Big Love’s halfway point for its second season, “The Dating Game,” written by Doug Jung and directed by Jim McKay, is frustrating first because it’s so good and then because it seems to mire itself in the plotline that’s the least interesting on the show.
Up until about 10 minutes from the end, the episode is unconcerned with wacky antics at Henrickson Home Plus or on the Juniper Creek Compound. It’s simply an examination of how the process of bringing another person into a plural marriage can warp and break some and bring spirit to others. But then, the episode turns to some unfortunate business with a third band of polygamists who have come back out of hiding to fight with Bill (Bill Paxton) and Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) over the ownership of Weber Gaming. While we haven’t ever seen an all-out polygamy war on TV (and at least it will give Roman’s character something interesting to do), this plotline stands to bring in more of the weirdness for weirdness’ sake that occasionally weighs the series down (though, admittedly, it’s hard to normalize bands of polygamists who go into hiding at the drop of a hat—but did the leader really need a seemingly transsexual right-hand woman?). Still, if the plotline brings a definitive close to the often draggy Juniper Creek stories, the show will be all the better for it in season three.
But enough of those concerns. The episode was owned by Ginnifer Goodwin, who finally got a perfect showcase for her powerhouse performance as Margie, the youngest and most naïve of the Henrickson wives. In last week’s episode, Margie accidentally discovered Bill was romancing Ana (Branka Katic), a waitress at a local restaurant. At first, she seemed crushed by Bill’s actions, even though it’s a part of the life she has chosen. At the end of the episode, though, she went to the restaurant and seemed determined to find out more about Ana. As this episode picks up, Ana and Margie are becoming fast friends, even as Bill and Ana’s relationship is progressing. In a short scene set in Ana’s dingy apartment, Ana talks about how much she misses her girlfriends in her native Serbia. Margie thinks for a moment, every thought crystal clear in her eyes (the show is only giving us broad hints about who Margie was before she met Bill, and it’s probably better that way), then admits to Ana that she’s a polygamist, describing her entire family and her husband (the first word she thinks of to describe him is “thoughtful”—an unusual one for someone she knows is contemplating complicating her life even more). Goodwin plays the moment as a huge relief—as though Margie had been waiting to make this confession to a friend for a long, long time, and her giddiness afterward, when she sweeps Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) of all people into a hug, is palpable.
Bill’s dating of Ana is just as well executed. Once again, the creative team behind the show doesn’t push the squeamishness the audience must be feeling about the whole situation. The show continues to play that feeling off of the fascination we feel in seeing how these families grow and expand, and that underlying tension drives much of the relationship. It helps that Paxton (in what’s probably his single strongest episode in the show’s history) plays Bill’s lust as right on the surface when he’s around Ana and that she clearly feels similarly about him, even if she can’t understand why he won’t bed her. Religion is the basis of Bill’s problems in the relationship. He’s simply unable to tell her who he is and what he believes, unable to make her understand (as she seems decidedly irreligious). Throughout the episode, he waits for a sign from the Holy Spirit that this is the woman he should take as a fourth wife, but none is forthcoming, even when Margie tells him that she’s received a sign from the Holy Spirit (or, at least, she thinks so—she asks Bill what that would feel like). Bill has to balance his understanding of God’s ultimate plan for his life with his very real, very carnal desires along with Margie’s sudden realization that she’s a little lonely and would like having a friend around as fourth wife. He even goes to visit a group of fellow polygamists in some sort of weird twist on a Promise Keepers meeting (one of the men describes his realization that he was to take a fourth wife as a “Holy Spirit sucker punch”). It doesn’t help that the code Bill lives by means that every other word to Ana must be a lie if he wishes to not send her away screaming. Bill’s greed and lust almost get the better of him, but he eventually lands at the realization that all he wants from her is sexual, leading him to break up with her (he’s pretty cold about it—unable to tell her the truth—but it may be the most selfless thing he’s done all season).
The Ana/Bill/Margie triangle dominated the episode, but Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Nicki both found themselves enmeshed in intrigue focusing on Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), the onetime child bride of Roman who managed to sneak off the Juniper Creek compound and into the Henricksons’ lives. Some fans of the show find Rhonda completely unbelievable—a one-dimensional mini-harridan dropped into the middle of the show’s rich understanding of the push and pull exerted on modern suburbanites. But I’m rather fond of Rhonda, who can be a bit one-note, but at least seems to have the ability to improvise her way to a better life. It could also be said that her upbringing has simply created a pathological liar who knows no other way to get by in the world, though that would be a bit reductive. Rhonda charms Roman when it seems advantageous, then runs from him when it’s not. And she quickly soaks up the knowledge of exactly what she has to say to those who would protect her from the polygamist bogeymen in her life to get them to keep her safely enmeshed in her new life with the family of Heather (the always-winning Tina Majorino). Rhonda’s far from the best character on the show—I doubt I could stand a whole episode about her—but in small doses, she’s fine, especially as she tries to wrap the world around her finger, but doesn’t quite grasp exactly how to make that work to her advantage. She’s certainly a sure-handed manipulator of the press, though, even as Nicki seems unable to deal with anyone who views polygamy as a negative choice.
The episode concluded, as mentioned, with the Hollis Green clan capturing Bill and threatening to brand him for buying Weber Gaming, followed by Bill throwing the blame onto Roman. Some of this worked (the idea of the Greens hiding out in a nearly abandoned little town was a bit of real-life polygamist behavior I was happy to see captured on screen so eerily), but much of it just went too far. Selma, the aforementioned apparent transsexual, and the branding just seemed tossed in there (even though, again, I would not be surprised to find both things based on something in real life). The problem stems from the show’s commitment to portraying the Henrickson life as something almost within the American norm—“Polygamists! They’re just like us!” could be the battle cry—which comes in conflict with the haphazard way this life is thrown up against the other groups—who seem to say, “Polygamists! They’re so damn weird!” I can certainly see the show drawing up believable psychological portraits of all of these characters (explaining why Bill’s mom is such a liar or why Roman is so power-hungry), but the fact that Bill’s life alone is so far outside our normal realm of experience makes scenes outside of Henrickson Central play as one-dimensional escapades dropped in from what you suspect a CBS show about polygamy might look like.
It was a shame that scene occurred in an episode that was one of the series’ finest so far. It was certainly one of the funniest episodes of the series (I even laughed at the cheap joke of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” playing when Bill almost had sex with Ana), boasting such only-in-this-show quips as “Honey, you’re my wife. You can’t be seeing the girl I’m dating.” And the episode ended strong, Bill returned to town after his encounter with the Greens, even as Margie was trying to tell Ana how to fight for Bill’s love (even though Ana still had no idea Bill was Margie’s husband). Margie suggested that Ana fake devotion when Bill prayed, once again perhaps alluding to a less-than-solid commitment to the principle on Margie’s part. Margie leads completely with her heart (she earlier explains to Bill that she didn’t need to hear the Holy Spirit when they were dating because she knew she was in love with him), and when Bill has to tell her that there’s no way he’ll marry Ana, she’s crushed but touched by his admission that he was in love with her from the first (who wouldn’t be?). The two pull away from the restaurant, forced to leave Ana behind as a signal of all sorts of things they can’t have—another wife, perhaps, or just a really good friend to have pie with.
Next week: The return of Bruce Dern as Bill’s father and the resurrection of Bonnie Bedelia’s career when she plays Margie’s mother. Plus, all-out polygamy war!
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.