As if making penance for the last two weeks of limited Juniper Creek storylines, Sunday night’s Big Love, “Fight or Flight,” written by Patricia Breen and directed by Adam Davidson, was probably the most Juniper Creek-heavy episode of the season, if not since Season One. Some of this was interesting. Some of it wasn’t. But pretty much all of it trafficked in the strange weirdness of the setting, and that kept some of the tragic things that happened at Juniper Creek from fully passing over from bizarre to truly affecting.
The big plot point here is the death of Joey Henrickson’s (Shawn Doyle) soon-to-be second wife, Kathy Marquardt (Mireille Enos), who is backed into an impossible position by Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton). Much of this was well-staged, particularly the car chase that resulted in Kathy’s death and the establishment of the braid caught in the car door that caused her neck to snap (though, c’mon, when the braid was given such a lavish establishing shot in an earlier scene with Wanda (Melora Walters), it was pretty obvious it would lead to Nothing But Trouble). In addition, the idea of Roman giving away Kathy to the oily Hollis Green (Luke Askew) is nicely shot through with horror, and setting the whole thing in a ramshackle barn is the sort of thing you can only do in the Juniper Creek setting.
But, in a way, that’s the whole PROBLEM with the Juniper Creek setting. The brilliance of Big Love (when it’s brilliant, as it was, fitfully, tonight) is that it makes the idea of a man struggling to keep three wives civil and sane somehow relatable, even when basically no one in the show’s audience WOULD find it relatable. Hanging out with the Henricksons always makes a sort of sense, and what’s interesting is how many of the compound characters also make more sense when they’re in Henrickson central. Lois (Grace Zabriskie), for example, is much more interesting as a loving grandma who has an interesting relationship with, say, Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), as she did in Season One, than she is as a wannabe compound queen. Seeing that old, caring grandmother Lois tonight only highlighted just how irritating it can be to see her try to murder her husband or something like that, the sheer enjoyment gleaned from Zabriskie’s performance aside. Similarly, the story of Joey and Wanda fumbling toward accepting Kathy into their lives, particularly when Wanda wanted nothing of the sort to happen, was more relatable and interesting when the characters were in Sandy, Utah, where their actions (like Wanda throwing herself into the Henrickson pool) were thrown into sharper relief.
I’m sure some really enjoy the seriocomic tone that the Juniper Creek storylines can strike, but to me, doing a scene like the one where Roman hands over Kathy to Hollis needs a consistency of tone and detachment from the material that would allow the full horror of the sequence to sink in with the audience. There’s just too much GOING ON here to really make the material resonate. For one thing, the scene is set in said ramshackle barn, and it prominently features a pig who wanders into the frame, jostling the gender-ambiguous Selma Green (Sandy Martin), who turns out to be Roman’s sister and Hollis’ wife, apparently. And, of course, Selma is also in a dress instead of her trademark male-cut suit. The sequence also features a pitchfork fight and the aforementioned car chase/crash. There’s just too much going on for anything beyond the moment of Kathy’s death to resonate. As I said a few weeks ago, I suspect the Juniper Creek scenes are scrupulously researched, and, obviously, we know things like Roman-esque characters trafficking in the women and girls who live on their compounds really do happen out there in the real world. Obviously, real life can have that element of surreality to it, but the hyper-reality of the Henrickson household makes the surreality feel that much more unreal.
