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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 5, "For Better or for Worse"

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<em>Big Love</em> Recap: Season 3, Episode 5, “For Better or for Worse”

Few shows on TV have as many scenes that feel like they should be dream sequences but actually turn out to be reality as Big Love does. It’s probably because everyone on the show has something of an impulse control problem, so things tend to spin quickly out of control. Another show would have spent most of this week building up to the wedding with Ana (Branka Katic), but Big Love dispatched with that in the second scene. As soon as she said yes, Bill (Bill Paxton) was ready to get married in his backyard (at 3:30 that very afternoon, no less). Was it any wonder that things spiraled out of control from there?

The Ana character has been a little ill-defined, to be honest. Since she’s not in the Henrickson household, we get very few views of her outside of their perspectives on her, but what we’ve seen suggested that the woman might not be the best fit for America’s favorite polygamists. Why has Ana been so amenable to possibly joining this arrangement? Like a lot of people on Big Love, she often seems pretty lonely (even if she had another lover in addition to Bill), and, certainly, joining the Henricksons, complete with four people yearning to love her, might seem tempting, but there’s also a sense that Ana, as levelheaded as she may seem, has just as big of an impulse control problem as the notorious consumer Bill (and more on that in a moment). Most courtships would normally delve into issues like Bill’s belief that he would be Ana’s lord, more or less, or into the idea that all of the Henricksons pool their cash into a community fund of some sort, but because Bill plunged forward so quickly (perhaps the better to keep Ana from questioning what she was about to do), none of this really came up. As modern as the Henricksons are in comparison to their relatives at Juniper Creek, they’re still fairly out-of-step with the actual modern world.

It’s the wedding sequence near the open of “For Better or for Worse,” written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and directed by Julie Anne Robinson, that feels like it should be a dream sequence. Everyone’s clad in pastels or whites but Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), on break from work and clad in her work uniform, and the whole thing has a hazy, gauzy feel to it, as though Ana is suddenly going to wake up in a cold sweat and realize what she’s about to do, but the thing just keeps on going and going, the pastor wedding the two of them, Ben (Douglas Smith) picking away at the Wedding March on his guitar, Don (Joel McKinnon Miller) congratulating the two. The whole scene is shot through with a sweetness that’s disarming, but at all times, there’s a sense that things are careening wildly out of control, that this SHOULDN’T BE HAPPENING, which the show gooses by shooting the whole thing ever-so-slightly LIKE a dream sequence (again with the gauzy filters), so you always expect them to pull the escape hatch. But no one ever does, and soon Bill is giving Ana a loving peck on the cheek and saying that he’s got to follow up their wedding with ... a meeting, to which he promptly disappears with Don. It’s really only at this point that you realize this is really happening and that the Henricksons, good-hearted though they may be, really haven’t thought this through in any way.

What’s most interesting is that the episode plays up Ana’s culture shock at entering a deeply patriarchal system (the conversation where Bill tries to gently steer her towards sharing her diner tips with the others in the way he might tug one of his other wives in the direction he wanted them to go and she erupts in fury is a pretty solid depiction of a modern woman dropped suddenly into this kind of a life, in a way I think a lot of the show’s detractors have always expected it to indulge in), but the real friction from Ana’s arrival comes between the other wives, specifically between Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who sees in the more mature Ana an adult friend she can share conversations and adventures with, and Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who also crave not only Ana’s attention but Barb’s as well. Despite having such a large family, almost all of the women on Big Love seem catastrophically lonely much of the time, particularly Margie and Nicki, who are immature and ill-suited for the suburban life, respectively. Barb has been, to a real degree, their connection to normality, but the relationship is not reciprocal. When Barb points out at the end of the episode that she loves the two but doesn’t really think of them as friends, it’s one of the more quietly devastating moments in the show’s history (listen to all of the suppressed hurt in Margie’s voice as she tries desperately to fix this even though it couldn’t really be fixed unless she became a fundamentally new person, which is impossible while she’s a Henrickson, to a real degree).

