“What is it in us, Alby, that makes us the way we are?” Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) asks early in “Outer Darkness,” Big Love Season Three’s penultimate episode, written by Eileen Myers and directed Michael Lehmann (a terrifically talented TV director still mostly known for the 80s teen comedy Heathers). The whole episode hinges on that question and returns to one of Big Love’s favorite themes—the uneasy mix between the purity of religious creed and the imperfection of human beings. The things Nicki and Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Bill (Bill Paxton) have done are all eminently HUMAN things to have done, but by giving in to their own desires and their human emotions (in Barb’s case), they find themselves cast out of family and faith. The entirety of human constructs like religion and society are based around the idea that we can use a greater good to overcome our messy biologies, but those biologies inevitably let us down. When the boyfriend you most likely rightfully kicked to the curb comes back into your life and says he’s so sorry you lost the baby, are you going to stand firm to what you know is probably the right thing to do or welcome him back with open arms? No matter how devoted you are to your creed (be it religious or otherwise), you’re always going to let it down. You’re a human being. It’s what we do.
There’s a lot to unpack in “Outer Darkness,” which returns to the apocalyptic feeling that much of the show’s second season had. That feeling made sense in the second season, which was about Barb confronting her own personal apocalypse, and it wouldn’t have made much sense in this season until this point, since this season has mostly focused on wearing down Nicki’s beliefs to where she would realize everything she stood to lose by ceasing to be a Henrickson. The episode also courted a fair amount of controversy by dramatizing a sacred rite of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Big Love has always held mainstream Mormonism at arm’s length, simply because to its characters (fundamentalist polygamists who believe they hold true to Joseph Smith’s true ways and that the church has betrayed those true ways), the church is an institution that fosters ill will. Barb, however, has always kept a tenuous relationship with the mainstream church, mostly through her family, and the re-immersion in its culture and ceremonies showed just how deeply Barb felt some of those convictions even though she no longer believed in them, like a lapsed Catholic might still feel a deep tug at the heart when returning to the church to take communion or something. Intellectually, you’ve long since left, but the emotional muscle memory runs deep.
Since the LDS church is not QUITE mainstream in most of the United States and since the church is notoriously secretive about many of its ceremonies, the church’s reaction to news that HBO was going to show as close a dramatization of an endowment ceremony as it could muster was predictably irritable. (The church is ever vigilant against persecution, which is understandable in light of the bloody clashes with mainstream Christians less than two centuries ago, which drove church founders out into the Utah wilderness.) However, the portrayal of the ceremony was eminently respectful (erring, perhaps, on the side of being TOO respectful). If it wasn’t completely realistic in its portrayal of how Barb came to the ceremony, well, that’s why the Internet made comments boards, where already the devout are reaching out to explain to those not in the know (such as myself) how these ceremonies are typically carried out, creating the sort of understanding the church feared this episode wouldn’t foster at all. Pop culture can be funny like that.
Speaking as someone who has literally no idea what, say, the meaning was of the secret handshake Barb and the church elder exchanged before she entered the temple’s Heaven-by-proxy room, the scene was nonetheless an intense evocation of why religion continues to hold such sway over so many of us even in an age when science and psychology have explained away most of the big, central mysteries that prompted a need for religion in the first place. There’s a comfort, a certitude to the major fundamentalist religions. You know your place in the world. You generally know how to behave. You know where you’re going when you die. A fundamentalist religion takes the randomness and uncertainty of life and reduces them to a number of easily solved equations. We know why we’re doing what we’re doing because we were told what to do by someone who knows better.
I’ve seen some comment that the episode didn’t need to show Barb going through the endowment ceremony, that the post-ceremony scene in the Heaven room was enough and didn’t betray the sacred rituals. I disagree. Seeing Barb go through the ceremony, even if it doesn’t have a dramatic arc, puts the character in the frame of mind to have her quiet breakdown in the room afterward, to realize the ultimate betrayal of her sister. And the whole thing also drives home how much Barb, even if she disagrees with the church’s stance on polygamy, still VALUES the church as an unspoken presence in her life. Even if she has faith that her creed is the right way to live, there’s still that nagging part of her concerned that she’s followed the wrong path, that she really WILL lose her family in the afterlife and be cast into darkness. Just because you stop believing so wholeheartedly in something doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have its hooks in you.
This also makes the latter scene with Barb meeting with the church elders that much more tragic. It’s as cold and clinical as the earlier church scene was strange and mystical. If the endowment ceremony is the church going about its heavenly business, the meeting with the elders is the church going through its earthly business. It also underlines the fact that if religion is one form of certitude and one form of making sure one lives on after death, having a family is another form. Barb is just one of the people in the episode unable to live up to a creed she desperately wants to because she chooses something human and real over the purity of the creed. In Barb’s case, she chooses a family she never really wanted but has come to love, even if she’s mad at Nicki for the time being. Because she cannot see herself ditching them or suddenly ceasing to love them, she is forced, tearfully, to leave something she holds very dear. Barb’s storyline has always been about how trying to live a good life usually ends up with a person having to choose between two very painful options, and this was perhaps her most painful choice.
