One of the best things about Big Love is that it’s decidedly agnostic about its purported protagonist, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton). The show is smart enough to admit when he does a good thing but also keeps its distance from the man, as though it’s always concerned that he might turn into the second coming of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton). Critics of Big Love have frequently said the show presents a too idyllic vision of polygamy, but that’s not entirely accurate. The show has frequently criticized Bill and his vision, particularly via Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) and Barb’s mom, Nancy (Ellen Burstyn), and it’s shown how the polygamist lifestyle, even in a seemingly ideal set-up, manages to marginalize women and take away their ability to realize their potential. The show’s detachment, however, gets it into trouble with its critics where other HBO series (notably, The Sopranos) used that detachment to force the audience to probe their complicity in the actions seen on screen. On Big Love, the Henrickson household is presented so appealingly that we WANT it to be the kind of idyllic place it really can’t be, but it never really will be. The foundation it’s built on is the one of sand from the parable.
“Everybody’s well-meaning,” says Sarah in an angry tirade to her friend Heather (Tina Majorino) about why she won’t give up her unborn child to the couple they’ve just met who want to adopt it. The husband of the couple is a gay man (he calls it his “SSA problem”), and he and his wife have a completely fake relationship and seem perfectly OK with that. Sarah, however, wants a better than loveless marriage for her baby, and she certainly doesn’t want that baby raised in a polygamist household (as her brother suggests, when he tells her to give it up to her mom and dad). Sarah is probably the closest thing Big Love has at the moment to a character who is voicing what the show’s producers think about what’s going on (as on most dramas of this caliber, the producers’ surrogate is largely marginalized), so her words speak to something at the center of Big Love, a show about the ways that we are never truly able to divorce anything in our lives from our own selfish impulses. Everybody in the suburban world of Big Love IS well-meaning. Being well-meaning is what much of Western civilization is built on. But that’s almost never enough because altruism (wanting to adopt the child of a teenage mother) gets mixed in with selfish desire (wanting to give the outward appearance of a “normal” family despite the psychological damage it might do to the child) all too often. Both religion and civilization are built on the ideal of curbing our animal appetites, and both encourage us to be “well-meaning,” but both can also cause us to go too far. Pretty much everybody in Big Love that’s not Roman or Lois (Grace Zabriskie) has only the best of intentions in mind, but being well-meaning is rarely enough.
Bill’s having his own moments of well-meaningness in the last couple of episodes, including this week’s “On Trial,” scripted by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by David Knoller. After learning about the Joy Books last week, Bill asked Barb if he was a good man (in a moment that seemed a little forced—he REALLY didn’t know that Roman was shipping teen girls around to others to marry them off), and now, he’s trying to take down Roman but only doing a pretty half-assed job of it. He tries to help Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), but only to the extent that he gets better protection for her from what appears to be the most incompetent DA in the history of the world. Sure enough, Rhonda’s soon on the run with $30,000 and getting lonely truck drivers to listen to her demo tape. (Rhonda’s one of my least favorite characters on the show. She doesn’t make a lot of sense as an actual human being, and she usually seems to be conceived as a symbol of the human cost of polygamy or something. Still, that final scene with the truck driver WAS pretty sad, especially as I assume we’ll never see her again.) Bill might have taken Rhonda into his home and tried to build a support system for a truly messed up girl. It’s not for nothing that we last see Rhonda in Utah talking on the phone to Sarah, telling her that she was wrong about so many things and wants to start over.
Nancy ends up calling Bill on his frequent choice of convenience over what would be the right thing near the episode’s end, when she calls him a gadfly and a dabbler upon learning that Bill is considering taking Ana (Branka Katic) as a fourth wife. (Bursts Lois, “You don’t need four. You’ve got three. That’s celestial. That’s all you need, for now and for eternity. Unless you’re going for a quorum!”) Nancy’s right, in a way. Bill can never be satisfied with what he has. He’s always grasping for more in his personal and business lives, and that will likely prove to be his undoing if it hasn’t already. Bill’s ego also always undermines him, which is why he proposes to Ana as soon as Nancy completes her outburst. (As always on Big Love, this is not as simple as it seems: Notice how Barb immediately jumps in to defend Bill’s plural marriage not as a “lifestyle choice” but as something much deeper, a commitment to God.) Bill also can’t realize that Nicki (Chloë Sevigny, not getting as much to do in this episode as in the last three) is falling apart at the seams, questioning everything her father did and wondering what she truly believes in. That scene of Bill and Nicki playing Go Fish while he avoids talking with her about anything case-related (when, really, she would be the KEY witness to bring down her father) was marvelously scripted and directed, the sort of understated scene laden with subtext that Big Love does really well when it wants to (Sevigny oozes malevolence for her husband even as all she’s doing, pretty much, is asking him for cards). Bill doesn’t even seem to notice that his finances are falling apart, leading to Barb turning to her mother to make sure her kids are cared for, at least.
Big Love’s attempts to portray polygamy as an undesirable way of life have been problematic at best. Even tonight’s episode, probably its most full-throated indictment of polygamy, overplayed its hand a bit by having the DA talk at length about how many young women had been destroyed by polygamy. The monologue was meant to spur Nicki’s feelings towards her father as they continued to curdle, but it did feel rather clumsy to have him suddenly start declaiming about such things. Still, though, “On Trial” managed to attack the polygamist lifestyle directly and succinctly with a minimum of preaching simply by moving the Juniper Creek characters up to Salt Lake City for Roman’s trial. Juniper Creek scenes often seem unnecessary, but the characters all take on a new life by being thrust into the unfamiliar setting of Sandy, Utah. Lois, in particular, seems more human in this context than on the compound, where she too often turns into blackly comic relief. Big Love’s never going to wholly turn on polygamy, even if Sarah (and, by extension, the producers) sees it for what it is, simply because Bill and his wives really DO love each other, but it also knows that that arrangement is definitely not the norm.