Ana has that effect on the Henricksons as a whole. She gets Nicki to loosen up a little and get drunk while the two go out bowling together, even if it leads to Nicki’s sadness at learning that Barb is grooming Ana as a new lieutenant (or, at least, that’s how Nicki sees it). She kicks off a deeply passive-aggressive war between Barb and Margie over whom she’s going to live with. She even manages to somewhat tongue-tie the usually confident and headstrong Bill when she demands he buy her a house and demands she get to keep her tips. And then she leaves, having realized that the Henricksons have a living arrangement that is perhaps unsustainable but also has a weird balance to it that keeps them rolling. With her around, old, long-buried faults that are kept closed for the good of the family come rumbling back to life, and the fallout could end up being catastrophic. Barb’s struggle with her decision to let Bill take a second wife even resurfaces briefly, while Margie struggles to hold it together in the wake of seeing Ana, her onetime best friend, moving on to Barb, who seemingly doesn’t care what Ana’s favorite color of flower is. Goodwin plays furiousness in a way that’s somehow both hilarious and heartbreaking, and as she’s angrily tearing up the plants Barb just planted, she teeters on that knife’s edge terrifically.

Nicki, meanwhile, views Ana’s new influence on her life as a half impetus to continue her strange flirtation with the DA. Earlier in the episode, she leaves her work, citing family reasons, and he seems sad to see her go. When he leaves her a message that starts out somewhat professionally and ends up in him being deeply, deeply smitten, she’s not quite sure how to respond. If Big Love’s first season was, to a real degree, about driving home just HOW an arrangement like this could work and if the second season was about all of the whys and wherefores of how that arrangement came to be and what things in the past had to be deeply buried, Season Three is really looking like it’s going to be about the characters slowly waking up to emotions they didn’t know they had and desires they didn’t know they yearned for. Watch Nicki slam the phone shut after hearing the message, then watch her in a later scene, sitting on her staircase in a moonlit house, dreamily leaving another message for her former boss about how she wants to come back to work again, always careful to refer to him as Mr. Henry, not by his real name. It’s a lovely little grace note of a scene that doesn’t really build to anything else in the episode but serves to continue the season-long theme of Nicki discovering herself. Is there a way Nicki has an affair with the DA and doesn’t find parts of herself she didn’t know were there? (She seems deep enough in denial about what she’s doing right now. Heaven forfend if she actually had sex with him!) Barb was always, seemingly, the wife most likely to leave, but the events of Season Two served to reinforce her commitment, if not to the principle then to her sister wives and her husband. But Nicki is, we’re starting to realize, even MORE of a danger to bolt. Like a teenager confronting their own religion for the first time, Nicki is realizing some of the awful things done in the name of her father, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), and beginning to realize that there’s more to life than she thought there was. It’s hard to imagine the show without Sevigny, but Nicki has started down a path she may not be able to turn back from without a good amount of willful self-denial.

The final scene, the Henrickson wives mostly wordlessly leaving after learning that Ana has resolved to divorce them, leaving Bill to stare plaintively at her and say that he thought their union was meant to be, was marvelously constructed, the afternoon light filtering into the Henrickson kitchen, the hurt on all three wives’ faces there for an instant, then gone, when other duties called them away, first Margie, then Nicki, then, reluctantly, Barb. Only Bill and Ana were left then, and while she seemed to think that this was somewhat inevitable, Bill found himself dumbfounded that it had gone this way. Bill has traditionally followed his gut (or another part of his anatomy), figuring that God was taking care of him, but this season has been full of one misreading of a situation after another. Bill’s kind of a loathsome figure, but Paxton has been playing his growing pain at the sad turns of his life well, and you almost feel sorry for the guy as the episode draws to a close on his wounded face.

