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Big Love Recap Season 3, Episode 2, “Empire”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 2, “Empire”

HBO

The biggest complaint usually leveled against Big Love is that the scenes set at the Juniper Creek compound, focusing on the shenanigans of the United Effort Brotherhood, are just never as compelling as the scenes set among the Henricksons in their Salt Lake City-metro area compound. In the first two seasons, there was a real effort made to draw the various Henricksons into these storylines (mostly Bill, though Nicki would also get involved and the other two wives would stop by from time to time), and this mostly served to highlight how much weaker these storylines were when compared to anything going on with Bill, Barb, Nicki, Margie and the kids. This season, however, the two settings have so far remained completely separate, as though Big Love had randomly turned itself into one of those movies where a whole bunch of directors get together to make a variety of short films about a common subject (in this case, polygamy). This has served to make the Juniper Creek scenes glide by more easily than they did in the past. It’s also served to highlight just where the disparity between the two storylines comes from.

I remarked last week that Juniper Creek often felt like something that was forced onto the show by network notes. While I don’t actually think that, it does have the feel of timid creative personnel, worried that their portrayal of the Henrickson lifestyle would prove too idyllic (it doesn’t) and somehow gloss over the real problems of polygamists (particularly the women caught in such situations) the world over. To that end, I’m sure that the Juniper Creek storylines and situations are scrupulously researched and planned out to present the reality of living on a polygamist compound. But within the world of Big Love—which presents itself as a DayGlo, escapist fantasy full of color and life and dangers hidden beneath the surface—this just doesn’t feel realistic at all. You’ll be hanging out with Bill and Margie as they try to sell a reticent Indian gaming magnate on the idea of a Mormon-friendly casino, and then she’ll mount an impassioned, inadvertently racist defense of polygamy, which is something that has probably never, ever, ever happened, and you’ll just kind of go with it, but when the same series drops us into a gray, drab world of female oppression, where a first wife running out of options turns to selling exotic birds to make a few extra dollars, it just feels too WEIRD to be real. There are parrots flying around, and Bruce Dern is getting conked over the head with a shovel, and there’s tons of intrigue, but it all just feels false somehow. Big Love is such a weird show already that one of the weirder parts of actual reality just feels too far around the bend. It’s a Sundance David Lynch knockoff grafted onto a superior suburban soap.

But, as mentioned, the compound scenes are vaguely entertaining this year. Part of that stems from the wise decision to keep the Henricksons mostly out of things. Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) occasionally drops by to provide her mom (Mary Kay Place) with the info needed to get her father, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), off the hook for sundry charges, but for the most part, the Henricksons are doing their own thing, and the compound gang is off in its own storylines. Now, I still probably wouldn’t want to watch a full Juniper Creek spinoff, but I’m more interested in the whole storyline now that the show is forcing us to choose sides between the loathsome Alby (Matt Ross), who’s pursuing the right course of action (getting Roman convicted for the treatment of his child brides) for mostly the wrong reasons, and the perhaps slightly less loathsome Roman, who deserves to go to jail for a very long time for all of the things he’s done but at least can form uneasy alliances with Bill, et al, due to his daughter’s marriage to Bill. It’s a more interesting position to place the audience in than in the first two seasons, when we were mostly asked to side with either Bill or Roman. The answer was too easy: Bill is an unfeeling jackass, but he has yet to turn into an absolute, misogynist monster (though he often seems to be on his way). Roman IS that monster, and too many innocent young girls have been caught in his wake.

Sadly, no matter how hard the Juniper Creek stuff tries, it’s just never going to be as compelling as what’s going on at Henrickson Central, where the five most interesting characters (Bill, his three wives and his oldest daughter, Sarah) all got interesting storylines this week. Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) probably got the least screen time, but she tested the waters with her parents for going to Arizona State instead of the University of Utah, traveled to a strange, ersatz compound for Juniper Creek refugees in Salt Lake (where she was told she was the product of Satan by a teen girl clad in a faded, handmade dress in one of the few times when the culture clash between Juniper Creek and the Henricksons has worked well), and broke up with her boyfriend, Scott (Aaron Paul, now a regular over on Breaking Bad, another series that attempts to tackle some of the same issues of how far you’ll stretch morality in the name of family).

Seyfried is often the show’s most unheralded performer, and at first, her tears over losing her boyfriend (whom she told she just wasn’t in love with) seemed like those of a girl mourning a first love that’d just fallen short, but the end of the episode revealed that Sarah was pregnant. On most other series, this would just be tired writing, the kind of easy punishment for a sexually active teenage girl that too many series deal in. (What? Her brother couldn’t get HIS girlfriend pregnant last season instead?) The initial reaction to seeing Sarah cradling a pregnancy guide and her boyfriend’s sweater in tears is to reject the whole storyline from the start, but Big Love has always dealt with the uneasy clash between the modern world and religious fundamentalism, and this storyline could easily confront the biggest example of that in modern politics: abortion. This feels like something Big Love’s writers could be interested in (they’ve written sensitively about the conflict between religious impulse and sexual desire in the past), and HBO’s the kind of network that would allow an abortion to play out on screen with some degree of emotional honesty (instead of having Sarah have a miscarriage on the way to the clinic or something).

