Near the end of Big Love’s latest episode, “The Writing on the Wall,” Bill Henrickson’s second wife, Nikki, (Chloë Sevigny) delivers a long monologue to first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), about how she doesn’t trust love as a foundation for a marriage, perhaps, especially, a plural one.
This comes after Barb tells her that she still wasn’t sure if she believed in the principle the family bases its life on (the show tosses off American quasi-religious terms like “the principle” and “testimony” without really bothering to explain them). Nikki, raised on the polygamous Juniper Creek compound, is largely flummoxed by the world she found herself a part of when she left the compound to marry Bill (Bill Paxton) and move to the suburbs. If the season premiere, “Damage Control,” focused on all that Barb left behind when she allowed Bill to take a second wife, “Writing on the Wall” turned its gaze on Nikki, a character who could be a bit too unbelievably manipulative and shrill in the first season. While the main plotlines all focus on Bill (who finds himself thrust into compound politics again and trying to fend off a vandal marking up billboards for his Home Plus stores), writers and creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer use the hoary old device of a husband forgetting he and his wife’s anniversary to illuminate the least-developed Henrickson.
In the first season, Nikki was a bit of an enigma. Sevigny portrayed the character well, but it sometimes seemed like she was a cardboard cutout villain, driving the Henricksons into debt or needlessly antagonizing Barb or unnecessarily involving her family at the compound with her suburban family. The audience never got a sense of Nikki as anything other than a character who seemed resentful of Barb’s status of first wife. But in this episode, just as the last episode gave us a sense of what Barb gave up to enter this relationship, we get a sense of what Nikki gave up. Nikki, in many ways, comes from the opposite direction of Barb. While Barb has had a taste of something like independence, the sheer freedom of not living on the compound often seems terrifying to Nikki. She overspends and, in this episode, she seems put off by the simple act of going to the bank to put money in an account for Barb. She even swindles a little bit of extra cash from Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) when trying to make the deposit for Barb. Nikki has one advantage over the other two wives, though: She believes wholeheartedly in the principle, and she’s going to do her best to see that no one else in the family gives up on it.
In the comments section on my “T.V. on TV” post on the show, site publisher Matt Zoller Seitz has said that by having three women of differing ages playing the wives, the creators could effectively examine a marriage at three different stages—the stage when you’ve learned to put up with someone’s faults, the stage when you’re wondering who, exactly, you married, and the initial stage when the sheer euphoria of always being close to someone you love is enough to carry you along. Nikki may come at the question of whether love is enough to sustain a marriage from a different perspective than most people facing a seven year itch, but her question is one every married couple must confront. Nikki doesn’t trust love (perhaps because she saw very little of it in the twisted dealings at the compound), but she does believe in the idea of plural marriage, even when Bill and Barb forget her anniversary.
The “Oops! I forgot your anniversary!” plotline is one of the oldest and most overused in television, but Big Love’s central conceit means that the show has to come at the plotline from a fundamentally different point-of-view. We’re reminded of this when Margie picks up a photo of Bill and Nikki’s wedding while visiting the compound (Nikki is there trying to rescue Wanda (Melora Walters) and Joey (Shawn Doyle) from the men who would punish them for poisoning Alby (Matt Ross) in what is probably still the show’s most irritating subplot). Bill and Nikki stand, smiling happily at the camera, but Barb stands off to the side, a more taciturn smile on her face. The show has always suggested that Barb’s attitude toward Nikki was just as responsible for the rift between the two as Nikki’s attitude toward Barb, but it’s never been as blatant about it as it was in this episode, with Barb pointing out how she grew to love Nikki and the family.
Nikki takes Margie to the compound (Margie’s never been there), and Margie’s childish delight at all of the weirdness at Juniper Creek (from beekeepers to a mother and children disappearing into a hole in the ground) prompts something of an embarrassed smile from Nikki, who reminds Margie she doesn’t make fun of where Margie comes from. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen additional episodes where Nikki reveals more of herself, but I feel as though I understand her as a person much better than I did in the first season. She’s divided between two worlds—the anarchic and strange world of the compound, which she probably believes in more than her current life, and the suburban world, where she feels completely alien. But she loves Bill (“She went after him like a spider,” says Bill’s mother), and she believes in what she’s doing.
The idea of living in two worlds is reflected in the storylines centered on the two teens in the Henrickson household—Ben (Douglas Smith) and Sarah (Amanda Seyfried). Ben is trying to slowly warm his girlfriend up to the idea of him coming from a polygamous family (and trying to disguise that the two have given in to their sexual urges), while Sarah is slowly getting to know Scott, the boy she met at the post-Mormon support group, better, even though she lies to him about her age, leading him to believe she’s in college instead of high school. Sarah’s friend Heather (Tina Majorino), one of the few outside characters who knows about the Henricksons, returned in this episode as well. As the teens grow older and make more and more friends outside of the family, it becomes harder and harder for Barb to justify what she’s done, especially as an example for her daughter. The growing friction here seems bound to reach some sort of breaking point.
The storyline with Bill trying to figure out who outed his family and who defaced his sign was better than last week’s Bill plot, but Paxton’s strength in the series seems to be playing off of his wives, and he didn’t get enough of that this week. While the idea of outing frightening the Henricksons and Bill’s scrambling to put things right (especially with the billboards) is promising and rife with the subtextual allusions to gay marriage that wandered throughout the first season (and will return in the weeks to come, when I’ll speak about them more fully), it also lets the show indulge in its worst tendencies. In particular, a character tonight met with Bill and Don about fixing the vandalized Home Plus billboard and launched into an extensive monologue about Lady Bird Johnson’s hatred of billboards. While I have no doubt this was based on a real person or researched within an inch of its life, it feels quirky for the sake of being quirky here. The same with much of the weirdness at the compound, where Rhonda (Daveigh Chase) was cutting an album tonight. These plotlines are always well-acted, but when compared to the genuine intrigue in the Henrickson households, they seem dropped in from a much-lesser series.
The episode ended, as mentioned, with the Henricksons gathering together to celebrate Nikki’s anniversary (and Barb once again choosing the family over herself by skipping her first statistics class at the university). We saw another dinner with just Bill and his three wives (the series is always careful to compose these shots so Bill sits at the head of the table with the wives off to either side of him—suggesting, always subtly, that this arrangement is perhaps unstable and doomed to fail). Nikki, who just earlier was asking Margie how Wanda and Joey could survive with only each other to count on (Margie answered with that dumb little grin she wears every time she feels in over her head), shared her beliefs with Barb, and then went into the house, where Bill gave her a brand new drill for the anniversary. It was fitting that Nikki received a tool of construction. As she tried it out, we got a sense that she wasn’t trying to rip the family apart (as she often seemed to be in season one); she’s trying, as hard as she can, to hold it together.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.