At the end of “The Happiest Girl,” the tenth episode of Big Love’s second season, Rhonda Volmer (Daveigh Chase) sings the titular song, leading into a montage that is slightly too obvious; throughout the hour, every woman on the show has had her happiness undermined except for the ever-oblivious Rhonda. But Chase’s sad performance and the song’s untapped irony manages to put the sequence over, completing an episode that is a welcome return to form.
The most famous version of “The Happiest Girl” (performed by Donna Fargo) takes on a sheen of irony to modern audiences simply because it is so earnest and unironic: she’s in love with her husband and no one’s going to take that from her, dammit. In this day and age, that sort of thing automatically seems suspicious, and Big Love mines these moments of suggestion as persistently as it can without overplaying them. It makes sense that Rhonda would want to sing this song on local TV (and that the show’s hyper-focused producer would use her to get at bigger targets—namely, Amanda Seyfried’s Sarah). It also makes sense that Rhonda’s rather uncharismatic manner would come off as flat and mournful. It’s nice to see a musical montage done well in a medium that so often does them poorly.
But this one also works as an expression of one of the show’s central themes. Big Love is obsessed (sometimes too obsessed) with the notion that our public faces conflict with the faces we wear in in private. Even some of the non-polygamist characters are forced to live in secret, whether by choice or as a defense mechanism (for instance, Rhonda forcing Tina Majorino’s Heather into a tight spot by threatening to expose Heather’s love for Sarah).
The “faces” theme comes through especially strongly in the subplot where Bill (Bill Paxton) goes to a trade show and brings his third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), to act as his public wife (a role usually filled by Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb, who’s still angry about Bill’s decision to purchase a gaming company). When Bill is cornered by old acquaintances who knew him as Barb’s husband, he could lie and say that he and Barb are divorced, but he apparently finds that option so repellent that he introduces Margie as his secretary. Margie is forced back into the closet by one of Bill’s stories—and by the looming presence of Barb, who truncated Bill and Margie’s honeymoon by calling to report that one of Bill’s daughters had a fever. Margie goes from ecstatic to heartbroken in an instant. An early scene where Margie rattles on about how it feels to be the third wife is overstated (even though it works as the vocalized thoughts of a frequent divorce’s third wife—sort of an inner-monologue-made-external). But aside from that, Goodwin’s performance is perfect. She’s never played Margie as so wounded, and she transfers the character’s anger and hurt to Barb, who shows up at the trade show midway through the episode to once again act as Bill’s public wife. Barb is still struggling with her own fear of what polygamy has done to her life and her children. Last week Sarah told her she wasn’t fooling anyone; this week, Ben (Douglas Smith) tells her the same thing, more harshly. But she still sides with Margie, sharing a room with her and forcing Bill to sleep alone.
Big Love’s biggest strength is its portrait of power dynamics within the Henrickson family, which shift and change as its various members adapt to new circumstances. This episode is no exception. Margie, stunned into silence, weeps in the gaudy bathtub in the hotel’s honeymoon suite, then snipes at Barb in person and cries on the phone to Nicki (Chloë Sevigny). Ultimately, though, she heads into public with some of Bill’s new clients. In a shot where Bill and Barb flank either side of the quartet behind them, you can see Margie just out of focus, laughing raucously, her red clothes setting her apart from the other characters in their drab garb. Margie, ironically, is almost freed by telling this lie. She seems able to cut loose and have fun in a way that we’ve been told she did before she met Bill. She even extends the role of Mr. Henrickson’s dutiful secretary further, telling the clients that she’s Bill’s mistress. The embellishment is one more complication for Bill, who had sold himself to the clients as a squeaky-clean (but poker-playing) Mormon.
Bill’s solution to this problem is to tell the clients that he is the husband of both Barb and Margie. I’m not sure I buy it, but the clients’ divergent reactions to Bill’s gambit make for an interesting reading on how the show uses the three women to portray the different stages of marriage. Margie finds Bill’s defense of her to be terribly noble and chivalrous; she gushes about it to Barb as the two lie in bed that night. But Barb is less sure. After all this time, she’s gotten used to being the public wife—a role that let her lie to herself about the reality of her situation and who she was. This season, as the various facades of that public lie have crumbled down around her, Barb has been forced to confront her true self, a person who’s probably laid dormant for years.
Barb is unique among Big Love characters in that the public lie she presents is who she really wants to be; even her teenage children are more honest about their family situation and its detrimental effect on their lives. So long as Barb could convince herself that she was the person she presented herself to be, she would be able to continue that same lie in private. (Nicki doesn’t indulge her; indeed, the snide tone Nicki takes with Barb indicates that she feels Barb treats her as little more than a servant.) Barb can be eminently practical about finding ways to make the plural marriage work, but she’s also very good at finding new ways to delude herself.
Back in Sandy, Nicki is planning a party to announce that Bill’s brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) is adding a second wife to his marriage to Wanda (Melora Walters). Throughout the season, Joey has steadfastly refused to add a second wife. But he and Wanda’s attachment to Kathy, who was brought in to help Wanda recover after her stint in an institution, seems genuine. (The story sheds light on the process of bringing Nicki into Bill’s household under similar circumstances.) The strange love story of Joey and Wanda has been my favorite part of the Juniper Creek scenes this season, especially as it comments on the even stranger and more muted love story of Bill and Barb; so it is nice to see this significant shift in their relationship get the play it deserves. Nicki funds the party with some of the money she stole from the compound last week—money that puts Alby (Matt Ross), the UEB’s new head, in a bit of a bind, since it seems to confirm to many, including his mother, that he is less than capable. Alby quickly figures out her scheme and threatens her, then says that Kathy is already spoken for by Frank (Bruce Dern), Joey’s father. Alby’s not my favorite character, but it’s interesting to see his ineffectuality try on more powerful shoes. I don’t believe he’ll ever supplant the still-critically-injured Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), but his haphazard bid for more influence is fascinating to watch.
The musical montage starts with Alby and Roman watching Rhonda sing on television (Alby’s care almost seeming calculated to keep Roman dependent). From there, the camera drifts past all of the other characters, including many of the women who might once have imagined themselves the happiest girl only to end up devastated. For someone like Margie, small cuts like Bill’s rebuff can be healed with marital Band-aids. But when it comes to something like the pain Barb is feeling, the wounds go deeper, to the very heart of the marriage.
Note: Big Love finishes out the season on Sunday nights, now that John from Cincinnati has completed its first season. As a result, Big Love recaps will move to Mondays at 9 p.m., starting August 19. Each new episode will also repeat on Mondays at 9.