Where Big Love is giving us a cliché development in the Sarah plot, though, it’s taking away a different potentially cliché development just as quickly, with the revelation that Barb’s cancer return was nothing more than some benign growths. I was pretty certain that this was going to be Jeanne Tripplehorn’s big Emmy tape arc this season (giving a favored character cancer is a pretty reliable form of Emmybait), but the way this is playing out is almost more interesting. Barb used her cancer as an excuse to start pushing Bill (Bill Paxton) towards Ana (Branka Katic) as a potential fourth wife (the episode featured two toe-crunchingly awkward dates between Ana and the Henrickson family), just in case she wasn’t around to take care of her family. The scenes where Bill and Nicki both found out about the possible cancer return were well-done reminders of how central Barb is to the whole family, and the final scene, where Barb found out she was cancer-free while at an indoor picnic for Ana, was a good twist for the character. Now that she’s reasonably assured of her place on the Henrickson family ladder, Barb, who has always second-guessed her decision to let Bill take a second wife, is suddenly realizing that she doesn’t REALLY know this Ana after all (conveyed entirely in a wonderful look by Tripplehorn that closes out the episode, Elton John wailing away in the background).

Bill’s storyline dovetailed with Margie’s (it contained the implausible plotline mentioned above where Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) insulted the Indian gaming guy, and he ended up being totally OK with it because nothing goes wrong in Bill’s business pursuits, apparently), but the most interesting part of Bill’s plot had to do with the revelation that Don Embry’s (Joel McKinnon Miller) second and third wives had run off together (a throwaway shot in the first season showed the two of them playing footsie, and I’m glad the show finally followed up on this) and taken the kids they had had with Don with them. The revelation that Don was suddenly a monogamist and thus the perfect front for Bill’s attempts to build the Mormon-friendly casino worked well enough and justified the continued presence of Don, who is often the one character on the show who too obviously plays the broad sorts of religious fundamentalism we expect from other, weaker shows. Seeing Don in outright despair worked, and Bill’s attempts to pull everything together and buck up Don at the same time feel like they will probably backfire (before, inevitably, succeeding in the season finale).

Bill closed out the episode by talking about how he was with all of his “boys,” and saying that things were finally turning around, but if Big Love has taught us anything, it’s that Bill really needs to be paying closer attention to the women in his life, not the men, who are all either children or corrupt in some way. I don’t think it was a coincidence that this declaration was closely followed by revealing that Bill’s mother Lois (Grace Zabriskie) was keeping his father (Bruce Dern) tied up at her place and revealing that Sarah was pregnant. In comments last week, we talked a bit about how Big Love disguises its feminism very well (owing to the setting), but in general, the show has trained us to distrust these sorts of vague pronouncements from Bill. (I had intended to give Margie a full paragraph, but there just wasn’t enough here for her to do, outside of bugging everyone about not wanting to be the next wife to have a baby and her slightly forced plotline with Bill’s casino dealings. I remain intrigued by Margie’s attachment to Ana, and her love of being a sales associate also feels like it could play off, but this doesn’t really feel like it’s going to be her season.)

The episode, ultimately, belonged to Nicki, who has been taking birth control in an attempt to not have another child (as the show reminded us tonight) and in an attempt to assert what little control she has over her own life. The scene where Barb and Margie took Nicki to a fertility clinic to find out what was wrong and she broke down to the doctor, ultimately taking home more birth control pills, was a terrific one for Sevigny, who’s probably got the highest degree of acting difficulty on the show (Nicki cannot be too sympathetic like Barb or too naïve like Margie, but she also can’t be the stereotyped monster she was for too much of season one), and she really nailed every portion of the complicated monologue about how her whole life consisted of people telling her what to do, which probably seemed overwritten on the page but fit Nicki perfectly. Nicki’s being torn between a variety of worlds, including her job, the Henrickson homes, Juniper Creek and her suburban neighborhood, and her desire to take control of her life and stop answering to so many people has plenty of potential for the year ahead. For the second episode, Nicki’s also dressed in a way that keeps her from standing out too much in the colorful Henrickson world (this time, mostly in very bland whites). Only when she’s at the doctor’s office does her clothing stand out (mostly due to the dark room she’s in, but still). Nicki’s finally asserting herself, and what’s to come should be fascinating.

Some thoughts:

• I had hoped to center this review around the feminism comments, but I got more interested in the Juniper Creek/Henrickson disparities, so that will just have to wait.
• Despite my complaints about the Juniper Creek exotic bird storyline, it did provide my line of the week: “Why are you massaging that bird’s anus with a Q-Tip?”
• The perils of Joey (Shawn Doyle) and Wanda (Melora Walters) have not interested me as much as they might have this season, but I’m intrigued by how Wanda’s asserting herself in the face of Joey taking a second wife. The more Roman and Bill look only at the women in their lives as baby-making machines (and the more those women rebel against that image when they can’t have babies or choose not to), the more the show reminds us of just how much more they are than that. There’s a thread running throughout the episode of women’s role in the process of having children (from Wanda to Barb to Nicki to Margie to Sarah), and I hope the show keeps exploring this territory.
• Tonight’s episode featured a story by Dustin Lance Black, who’s owed congratulations for receiving an Oscar nomination Thursday morning for writing the script for Milk.
• I’m not a big Elton John fan, but, man, Tumbleweed Connection is a pretty great album, isn’t it?
• On a similar musical note, I liked that the kids at the compound squatters’ house were listening to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” It amused me for some reason. I also enjoyed seeing Heather (Tina Majorino) in that situation.
• The trip to Salt Lake City to film establishing shots (I assume that’s all they filmed) continues to pay off. They’ve offered a nice bit of local flavor in each of the episodes so far this season, and I hope they continue.

For more recaps of Big Love, click here.