“Rough Edges,” written by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Dan Attias, just plunges forward, pell-mell, not terribly concerned with if it makes a lot of sense (that Woodruff letter storyline still feels dropped in from another series entirely, Mormon content notwithstanding) but having a good time going ahead anyway. If nothing else, the episode cemented Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) as this season’s most compelling character; the long web of lies she’s been spinning all season crumbled around her in the wake of the infatuated Ray the DA pursuing her so far as her home. The episode also dove into the headlong descent toward the season finale (in two weeks), which was no easy trick, since this season has already had, like, 50 season finales. So this time, Big Love really, really means it.
I speculated last week that the compound characters worked better off the compound than they did on it. Even oily old Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) was somehow much more interesting while imprisoned than he was out and about and messing up Bill Henrickson’s (Bill Paxton) plans. If last week’s episode broke away from the middle portion of this season, where the compound receded in importance within the storylines by setting most of its major plotlines on the compound in one way or another, this week’s episode continued that trend, but somehow managed to make the Juniper Creek compound more compelling than it’s been in a while. Maybe this was because the episode was written by Olsen and Scheffer, who always seem to grasp the Juniper Creek characters better than any of the other writers. Maybe it was because the episode’s central focus—the funeral of Kathy Marquardt (Mireille Enos)—was such a somber occasion that the compound storylines couldn’t go in for the out-of-context weirdness that often sinks said storylines for fear of disrupting the solemn occasion. Or maybe it was just because Nicki, the one character on the show who acts effectively as a bridge between the series’ two worlds, was involved.
Big Love has been dragging the Henricksons to the compound off and on since its first season, and seeing the compound through, say, Margene’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) eyes can be interesting, since she really has no frame of reference for what’s going on there. Nicki, however, is the best character to bridge these two worlds (better, even, than Bill, who grew up there but has consciously chosen to embrace some of its principles and some of the principles of the modern world he actually lives in). In her twisted allegiances, her tendency to blame anyone but herself for things going wrong and her inability to reconcile her morals and desires with the colorful world of Sandy, Utah, she’s the perfect vessel to see the way that an ancient code can be dragged only so far into the modern world. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) can live with the Principle because she’s deluding herself in a lot of ways. Bill can live with it because he’s a mass consumer who takes what he wants and rarely foresees anyone getting in his way (why else would he so consistently announce his big plans before putting them in motion?). Margene can live with it because she’s had so little love in her life that having a lot of it makes her feel safe in many ways. But Nicki really believes this stuff, and this season has been one long attempt to shatter that belief system and see what’s left.
Nicki is maybe Big Love’s most fully-realized character, but the show rarely gives us a clear window into her motives, and Sevigny plays her as even more of a mystery. This makes it easy enough to mistake the character for a poorly-written or motivated one, but the series has spent enough time delving into her in Season Three that it makes some of the less explicable things she did in the earlier two seasons make that much more sense. If Big Love is a show, in some ways, built around the lies people tell just to make their way through the indignities of everyday life and ESPEC.I.A.LLY the lies that anyone trying to hide a secret but still maintain some semblance of existing in the world must tell, then Nicki is the fullest example of someone who has lived with her lies for so long that she no longer knows where the truth ends and the lies begin. When Nicki was confronted with the reality that she had been sold to an older man by her own father earlier in the season (by coming across her adolescent photo in one of the joy books), she simply destroyed the evidence. In the moment, she seemed so stricken that she might go against her father in a way she never had before, but the plot point hasn’t really come up since. That’s likely because so much of the season has been told from Nicki’s point-of-view, and as soon as the evidence that so inconveniently spoke against the false reality she had based her life on had been destroyed, she promptly forgot about it and went back to that false reality, only letting the truth through in little bursts of anger (like when she pushed Roman down the stairs). Now, of course, that first husband (Željko Ivanek, all-purpose TV baddie) has returned, presumably to make Nicki’s life even more problematic in the final two episodes, and Ray’s attempts to track down the woman he thinks to be Margene have unraveled even more of her lies (though I did really like the way the story she tells him about her evil polygamist father and her manipulative mother is about as close to truthful as she’s ever been about her Juniper Creek connection and he didn’t buy it because of how out there it sounded). She’s a woman no longer living with her net, and Sevigny is playing every foiled attempt to construct a new one brilliantly.
I think one of the things that sets Big Love apart from your typical suburban soap-drama is the fact that on something like, say, Desperate Housewives, the characters often hold on to age-old secrets and furrow their brows and think about them over and over while dark music rises on the soundtrack. Big Love really gets at the way that people who live with secrets either eventually have to come clean for their own consciences or manage to skillfully incorporate those secrets into their day-to-day lives. The series relies on all of the characters we most identify with lying so skillfully that no one in their lives suspects the truth. Nicki just takes this a few steps further, having been raised in the ways of deception as she was, and so long as no one pushes too hard, she’s able to get away with a lot. But it’s more than just that. Without her lies, Nicki would see the ways that her father, especially, and her husband, to a degree, have let her down, the ways that the religion she clings to has hollowed her out and destroyed her, leaving her grasping for meaning in as many ways as she can. Ray held such appeal to her because he wasn’t hiding anything. Even though she was lying through their entire relationship, she was almost herself around him. She just had to impersonate an entirely different person to accomplish this.