The episode’s other major thread involved Bill and Nicki deciding whether or not to dissolve their marriage after Nicki’s indiscretions with Ray the DA (Chip Esten). Bill got his judgmental on, telling Nicki that there was something broken in her he couldn’t fix and that she would never know how much he loved her and so on. It’s understandable behavior in light of an affair (emotional or otherwise) coming to light, but he also seems to miss completely how much Nicki seems to regret what she’s done, the way she’s let her own desires let down her commitment to creed and family. I’ve been arguing that Nicki might end up being a more fully-actualized human being if she left Bill and explored the rest of the world a little bit, but it also seems she doesn’t really WANT to do that.
As Bill nags at her about how she’s let him down, though, he seems to ignore all of the ways that his situation throughout the season has directly paralleled Nicki’s. After all, the only person this season to have actual extramarital sex WAS Bill. Even if it was in the guise of dating, his session with Ana (Branka Katic) in the season premiere (which I had almost completely forgotten about) was against everything the principle ostensibly stands for. Bill’s also been too focused on trying to bridge gaps between the compound and his suburban life via the Woodruff letter and trying to help his younger brother, leaving him not even seeing how his wives and daughter have descended into utter despair in many cases. Interestingly, even as Bill is casting Nicki out of his family, Joey (Shawn Doyle) casts Bill out of his immediate circle after Bill strikes a deal with Roman. I doubt this will last, but it does seem to force Bill to contemplate how far he’s let things get out of control this season (he actually gets upbraided by Don (Joel McKinnon Miller)—DON!—this episode) when he could have easily stopped focusing on things that didn’t really matter like time capsules and Woodruff letters and focused on his fraying family. It’s no accident that the episode ends with Bill falling into an abyss and being forced to look up and literally confront the infinite, like the rich man cast into Hell tormented by visions of a paradise he can never reach. Paxton plays Bill so opaquely, and the show so rarely gives us a scene where someone denounces him that it’s easy to miss just how little regard the show often holds him in. It certainly wasn’t tonight.
Nicki’s stuck at the compound, where she gets involved in the first interesting Alby (Matt Ross) plot all season. In general, I could care less about the Alby/Roman battles, but having Alby find proof that Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) HAD been involved in the death of Kathy (Mireille Eros) and then deliver that proof to Joey (Shawn Doyle) held promise for the season finale. Similarly, Alby’s relationship with Nicki is more interesting than his relationship to anyone else, though the show rarely has occasion to exploit this, so seeing him try to win her over to his side made the character more compelling than usual. Nicki works in the Juniper Creek environment because of her personal ties to most of the characters, and while I hope she doesn’t move there full-time or anything, she is making the heavy focus on the compound in the last couple of episodes more bearable than it might usually be. Similarly, the events of this season have made her fit much more smoothly into the Henrickson household, to the point where she’s actually almost becoming the “cool mom.” (Tonight, she lets Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) get away with a little reunion sex with her boyfriend with a stern scolding and some laundry orders.)
Yeah, there was a lot of the usual squabbling between the Greenes and the Grants of the sort that usually makes me a little snoozy, though seeing Hollis and Selma Greene turn up in the carefully manicured neighborhood of Barb’s sister and brother-in-law was a nicely jarring choice (though I’m more muddled on the idea of having them kidnap Ted’s daughter—enough with this blasted Woodruff letter!). But the heart of the story had to do with the three major pivot points of the Henrickson family dealing with whether or not they were going to remain a family and whether or not they were going to put creed or family first. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) tried her best to smooth over the conflicts among Bill, Barb and Nicki, but the wounds that have been opened up between the three are perhaps too deep to be repaired, no matter how much Margie may want them to be. All three of these people need something more than what they currently have, and no degree of trying to fake their way out of the mess they’ve created for themselves is going to help. They are the way they are not because of genetics or destiny (as Alby suggests) but because they are people, and learning to live with what we are is a big part of just being human.
Some other thoughts:
• I never would have pegged Hollis Greene for an Arrested Development fan.
• The big revelation, I suppose, is that Nicki has a daughter with first husband J.J. (Zelkjo Ivanek), who is with him while he’s visiting Juniper Creek. I imagine we’ll be seeing that daughter and finding out just what happened in Kansas next week.
• Just as the focus of the show subtly shifted from Barb to Nicki in last season’s closing hours, tonight we saw the focus start to shift to Margene. Season Four will likely delve into her character more, and hopefully we’ll learn just what she was up to before she answered an ad to babysit for the Henricksons.
• Joey and Wanda (Melora Walters) seemingly trying to make Jodean over into the second coming of Kathy was kind of a weird development (what with Jodean being one of Joey’s father’s wives), and it’s the sort of thing that may go off the rails later in the series, but I liked it well enough tonight.
• From quickly perusing the Big Love blogosphere (which is small but mighty), I’m finding that most fans found the episode a lot more EMOTIONALLY engaging than I did. That may be because I find the show’s themes of the lines drawn between creed and self so much more engaging than any of the show’s other themes, so I was drawn in intellectually. Regardless, I really liked it, but I wouldn’t say I LOVED it like most of the show’s other dedicated reviewers.
• One thing I like about Barb is that she never gives up on people. This leads her into situations where she’s repressing her own happiness so, say, her husband or her sister can be happy, but it also means that when her sister’s kid is kidnapped, she’s going to let bygones be bygones as quickly as possible.
• Any predictions for what happens in the season finale next week? Please don’t post actual spoilers (since they seem to be out there) but do feel free to speculate on what’s going to happen. I’m having trouble imagining a scenario in which Nicki returns to Sandy to live with the Henricksons, but I’m sure that’s what will happen all the same. Here’s hoping for good surprises.