least sympathetic to Sarah’s plight, is the first to learn of the miscarriage and also the most compassionate—and removes something that Bill would probably regard as a “problem” in his deepest heart of hearts (not that he would ever say that) when he found out about it. The sense of the gravity of the situation propels these final passages (mostly scored to the hymn “Softly and Tenderly”), but there’s also the weird sensation that Bill’s prayer HAS been answered there to keep you off-balance. It’s one of the subtlest portrayals of that old question of just how big a role God plays in the lives of His followers AND just how malicious He would be in doing so that I’ve seen in a filmed entertainment.
And, look, I’m out of space, and I’ve barely touched on anything else in the episode. “Come, Ye Saints” has a lot going on (most of the secrets the characters have been carrying around since Season One—including Bill’s Viagra use and Nicki’s birth control pills—come out), but it never feels overstuffed as some other episodes have this season, perhaps because it doesn’t try to shove in a plot at the Juniper Creek compound. It moves with a calm grace of its own as the characters retrace the steps of their ancestors, chased across the country and into the wilderness by angry mobs aplenty. It’s a deeply moving tribute to the idea that a big family can be both a hindrance and, in times of trial, a salvation. It’s easily Big Love’s best episode ever, and, if we’re being honest, one of the best television episodes I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Some other thoughts:
1. Sorry for the lateness of this review. I’ve been battling a cold and the Oscars all weekend long, even as I really intended to have this up early, thanks to having seen the episode in advance. I hope the piece was worth the wait!
2. I think I could have written my whole review based entirely on who ends up riding with whom at the various stops on the Mormon Trail, including the stop where Bill is forgotten at a roadside picnic area. The way the episode shuffles its characters around from car to car to maximize dramatic potential is one of the things that makes it so good.
3. To a real degree, I was worried that the drama-addicted Big Love would have Margene take advantage of Ben’s feelings for her, but I was glad that the show didn’t go there, as she very clearly made explicit the lines that could not be crossed in their relationship. Big Love is addicted to dramatic complications, yes, but it holds its central family fairly sacred, and I think that’s one of the things that makes the show work as well as it does. I think James Poniewozik is also right when he says that the episode subtly shows how Margene having to deal with her mother at a young age gave her a degree of self-sufficiency that comes out when she has to deal with situations like this.
4. Nicki’s flirtation with Ray the DA, meanwhile, grows more and more worrying, as her giggly flirtations start to be obvious to even her. She buys Bill a cardigan, so he can look just like Ray, and she calls Wanda (Melora Walters) for advice. Wanda, true to form, offers up the line of the episode: “Has he chased you at night? Has he tried to put you in a trunk?” The show has stepped back a bit from Nicki in the last two episodes, but she had some fine moments tonight, and how the Ray story resolves itself is probably what most interests me for the next four episodes of the season. Sevigny is perfectly portraying the woozy uncertainty that comes from realizing that there are other things in your life than what you’ve built it up to be.
5. Bill Paxton gets ragged on a lot for the inconsistency of his performance from a lot of quarters, largely, I think, because Bill Henrickson can be such a cheerful asshole, but his work here was stellar, particularly in the episode’s final ten minutes, when he really made you feel for the poor bastard.
6. I have absolutely no idea why HBO scheduled new episodes of this up against the Super Bowl AND the Oscars (and both episodes were actually season highlights). I realize that the series airs four or five times per week, and a lot more people catch it that way than on Sunday nights, but that scheduling seems a little nuts.
7. I usually watch the week’s United States of Tara while I’m typing up these reviews, and I’m starting to regret only writing a review from seeing the pilot. The series still has a lot of problems, but it’s moved from the category of trying too hard to legitimately interesting over the past few weeks, and this week’s episode, which portrayed Tara (Toni Collette) trying to keep herself together while her passive-aggressive parents visited, was a genuine success. I’m pleased to see that this series, which stars a lot of actors I like and comes from writers I’m fond of as well, has turned out to be a grower. Even Big Love took a while to figure out what it was doing, so keep at it, Tara!