Meanwhile, there’s Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin), another person Bill seems to miss slowly falling apart. Indeed, Margie seems to be cracking up in the wake of her mother’s death. First, she’s sharing random photos of her mom with Don Embry (Joel McKinnon Miller). Then, she’s the only person in the episode ignoring the news of Roman’s trial, as she fervently dances to the music on her iPod, memorabilia from her mother’s life all about her. The final cut from inside of Margie’s headspace, where the music dominated, to outside the house entirely, watching her dance in complete isolation from everyone else, news of the trial blaring on her TV, the din of the music barely heard, was pretty masterful, as was the composition of that final shot. Margie goes from there to dying her hair platinum blonde (her mom’s color), and Bill doesn’t seem to draw up any of these connections. Goodwin’s been playing all of this grief in the background, the show only occasionally allowing it to peek through, and given the way things boil away on Big Love, there’s likely to be some sort of outburst in this regard.
The primary focus of the episode, though, was on the trial of Roman, with most of the episode spent in the build-up to it and the final 10 minutes or so dedicated to the trial itself. With everyone but Kathy (Mireille Enos) abandoning their role as witnesses in the trial, Kathy’s testimony is easily picked apart by having her twin sister Jodeen (also Enos) cast doubts on just how old Kathy was when she was sent off to marry Ron. The case against Roman completely falls apart in the wake of that, and he is allowed to walk free. Someone spits on Kathy, Jodeen’s son is removed from the threateningly watchful eyes of the UEB (in another moment that conveyed so much through wordlessness) and the Juniper Creekers walk off, singing a hymn for their God and their prophet (who’s such a good prophet because he only gets on board with sure things). And then Roman thanks Nicki for her help in his freedom, and she pushes him down the stairs, and you realize this story has always been less about the intrigue of the compound and more about Nicki finally beginning to realize who she is outside of her marriage and her paternity. So even if the trial is over, Nicki has a long road to travel.
Sibling pairings also seemed significant in the episode, as Sarah turned to her brother, Ben (Douglas Smith), in an attempt to figure out what to do about her pregnancy, Nicki and her brother Alby (Matt Ross) had words about why Nicki kept trying to appease their parents (leading to Nicki’s push) and Jodeen brought down her sister and sent her into shame. The most interesting relationships on Big Love are often those between siblings (after all, they’re called sister wives, ha ha), because Big Love is always interested in the ways parents’ sins come home to roost with their children. Even in a slightly overstuffed episode like “On Trial” (have this many major plot developments shoehorned themselves into one episode in the series history?), Big Love makes room for the people in your family who are going to speak the unvarnished truth just when you need to hear it.
Some other thoughts:
1. Big Love got a fourth season, despite ratings being slightly down from the second season, after the show’s disappearance for more than a year. The series remains one of the few draws on HBO for a female audience (though True Blood now does fairly well in that demographic as well), so perhaps this renewal shouldn’t have been in doubt, but I was sweating it.
2. That scene with the couple looking to adopt Sarah’s baby was the sort of scene HBO dramas do so well. It certainly didn’t NEED to be in there, and if this were a network drama with no time for digressions like that, it would have been cut, but it was a nice little piece of work, as it verged from funny to sad to awkward to frustrating. The character of the gay man who’s in denial and married to a woman is a laughingstock on most other TV shows (as is the woman), but Big Love manages to balance the ridiculousness of the situation with just the right level of compassion for the characters involved. It definitely helped to have Heather, whose sexuality seems somewhat ... confused, there, but the show also found just the right balance for the married couple as well. The whole thing certainly didn’t NEED to be there, but it commented on so much in the episode and the series as a whole at a thematic level that it felt necessary all the same. (And the coda, with Sarah ranting about being well-meaning while Ben tried to drown her out with Christian rock is the sort of scene you wouldn’t see on any show other than this. Big Love captures the tenor of American fundamentalism so, so well and in a way most other shows wouldn’t even attempt.)
3. Ellen Burstyn’s been appearing quite a bit this season, which is great (Nancy’s a good character and one of our few windows into mainstream LDSers on the show), but I surely can’t be alone in wanting to again see her husband, played by Philip Baker Hall, one of my favorite character actors. Hall got four or five lines in the episode he appeared in last season, and I hope he took the role because the producers promised him great things in Season Three. I am sadly not hopeful.
4. Here’s a legal question I have just in case Nicki suddenly decides to testify: Are the Henricksons, particularly Bill, in any sort of LEGAL trouble for their living arrangement? Since only Bill and Barb are LEGALLY married and since Bill pays child support for all of his kids, there’s really no way he can be prosecuted should his living arrangement come out if Nicki takes the stand, right? I mean, they’re all consenting adults, just living in an odd living situation, and since Bill is only legally married to one woman, he should be in the clear.
5. Last season, there was some discussion in comments about how Bill seemed to be on a path to turn into Roman. Tonight’s episode showed that even as he made a real effort to tear himself away from Roman’s style of life, he inadvertently ended up growing ever closer (telling Rhonda he’d like her more if she testified, proposing to Ana, etc.).
6. Thanks to that dance sequence, I think we can all pretty much safely say that Big Love is just taunting me at this point, yes?
7. See, I said Nicki didn’t get a lot to do, but I completely forgot to mention that scene where she broke down in front of her mother (Mary Kay Place) while digging a pit looking for a cash stash. That just shows you how much she’s had to do in the last few weeks. Also, that DA is totally flirting with her, right?