One of the things that makes Big Love so fascinatingly different from the other HBO dramas is just how quickly it moves, just how much HAPPENS in any given episode. Has there been an episode this season that didn’t feel, to some degree, like a season finale? On the other hand, this quick pace means that individual episodes usually feel a touch overstuffed, and Juniper Creek plays a large role in why that seems to be the case as well. In an episode where only the Henricksons are involved (as in last week’s exemplary “Come, Ye Saints”), there can be just as many things going on as there are in an episode like this one, but it doesn’t feel overstuffed because everything is of a piece with everything else. With Juniper Creek thrown in, the series often feels like two different shows stitched freakishly together, unable to separate themselves, even when they really, really try (as the show has done this season, with the Juniper Creek and Henrickson storylines largely existing apart from each other). It’s kinda like a particularly trenchant and moving primetime soap (though that word undersells how good the Henrickson stuff can be) stitched to something like Carnivale, and if it doesn’t really work at this late date, I’m not sure it ever will. A lot of Big Love fans and appreciators seem to enjoy the Juniper Creek stuff on the side, a tasty accent to the main course of the Henrickson family, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really rigorous defense of the Juniper Creek storylines that I’ve found at all believable. If you’ve got one, sing away in comments.
Then again, the main defense one could offer for the Juniper Creek stuff is that it shows the dark side of polygamy, how it can go very, very wrong when you have someone who cares even less about how the women involved in the system feel about things than even Bill (Bill Paxton) does. Big Love has always been most fascinated in its women (again, this focus makes it very, very different from most other HBO dramas, even something as ostensibly female friendly as Six Feet Under), and, I suppose, one could see the Juniper Creek stuff as an example of how the show is really concerned with the state of the modern woman when it’s set in such a patriarchal world. The problem with this thesis is that the people at Juniper Creek aren’t REALLY anything LIKE modern women, not even the fundamentalist Mormons the Henricksons move in the same circles as in their little neighborhood. Look at how Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) deals with the obvious onset of depression. She’s in denial about what’s going on (even as she ends up weeping), and then she goes on Zoloft and takes the initiative to stop Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) from stealing her identity to keep working at the DA’s office. Margene is using pills to forestall a potentially larger problem, as a lot of people in the Henrickson half of Big Love do, but she’s not waltzing off into some other state of being as Wanda was, wetting her bed, promising to hand off her first wife duties and just generally being unusual. I think the contrast between Sandy and Juniper Creek is supposed to be somehow instructive, but I think the entrapment of women like Margene in lives they barely comprehend is much more instructive on its own. It doesn’t need a marauding pig.
As mentioned, though, the stuff with the Henricksons proper was fitfully brilliant, even as it seemed to take a backseat to the Juniper Creek world. Bill and Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) got shoehorned into a plot that didn’t really work, where Barb’s brother-in-law Ted (Patrick Fabian) was covering up the existence of a letter from an old LDS prophet that said the church intended to keep polygamy as a hidden practice. (Side note: Is such a letter actual LDS conspiracy lore, like the existence of the One True Cross or the Spear of Destiny is for some Catholic sects? I have to assume such a thing has never been found, or we all would have heard about it. I also have to assume that it’s going to prove to be a hoax, because Big Love has rarely seen fit to fictionalize the actual LDS church all THAT much.)
However, both had to deal with the fallout of Sarah’s miscarriage at the end of the last episode, using the old-fashioned parental guilt trip of suggesting just how disappointed they were without actually coming out and saying it, then just being nice to her. They bought her a car. They both talked about how happy she’d be at ASU, and, of course, just as they must have suspected she would, Sarah caved in and decided to attend college in state, while consigning poor Heather (Tina Majorino), who seems to only have Sarah as a friend, to going off to ASU all by her lonesome. The relationship between Heather and Sarah, which has subtextual undertones of Heather having feelings she can’t properly place for Sarah, has been one of the show’s better elements from the start, and it came to a head tonight, with Heather erupting in anger when she found out she was going off to Arizona all alone. Sarah is one of the few characters the audience can sympathize with almost completely, and that often lets us realize how casually she can dismiss the people around her, so the Heather anger came much more forcefully than we might have expected. Plus, it led to a scene where Sarah feared God was punishing her by taking the baby away but also admitted to the queasy realization that she didn’t REALLY miss it as she collapsed in her mother’s arms. Tripplehorn and Seyfried have probably the best mother-daughter relationship on TV, and scenes like this show why.