The Ana marriage—all 72 hours or so of it—was such a perfect encapsulation of all of the things that Big Love can do well that the rest of the episode felt a little blah, as it mostly tried to keep a few plates spinning in favor of helping the show hurtle into the back half of its third season. Sarah and Heather (Tina Majorino) decided they would attend ASU together and raise Sarah’s unborn child together in an idyllic Eden that would certainly crash on the shores of reality but was exactly the sort of thing two teenage girls might dream up. And they and the other teens (after watching Rosemary’s Baby, an amusingly apropos choice to both rile up Heather and frustrate Sarah) went down to the compound, where Roman had wandering crews of police intimidating whomever they could find. The scenes at the compound felt particularly out of place this week, as Sarah and Heather wandered into some weird outdoorsy survival riff that felt like it was a long series of outtakes from Picnic at Hanging Rock or something, while Ben and Frankie went to confront Frankie’s dad (Bruce Dern) in some scenes that didn’t really go anywhere. The idea of using Frankie to allow us to see how Bill was when he first left the compound was a potentially interesting one (no show uses surrogates better to fill in character backstory indirectly), but the whole thing never took off, perhaps a casualty of condensing 12 episodes to 10. Similarly, the tension between Alby (Matt Ross) and Roman was raised but never really developed beyond an early scene at a meeting of the Grant family, while Bill’s negotiations with Ted (Patrick Fabian) over a priceless Mormon artifact Alby could get for Ted were just more of the sorts of backroom wheelings and dealings the show rarely excels at.

To be fair, the Ana plot also felt like a victim of the episode compression (the order was cut because of the writers strike, which also kept the show off the air for so long), but because it raised so many interesting issues and points about our central four characters, it felt like the sort of whirlwind marital tour that might really happen in a marriage like this. Would seeing the Ana marriage disintegrate over a handful of episodes despite all of the warnings all parties involved ignored in the courtship have been preferable? Perhaps. But the tack of showing us just a handful of scenes from this marriage, suggesting a world where this all might have worked out, made that final moment cut all the deeper.

Some other thoughts:

1.Big Love has always had a breakneck pace, particularly when compared to other HBO shows, but in its first two seasons, it regularly had episodes where everything would slow down for the characters to, say, go to a wedding. When the episode order was cut, the slower episodes were probably the first to go, and that means everything that’s followed has been a little head-spinning. It’s a good head-spinning, but I don’t know if the show could keep up a pace this brisk for another season.

2. There was very little mention of the death of Margie’s mother in the episode, and she mostly seemed to be holding herself together, but it pretty obviously resurfaced in the face of Barb not really viewing her as a friend OR a contemporary. In this respect, giving Margie the crazy platinum hair (with, let’s face it, a not-very-good wig) was probably a good call, since it’s constantly reminding us of what she’s lost.

3. So just how old do you suppose Ana was supposed to be? I’m assuming that Barb ended up warming to her so much because she had lived a full-ish life and was more mature in comparison to Nicki and Margie, but was there also an element of the two being closer in age? I’m assuming Barb’s mid-40s, Nicki’s mid-30s, and Margie’s mid-20s, and I’d place Ana at about 37 or 38, but I could be wrong.

4. I keep forgetting to write down my lines of the week, but tonight’s likely would have involved Nicki calling Barb a womanizer.

5. I’m actually a little sad to see Ana go. I would have enjoyed seeing the series try to integrate yet another wife, but, at the same time, it might have made everything too full. I do hope we see her again, and if my assumption that Season Four will be a Margie-centric season is correct, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t.

6. Very few of the compound folk turned up at all tonight, and I didn’t really miss them, though it would be nice to know what Lois is up to. It’s also always nice to see Patrick Fabian turn up (I remember him most as the dark professor on Veronica Mars, but he’s been in a huge number of things, including last week’s episode of Life), but the Ted plotline remains a little too sketchy to really resonate.

7. As much as I liked the Ana and Henrickson portions of this episode, I really quite loved next week’s episode. (Worry not, true believers! I have not spoiled anything!) It’s one of the finer episodes of television I’ve seen in quite a while and an example of Big Love making its compressed season work to its advantage. Set your TiVos!

House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.