After the end of the penultimate episode of Big Love’s second season, “Take Me As I Am,” I thought the episode’s final shots, showing a knot of rattlesnakes lying beneath the covers of a perfectly made bed, was a little over-the-top as a symbol. But as I thought about it more, I realized the snakes are the perfect representation of every part of the Henrickson family’s life.
On the surface, everything is pristine and perfect. As long as Bill (Bill Paxton) and his wives keep those smiles on their faces, they’ll get through anything and emerge on the other side the perfect, polygamist family. But that placid surface has been shown to have its wriggling bumps this season, and when you pull back the covers, you find something poisonous and potentially lethal. Some of these snakes are external, the sort that you can avoid, rebuff or wait out (from the threats to the family from Alby Grant (Matt Ross) to the family’s outing at the end of season one). But some of the snakes are internal, not so easily repaired, from Barb’s (Jeanne Tripplehorn) fears about how she’s harmed her family to Margie’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) fears of being marginalized as the third wife (tonight she even implies that she is little more than a baby machine to Barb). The actual, physical snakes are easily dealt with. But the idea that the marriage bed is poisoned, that the very security of your home is threatened, is more deep-rooted and far less easy to shake. In putting the snakes in the bed, Big Love found its own way of aping that famous shot from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet where the camera pans down into the roots of those perfectly manicured lawns to see the writhing, natural pandemonium at suburbia’s heart.
The episode largely focuses on Barb’s emotional pain and desire to put things back to the way they were before Bill took a second wife, while also keeping the things she likes about her polygamist lifestyle (namely, her two sister wives and their children). The whole season has been about reinforcing to her that this is impossible, as well as showing her that she lied to herself many years ago when she told herself she was fine with Bill’s decision. By ceding control to him, she ceded control of so many other things. Now, her attempts to get some control back threatens to roil and upset the family. On any other show, the way that this has been repeatedly drummed into the audience’s head would be tiring by now, but Big Love gets away with it because it’s believable (Barb’s journey this season has seemed to be about coming to terms with the sheer volume of her self-deception), thematically apt (on a show about the lies we tell and the compromises we make to get by in suburbia) and well-acted (I know all of the buzz this summer is about Glenn Close on Damages, but I’d rather see next year’s Emmy trophy go to the remarkable Tripplehorn any day—every week, you see more and more of her façade crumble ever so briefly before she realizes what’s happening and reassembles it). This week, Barb is finally asked point-blank by her mother (Ellen Burstyn, turning in fine work as a mainline Mormon “liberal”) if she’s going to leave Bill. She finally says she isn’t, but the long pause before she answers lets you know that the question has crossed her mind and that this leave-taking may be more permanent than the season premiere’s separation. (Speaking of which, is that a season finale I see on the horizon?)
We’ve gotten some broad hints over the run of the show that Barb’s decision to let Bill take other wives put her in opposition to her family. Now, we finally find out why. Barb’s mother is one of those people every conservative religious group has—someone who doesn’t like the way things are run in the religious body, but loves it too much to leave and thus advocates for change. She’s fought to get women more recognition from the church. She’s recognized her sister (a lesbian) and kept inviting her to family gatherings. And she’s perfectly willing to unseal herself from her first husband (Barb’s father, apparently dead), whom she was unhappily married to, to wed a new man (Philip Baker Hall, in a great cameo), even though this might mean she’s cut off from her children and other family members in eternity. (The Mormon faith believes that family units exist eternally, so when a wife and husband leave their families to become one, you really have to mean it—hence the idea of being sealed in the temple. I’m sure there are contrarian scholarly opinions on this matter, and I hope you’ll share them in the comments if you know of them.) So Barb’s rejection of her faith to follow Bill toward the principle is more than just typical family religious squabbling; it, in essence, means that both women believe the other is destined for a very different afterlife (as Barb’s mother puts it, she’s responsible for Barb’s eternal soul; her failure to save Barb from a polygamist life isn’t just normal motherly concern—it can mean damnation). Also, since Barb’s mother spent much of her life railing against the patriarchy of the church, it feels like a slap in the face to have her strong, independent daughter enter the ultimate patriarchal situation. The scene at the end of the episode, where Barb confesses that she doesn’t know if she’ll know her mother in eternity, but would love to know her in the here and now, was heartbreaking, and hopefully opens more doors for Barb’s family to enter storylines in future episodes and seasons.
In general, the scenes at the wedding are the strongest of the episode. Barb tries to save her son (now dating Juniper Creek twins) by sending him off on a trip with her mother and her new husband, but Ben (Douglas Smith) quickly catches on and grows angry, even as his sister Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) tries to talk him out of his new determination to live the principle. Sarah has a great scene with her father as well, where she tries to tell him that she won’t ever consider what he thinks because of how disastrously some of his decisions have played out. He quietly and calmly gains dominance over the conversation by making her put on a placid surface to wave to her mother. The comedy works very well at the wedding as well, as Margie takes umbrage at being left to sit in the car while Bill goes inside to work things out with Barb and ends up roped into staying for a while. Perhaps Barb’s family is played as too judgmental when it comes to Bill and Barb (especially Barb’s sister), but it stands as a nice contrast to many of the “You’re a polygamist? Well, that’s OK!” scenes that have popped up this season. One of the things most wounding to anyone in a conservative religious creed (or any creed that professes to know the sole way to get to Heaven) is to have a close family member leave that creed in favor of something else, and Barb’s family’s judgment (especially of Bill) seems to believably stem from that place. What’s more, much of this plays as welcome comic relief in an episode filled with drama (particularly a young girl asking Bill if he enjoyed his apostasy).
The rest of the episode is not as compelling as the wedding, but, then, the rest of the episode takes a definite sideline to the wedding storyline. While there is more intrigue at Juniper Creek (especially as Alby plants seeds of doubt in Nicki’s (Chloë Sevigny) mind about whom was behind her father’s shooting, implicating Bill in the process) and while there is a story about Sarah’s boyfriend sleeping around with other girls (she eventually decides it’s OK, largely because Nicki speaks with her about her chastity and because she’s mad at her father for interfering in the matter), the majority of the episode is set at or around the wedding. By focusing its story on the heartbreak between one mother and one daughter, Big Love is able to tie in its other storylines more readily (the show often feels as if it is stitched together from pieces of many different series—not so tonight). And by setting everything at a wedding, one of those places where families get together to bury old grievances in favor of putting on a happy face, Big Love is able to more aptly suggest that the snakes are underneath the covers, ready to strike and seize you by the throat.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.