Big Love’s seventh episode of its second season, “Good Guys and Bad Guys,” written by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Michael Lehmann (yes, the Heathers director), bounced back and forth between the series’ best and worst impulses, often irritatingly. Even the scenes at Juniper Creek, often the series’ Achilles’ heel, bounced back and forth between very good and overstated and over-obvious. The war between the two sects of polygamists arrived as promised, and if it wasn’t quite as bad as the audience might have feared, it didn’t work entirely, either.
At least the episode crystallized the season as being the Ginnifer Goodwin show. The other actors have all turned in great performances from week to week, but Goodwin has taken her character, Margie, to new heights this year. From her adoring glances toward her mother during that awkward get-to-know-the-family-you-don’t-know-is-my-family meal to her near meltdown when Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) outed the Henricksons as polygamists to Margie’s mother, Goodwin took her meatiest script yet and knocked everything she was given out of the park. It’s rare to have a show that has, effectively, four lead characters, but the one thing Big Love does better than just about anybody else is balancing those characters and their storylines. The show has subtly shown the selfishness of Bill (Bill Paxton), increased Barb’s (Jeanne Tripplehorn) claustrophobia, redeemed Nicki’s shrewish character from the first season and given Margie more to do, all without losing track of the other leads (or the Henrickson children).
The show has mostly increased the storylines and time spent on these characters at the expense of the Juniper Creek storyline (Harry Dean Stanton’s Roman Grant has barely appeared since the season’s third episode). While a few of the show’s fans get wrapped up in the Machiavellian intrigues of the Juniper Creek gang (and, I must admit, I do find Bill’s immediate family entertaining), the show’s significant ramp up in quality in season two has come from its focus on Bill’s suburban lifestyle and how that clashes with his polygamist lifestyle. And while this episode was strong when it focused on those issues (aside from the script’s portrayal of Margie’s mother—more on that in a moment), it also honed in more on the Juniper Creek-ers, to its detriment.
The central plot of the episode was the first visit of Margie’s mother, Ginger (a terrific Bonnie Bedelia), paying her first visit to the Henrickson homes. Initially, Margie tried to tell her mother that she was just really close to her two neighbor ladies, but when Ginger saw Bill kissing Barb, she cornered Nicki, who was forced to admit that the family was a polygamist one. All in all, this wasn’t a bad plot. It was nice to get an idea of why Margie seems to have tossed herself so blindly into following the principle (her mother’s various debaucheries caused a rift between the two), and seeing Nicki thrill to having Ginger take a friendly interest in her was a great chance for Sevigny to play comedy, something she does well, but rarely gets to do on this show (the moment when Nicki didn’t realize that Ginger was drunk first thing in the morning was priceless and indicative of just how naïve Nicki can be when off the compound).
But the story was marred by the script’s cheapening of Ginger. It wasn’t enough to make her a bit of a lush and a bit of a slut. She also had to be unmitigated, wacky trailer trash, passing out in a shirt that had blinking lights, making a pass at Bill while drunk and strutting about like a penguin for the amusement of her grandchildren. To the script’s credit, Ginger’s final moment was a good one (she showed unexpected powers of perception when she told Margie that she was the one with all of the power in the Henrickson family), and the character played more as a sad one than a quirky one, as she might have in the first season. It’s just unfortunate that the show feels the need to go one step too far when introducing characters like this (they’re rife throughout Henrickson Home Plus). Characters that could be good comedic foils for the impossibly upstanding Henricksons or sad contrasts to them are pushed a step too far until they’re simply unbelievable caricatures. Bedelia was able to salvage a lot of this, and, as mentioned, this arc ended well, but it still needed to find a more realistic place to come from in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Juniper Creek people were drawn into all-out war with the Hollis Green sect. This was mostly played on the periphery of the episode, which was a wise choice, considering how much potential there was for this plot to dominate the episode with forced quirkiness and intrigue. Instead, the war was contained to a few small moments on the margins (I particularly liked those two silent women who torched Bill’s boat last week confronting Adaleen—Mary Kay Place—and leaving her trussed and tied up). Still, the more polygamist sects the show brings in (all with their own religious codes and so on), the less interest we have in any of them, simply because the only thing that’s compelling about Juniper Creek in the first place is how its tendrils sink into the Henrickson family and threaten to drag it down into the mire. If this is all a way to unburden the show of the polygamist sect storylines, that’s fine, but it’s an awfully elaborate way to do so.
Bruce Dern returned this episode as Bill’s father, Frank, and it was fun to see him match up with Grace Zabriskie’s Lois again. The scenes between the two were often overburdened with exposition (Frank found out about Lois’ Laundromat and wanted a share of the profits), but the two have such a zestful chemistry that it’s just fun to watch them spar, even when what they’re saying isn’t of all that much interest. Much better was Barb going down to the compound to try to save Wanda (Melora Hardin) and Joey (Shawn Doyle) after Lois tried to get Joey to take a second wife while Wanda was institutionalized (something else Lois was responsible for). In a moving scene, Wanda correctly surmised that Barb was only there because she wanted to keep Joey and Wanda’s marriage pure in the way that she and Bill’s marriage had not stayed pure. Barb’s not-so-subtle longing for a traditional marriage and a traditional life has burbled underneath the show’s surface all season long, and it will be interesting to see if it boils over. (The Wanda/Joey/Barb storyline certainly boiled over in an over-the-top scene where the power went out, but one of the final moments with Joey—where he talked about how he could wait out Roman and see Juniper Creek return to the place he wanted to live in the first place—was a nice, small one, the likes of which the show could use more.)
Bill didn’t get as much to do, outside of playing Roman and Hollis Green off of each other, but his scene with Don (Joel McKinnon Miller) where Don expressed his uneasiness again with the plan to buy Weber Gaming (Don correctly pointed out that the only three people who wanted Weber were Hollis, Roman and Bill) worked as yet another example of just how headstrong Bill has gotten this season about getting what he wants. And Bill’s defense of his daughter by beating down Albie (Matt Ross) was another nice moment in his ultra-masculine character progression.
If “Good Guys and Bad Guys” didn’t hit the heights that the last four or five episodes hit, it at least moved a lot of the show’s pieces further on up the game board. Next week’s episode looks as if it will bring several plot points to a head, so here’s hoping it’s able to bury some of the show’s less-interesting aspects.
Other news: HBO has officially renewed Big Love for a third season, according to Variety, so any speculation about what might happen in season three will no longer be idle. Production will be sped along to make sure the third season is completed before any work stoppages. In addition, the show will apparently inherit the coveted Sundays at 9 p.m. time slot after John from Cincinnati ends its run.