One of the things that makes Big Love such an engrossing show is that it’s not afraid to make its central character—Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton)—kind of a selfish ass. He’s not always this way; his wives and family love him, and you can tell the show’s writers have a general affection for him. But he frequently slips into a mode where he seems to be thinking of himself, rather than the people around him, just often enough to let you know that you’re not watching the overly godly man Bill thinks of himself as (the caricature the show let him be too often in the first season). Bill is a very fallible human being, who spends just as much time screwing up his assorted affairs as he does getting things right.
Bill’s usually the central character of Big Love, in that every plotline somehow runs through him, but he’s rarely the most interesting character in a given episode. Monday’s episode, “Vision Thing,” written by Eileen Myers and directed by Igby Goes Down director Burr Steers, was the first of this season that seemed designed to be almost completely about Bill and his rigid view of both his own microcosm and the world at large. Sure, there were vital subplots dealing with the show’s teens, and another that put Chloë Sevigny’s Nicki in conflict with a bunch of Catholics, but all of these other plots were built on or centered on Bill in some way.
One of the hardest things for any progressive and/or feminist viewer of Big Love to get over is the fact that Bill is completely and totally in charge. His wives rarely question him, and even when they do, he almost always gets what he wants (witness how Barb—Jeanne Tripplehorn—tried to leave the house in the season premiere, only to eventually come back home at his bidding). The show is careful to portray this less as some sort of sexist compact and more as the way Bill has always known this to be the “right” way (notice, also, how he tends to spend way more time with his sons than his daughters—certainly, if someone pointed out to him this disparity, he’d spend a couple of days trying to make it up to the girls, but he’d probably slip back into his old ways after those few days). By most measures, Bill’s a good husband, a good father, a good boss. But because he’s used to getting his way, he rarely thinks about how others will feel. In “Vision Thing,” this was most notable in the way that Bill began a tentative courtship with a waitress (Branka Katic) at a local greasy spoon. Bill tried to play this off as a sudden revelation, but it was clear from his flirtatious manner that he just thought she was good-looking. (And the script and Steers played this romantic comedy set-up almost perfectly straight—any queasiness over what was happening was felt from the audience or for Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) who stumbled across the situation late in the episode.)
From a purely voyeuristic standpoint, this is one of those things we’ve been wanting to see as an audience. How, exactly, does one find a new wife and court her and clue her in to your way of life, particularly if she doesn’t emerge from the Juniper Creek Compound or another polygamist sect? Big Love, of course, has succeeded because it has drawn a wide variety of interesting characters into the Henrickson household, but it’s also fascinating from a purely procedural point of view. The somewhat lackluster pilot and early episodes were perhaps too fascinated by how a family like this would work, but that element is an important point of the show’s success. No detail has been skimped. So it’s curious what the contradictory impulses the courtship of the waitress stirs in a viewer. The largely mundane rom-com setup and the “meet cute” scenario play against our resentment of the usurper on a happy family (as we would be angered at, say, a potential temptation for one of the spouses on a family sitcom) and perhaps our buried frustration with Bill, who apparently has a thing for a lady who makes a good pie. Can’t he leave well enough alone?
And yet, when we take a moment to give this a second thought, why should we resent her or Bill for this meet cute? The waitress is completely oblivious, and Bill is simply living true to his moral code. If we enjoy the series for the way it portrays the modern fundamentalist in conflict with the modern world, shouldn’t we have to take the ickier bits with the backyard pool baptisms? And all of this plays against our desire to simply see how all of this works and how a family like this might expand or not expand to include another member. Certainly Margie seemed open to the idea when she went to see the waitress at the end of the episode, all goofy grin and sparkling eyes.
Perhaps surprisingly, given how heavily it weighed on the rest of the episode, the waitress subplot didn’t occupy that much screen time. Bill got just as much time to consider further whether or not he’s going to purchase a line of video gambling machines (from an almost unrecognizable Jim Beaver, briefly stepping outside of the David Milch company of players to essay this role). It was interesting to see the show juxtapose a selfish decision on Bill’s part in his domestic life with what amounts to a selfish decision in his work life, where he’s largely bullying his subordinate Don (Joel McKinnon Miller) into going along with the gambling deal, a deal that makes Don uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Don has never been my favorite character. He’s played a bit too broadly, and he often seems like the kind of gung-ho polygamist I feared Bill would be when the series began. But here, he functioned well enough as a conscience for Bill, questioning whether this deal made the most business sense or was simply a way to strike back at Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton).
Meanwhile, Bill’s brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) found his mother (Grace Zabriskie) foisting a new woman on him after she announced she had had his wife committed (in the episode’s funniest moment). Joey is another character who has become tiresome—he’s often too spineless and simply uninteresting—but here, in a moment of clarity, he confirmed that Bill (or any man who lives by the principle) can’t help but be selfish. Barb quickly shut him up and told him not to speak that way about her husband, but given her travails earlier in the season when she questioned whether she had made the right choice in letting Bill take other wives, it was clear some of Joey’s words had taken root. Joey’s mild crush on Barb has always been a bit of subtext that the show hasn’t felt the need to outright express, and the scene where Joey confessed his feelings on the principle used that subtext well.
Bill’s second wife, Nicki, spent the episode confronting another of the horrors of the suburbs—Catholicism. Her son, Wayne (Keegan Holst), was attending a summer program at a Catholic school apparently far enough away for her and Bill to appear as a happily married (and monogamous) couple. But when Wayne brought home a rosary, Nicki feared that he was going to be ripped away from her and into the bosom of a false religion (Margie, for her part, seemed entranced by the rosary and her memories of going to Catholic school as a girl). And, indeed, Steers shot the Catholic church where Nicki went to confront a nun as a welcoming safe haven—candles and stained-glass windows glowing in the darkness. While this was another example of Big Love showing us something we don’t view as terribly out of the ordinary through a new prism, it was also another example of Nicki being forced to step out into the world around her, and much to her chagrin. She even wore pants (for the first time ever in the series, if memory serves) in her attempt to make friends with the other moms. She attempted to pull Wayne out of the program and teach him herself, but it soon became clear that she wasn’t up to it, and soon he was back at the school, dressed as an angel (perhaps a too literal bit of symbolism), happy to see his father and mother and greet them as his father and mother.
In some ways, temptation was everywhere in the episode. Bill faced his twin temptations, while Joey faced the temptation of another wife (and seemingly overcame it). And while Nicki resisted the allure of that church, Rhonda (Daveigh Chase) spent much of the episode trying to shut herself off from the allure of the suburbs, which she had seemingly embraced just an episode before. There wasn’t a lot to the Rhonda arc in this episode, but it’s playing fascinatingly like a detox, as she’s forced to remove herself from everything she ever knew simply to survive.
Big Love is at its best when it’s contrasting the notion of an individual with the notion of a larger organism. Usually, the show pits its individual characters up against their various creeds, but “Vision Thing” suggested that these individuals also have to work to differentiate themselves from the society they live in. It’s not enough to reject a creed or to reject society. To function in the world of Big Love (and the world at large), you have to draw a long line of compromise and pray that you don’t lose yourself in the process.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.