A lot of fans of Big Love (myself included) have been hoping, if that’s the right word, Nicki would have an affair, mostly because she doesn’t seem totally aware of who she is and an affair and its painful aftermath would eventually lead to her own personal growth in some way. While her affair didn’t actually cross into the realm of the physical (thereby making it the sort of thing Bill could eventually forgive), it was clear Nicki had emotionally moved on from the marriage she was in and on to this new relationship. While Barb could lie to herself and trick herself back into the polygamist set-up she had always been uncomfortable with, it’s not clear that Nicki can overcome the sorts of new feelings she’s stirred in herself to return to the life that she had before. When she says that she loves Bill, it’s another lie, but it’s the most honest one she’s told yet, simply because her eyes betray an entirely different truth. This is the sort of fallout that will reverberate through the seasons to come, and I hope not too tidy of a bow is put on it in the season finale in two weeks.
The business at the compound was, as mentioned, better this week than it has been in other episodes this season. Lois (Grace Zabriskie) is usually played as some sort of quirky comic relief, but the character always works best when she gets back to the extreme grief at her core. Her preparations with Wanda (Melora Walters, very good) for Kathy’s funeral were well-done, utilizing both characters, who have often felt a little stranded this season, and her speech after Kathy’s funeral, about how grief is something the family has to bear and that grief is, perhaps, something ONLY a family can bear, was genuinely moving and managed to tie together a lot of characters who are all trying to soldier on with their own griefs by themselves, from Bill and Barb to Sarah (Amanda Seyfried). Sarah also seemed to benefit, somewhat, from the trip to the compound, sloughing off the grief she’s in over losing her baby to bake a cake and rejoin her family. I’m coming to really appreciate the weekly scenes between Barb and Sarah, and this week’s, with Barb asking her daughter to reconnect with the family again, was no exception.
I’m still not sure what’s up with this Woodruff letter subplot, which seems like the sort of MacGuffin that might have more elegantly been tossed into the season in the premiere or second episode. Coming, as it does, in this last handful of episodes, it kind of feels like one more thing tossed onto the pile haphazardly, and even though the show did a better job of explaining why it was a big deal this week, it still didn’t do a terribly good job of making the struggle to get the main Mormon church to publicly release it dramatically compelling, especially since so much of the intrigue revolves around a marginal character like Ted (Patrick Fabian). Since it increasingly seems like the letter is going to bring the Greenes and the Grants into conflict with the Henricksons being caught in the middle, maybe it doesn’t need to be made dramatically compelling, but if that’s the case, then there was too much time spent establishing just what it was and why it was important, rather than just laying it out there and plowing forward with the umpteenth Greene-Grant war. I AM marginally more interested in the romantic travails of Don Embry (Joel McKinnon Miller) than I usually am, and watching the guy try to get his second and third wives back even when they’ve clearly had enough of him has made him sympathetic without removing much of the character’s built-in loathsomeness.
But most of that stuff just felt incidental. This episode, this season, of Big Love belongs to Nicki and just how deeply she’s entrenched herself in a world that never really existed. The episode ends with Nicki, unable to return to Sandy, trying to find a place to stay on the compound and finding no safe quarter with her parents or Joey (Shawn Doyle) and Wanda. She turns, finally, to the one person she berates most in the episode, simply because she can, Alby (Matt Ross). Alby may come in for the brunt of the abuse on this series, but he has an almost preternatural ability to just smile through it all and take it as it comes until the moment is just right. Now that he and Nicki are under the same roof, we can only wait to see how the both of them, who both base their lives on webs of lies, will attempt to spin their way back into everyone’s good graces.
Some other thoughts:
• No network promotes itself better than HBO, and seeing one of its, “Look at all the STUFF we put on!” promos always makes me want to tune in to some show I’ve abandoned watching long ago, like, say, Entourage just from its proximity to so many other shows I watch. Speaking of which, the first commercials for In Treatment aired tonight, and it looks like a helluva season. Still, I don’t think I’ll be taking on yet another series recap. Sorry. (In addition, that No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency trailer made it look like nothing else on TV. HBO may not always succeed, but it always swings for the fences, one of the things that will always make it the best network on TV.)
• Hey, my concerns about knowing whether or not polygamy was actually illegal appear to have been well-founded, since Ray threatens Nicki with that very thing in this episode.
• For the next few weeks, I’m going to be trying to get recaps together of Big Love AND Breaking Bad (two exemplary series that have a surprising amount of things in common) together on Sunday nights. Tonight, though, I just don’t have the time, so look for the Breaking Bad piece sometime tomorrow.
• So is there any way both Roman and Alby make it out of this season alive? There’s too much free-floating rage out there against both characters, from everyone from the Greenes to Joey.
• Some of the Juniper Creek public buildings look disconcertingly like the various gathering halls at the church camp I went to as a wee one, which always gives scenes like the Kathy funeral reception an extra level of surreality for me.
• Does anyone kind of worry that maybe the show is moving TOO fast? One of the pleasures of “Come, Ye Saints” was that it really slowed down and embraced the rhythm of the road, even as it plugged in almost as many plot points as any other episode. I’m hoping the frantic pace is more a function of the shortened season than anything and that the fourth year allows for a few more meditative episodes.
• Ray the DA may be my favorite incidental character on the show ever. The scene where he confronted the family, concluding with Tripplehorn saying, “I’m Barb” to his exasperation was an episode highlight. In general, I love when shows with out-there premises dump upstanding citizens into the middle of things to be completely stymied by how strange the world they’ve wandered into is. I’d almost like to see this season FROM Ray’s perspective. I imagine it would play a lot like Blue Velvet with fewer psychopaths.