And then there’s Nicki, who, confronted by Bill and the other wives about her use of birth control pills (again, pills controlling reality in a way almost every woman in America is familiar with), throws herself into the tentative opening steps of an affair with Ray, the DA. Everything Nicki-related in this episode is absolutely terrific, from the jittery camerawork of the intervention scene to the way she seems ever-more boxed in as Margene discovers how she’s lied to keep the job and also meets Ray to how her clothes shift to the sorts of things you’d never expect to see Nicki wear when she goes on her date with Ray, who gives her all the attention she could ever possibly need. Most of the Henrickson stuff in this episode consisted of setting up storylines for future episodes (even the Kathy storyline seems more set up to get Joey and Bill really, really mad at Roman, even more so than they were before), and seeing Nicki embark on an affair is as terrifically thought out as everything in her storyline has been this season. (I know that the idea of Nicki assuming Margie’s identity to work at the DA’s office completely stretches plausibility, but all of the unexamined emotions this action has awakened in her are worth the initial unbelievability.)
And that, ultimately, is why I watch this show: to see the characters stuck in new situations or in new relationships that reveal more about who they are and how they’ve come to be who they are. Seeing Barb shot for most of the episode as a monster, always lurking on the horizon to antagonize Sarah or trapping Nicki in a shower, only to then see her holding her daughter in tears later said as much about the ways mothers and daughters or two women might interact as anything you could see at Juniper Creek. Watching Bill casually suggesting that Sarah’s new car could take her anywhere, not just ASU, revealed a lot more of the casual depths of his passive-aggressive approach to child-rearing. Seeing Margie collapse in tears at the idea of not getting to go grocery shopping with a neighbor reaffirmed her loneliness that much more and showed how she fights back against feeling out of control by very much asserting her control. These little scenes out of everyday life are what Big Love does best, and that’s why the Juniper Creek storylines, which actively go out of their way to leave what feels like real life behind, often fall flat.
Some other thoughts:
• Ginnifer Goodwin is brunette again! All is right with the world!
• So, hey, there’s no such thing rumored as a Woodruff letter, right? I couldn’t find anything on Wikipedia or Google, but I’m not as well-versed in LDS conspiracy theories as I might be (only so many hours in the day), so if you’ve heard of such a thing, speak up, since this seems like it’s going to be a big plot point in the final episodes.
• HBO can make just about any episode countdown feel as momentous as possible. I’m honestly not surprised they’re not throwing one of those ostentatious, “ONLY THREE EPISODES LEFT!” voice-overs into the Flight of the Conchords next-week-ons.
• I’ve realized why I like Barb so much. She’s totally my mom! That whole “Don’t let your laundry pile up!” speech was pretty much verbatim out of her, “You are going away to college, and we are going to spend QUALITY TIME TOGETHER” playbook. Then, I suspect, it’s a page out of lots of moms playbooks. I’m also pretty sure we had that whole fight about making bad decisions and getting pregnant, which would be odd for me to have had with her but still felt like it was ripped from my subconscious.
• I sometimes wonder what the hell Melora Walters thinks of what the script has her doing from week to week. “I make a collage featuring Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Cool!”
• Here’s a leftover bit from last week’s episode: I have absolutely been to Reptile Gardens, and it is as fascinating as you would think from its name.
• I kind of love how bizarrely straitlaced Ray the DA is and just how little he seems to question anything that goes on around him. He just threw away a completely great case, basically, because he didn’t seek to plug up the leaks from his office, and now he just takes Nicki blurting out the name “Barb” to cover up Margie’s real name (the most hackneyed of hackneyed plot devices) in stride. Then again, I also liked how blithely unconcerned Nicki seems to be with being Ray’s leak, despite her obvious attraction to him.
• Line of the week: “Roman’s the prophet of the Holiday Inn!” That’s probably his Facebook status.