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Jeanne Tripplehorn (#110 of 20)

Big Love Recap Season 4, Episode 1, “Free At Last”

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Big Love Recap: Season 4, Episode 1, “Free At Last”

HBO

Big Love Recap: Season 4, Episode 1, “Free At Last”

After watching the beginning of season four of Big Love, I think we can safely give up on ever having a premiere of this show that isn’t a busy and exhausting whirlwind. The show will always set an overwhelming number of balls rolling at the beginning of each season, leaving us only to hope that the threads will be weaved together in a fulfilling manner throughout the season. That said, the season four premiere is somewhat deceptively messy—though it packs in a lot, it also seems to indicate the paths it intends to follow throughout the season.

Bill Henrickson’s (Bill Paxton) business endeavors and his roles as a husband, a religious leader to his family, and now a church that extends only slightly outside his family, have always been inextricably linked. As someone who was never really exposed to religion personally, it was one of the first things that intrigued me about the show even back in season one, when, during the first Henrickson family dinner, Bill said grace and prayed for a successful store opening, establishing a relationship with God that is often best described as self-serving.

Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 10, “Sacrament”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 10, “Sacrament”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 10, “Sacrament”

The season finales of Big Love often have a bit of an out-of-control feel to them, as though any given season’s plotlines have gotten so all-encompassing that it’s all the show can do to race just ahead of the giant boulder of story that threatens to overtake it at any moment. “Sacrament,” written by Victoria Morrow from a story by Coleman Herbert and directed by Dan Attias, managed this feat more elegantly than last season’s finale, and it mostly brought the series’s sporadically brilliant third season to a close, even if the finale was, itself, only sporadically brilliant. I suspect everyone here is tired of hearing me diagnose the show’s problem as spending too much time at Juniper Creek (even if I’m more charitable toward those characters and storylines than some commentators), but the four episodes following “Come, Ye Saints,” the best episode the show has ever done, just got too bogged down in compound morass. Still, developments in the finale suggest that the focus of the show will shift decisively to the Henrickson compound in Sandy, Utah, and to stories of Bill Henrickson’s (Bill Paxton) third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) in the show’s fourth season.

Big Love Recap Season 3, Episode 9, “Outer Darkness”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 9, “Outer Darkness”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 9, “Outer Darkness”

“What is it in us, Alby, that makes us the way we are?” Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) asks early in “Outer Darkness,” Big Love Season Three’s penultimate episode, written by Eileen Myers and directed Michael Lehmann (a terrifically talented TV director still mostly known for the 80s teen comedy Heathers). The whole episode hinges on that question and returns to one of Big Love’s favorite themes—the uneasy mix between the purity of religious creed and the imperfection of human beings. The things Nicki and Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Bill (Bill Paxton) have done are all eminently HUMAN things to have done, but by giving in to their own desires and their human emotions (in Barb’s case), they find themselves cast out of family and faith. The entirety of human constructs like religion and society are based around the idea that we can use a greater good to overcome our messy biologies, but those biologies inevitably let us down. When the boyfriend you most likely rightfully kicked to the curb comes back into your life and says he’s so sorry you lost the baby, are you going to stand firm to what you know is probably the right thing to do or welcome him back with open arms? No matter how devoted you are to your creed (be it religious or otherwise), you’re always going to let it down. You’re a human being. It’s what we do.

Big Love Recap Season 3, Episode 8, “Rough Edges”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 8, “Rough Edges”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 8, “Rough Edges”

“Rough Edges,” written by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Dan Attias, just plunges forward, pell-mell, not terribly concerned with if it makes a lot of sense (that Woodruff letter storyline still feels dropped in from another series entirely, Mormon content notwithstanding) but having a good time going ahead anyway. If nothing else, the episode cemented Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) as this season’s most compelling character; the long web of lies she’s been spinning all season crumbled around her in the wake of the infatuated Ray the DA pursuing her so far as her home. The episode also dove into the headlong descent toward the season finale (in two weeks), which was no easy trick, since this season has already had, like, 50 season finales. So this time, Big Love really, really means it.

Big Love Recap Season 3, Episode 6, “Come, Ye Saints”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 6, “Come, Ye Saints”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 6, “Come, Ye Saints”

So let’s talk about God.

I mean, He’s arguably the most important character in Big Love, even if we never directly see Him, even if we never are sure how He feels about the Henricksons. Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is always so concerned about how the two of them are getting along that we are forced to take these sorts of things into account, even if we don’t particularly believe in God in any way, shape or form. Bill’s deteriorating relationship with his faith has provided a hidden spine to Big Love’s third season, and it finally erupts in tonight’s episode, in one of the all-time great television images to my mind.

Big Love Recap Season 3, Episode 5, “For Better or for Worse”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 5, “For Better or for Worse”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 5, “For Better or for Worse”

Few shows on TV have as many scenes that feel like they should be dream sequences but actually turn out to be reality as Big Love does. It’s probably because everyone on the show has something of an impulse control problem, so things tend to spin quickly out of control. Another show would have spent most of this week building up to the wedding with Ana (Branka Katic), but Big Love dispatched with that in the second scene. As soon as she said yes, Bill (Bill Paxton) was ready to get married in his backyard (at 3:30 that very afternoon, no less). Was it any wonder that things spiraled out of control from there?

Big Love Recap Season 3, Episode 4, “On Trial”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 4, “On Trial”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 4, “On Trial”

One of the best things about Big Love is that it’s decidedly agnostic about its purported protagonist, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton). The show is smart enough to admit when he does a good thing but also keeps its distance from the man, as though it’s always concerned that he might turn into the second coming of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton). Critics of Big Love have frequently said the show presents a too idyllic vision of polygamy, but that’s not entirely accurate. The show has frequently criticized Bill and his vision, particularly via Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) and Barb’s mom, Nancy (Ellen Burstyn), and it’s shown how the polygamist lifestyle, even in a seemingly ideal set-up, manages to marginalize women and take away their ability to realize their potential. The show’s detachment, however, gets it into trouble with its critics where other HBO series (notably, The Sopranos) used that detachment to force the audience to probe their complicity in the actions seen on screen. On Big Love, the Henrickson household is presented so appealingly that we WANT it to be the kind of idyllic place it really can’t be, but it never really will be. The foundation it’s built on is the one of sand from the parable.

Big Love Recap Season 3, Episode 1, “Block Party”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 1, “Block Party”

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Big Love Recap: Season 3, Episode 1, “Block Party”

The third season premiere episode of Big Love, “Block Party,” scripted by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Daniel Attias, is, in many ways, a microcosm for the series itself. It dabbles in the show’s most pertinent themes (the clash of modern society and religious fundamentalism, the role of women within fundamentalist traditions and the hard work of building a functional marriage). It offers up a story that tries to cram in one plotline too many (the series is usually better when it focuses on two or three storylines per episode, and it almost always tries to focus on four or five). And it’s only fitfully interesting when it focuses on the hardcore polygamists at the Juniper Creek compound (a setting that grew marginally more interesting in season two but still feels like the only thing in HBO history to be in a series thanks to network notes) or the business world of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, aging surprisingly quickly in HD), but it comes to life any time it focuses on Bill’s three wives or his teenage children. The series also proves again how much of a haven it is for a bounty of actresses Hollywood has just never been able to utilize all that well, and it even fits in a few sly polygamy-as-gay-marriage commentaries around the edges. It isn’t a perfect episode (it’s not a perfect show), but it is a good one and a very entertaining one (which, again, would describe the show itself).

Big Love Recap Season 2, Episode 12, “Oh, Pioneers!”

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Big Love Recap: Season 2, Episode 12, “Oh, Pioneers!”

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Big Love Recap: Season 2, Episode 12, “Oh, Pioneers!”

The second season finale of Big Love tries to do so many things at once that it periodically flies off the rails, only to find itself righted again by a single powerful scene or moment.

The episode is perhaps the best evidence yet that the show can always rely on its phenomenal cast to grab hold of it and wrench it down to earth when it seems likely to go floating off into the stratosphere. The episode isn’t an awful one, by any means, but it commits one of the cardinal sins of the season finale: It turns into the “And then this happened! And this happened! And this happened!” like a child breathlessly recounting a series of events instead of an actual dramatic recreation of those events. A lot of season finales, trying to tie up everything that happened in the season preceding, fall into this trap, and it’s hard to skate past all of those plot points and make them feel like they have some resonance to them (the Battlestar Galactica season three finale, of all things, is just about the best recent example of how to make the overstuffed finale work).

Big Love Recap Season 2, Episode 11, “Take Me As I Am”

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Big Love Recap: Season 2, Episode 11, “Take Me As I Am”

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Big Love Recap: Season 2, Episode 11, “Take Me As I Am”

After the end of the penultimate episode of Big Love’s second season, “Take Me As I Am,” I thought the episode’s final shots, showing a knot of rattlesnakes lying beneath the covers of a perfectly made bed, was a little over-the-top as a symbol. But as I thought about it more, I realized the snakes are the perfect representation of every part of the Henrickson family’s life.

On the surface, everything is pristine and perfect. As long as Bill (Bill Paxton) and his wives keep those smiles on their faces, they’ll get through anything and emerge on the other side the perfect, polygamist family. But that placid surface has been shown to have its wriggling bumps this season, and when you pull back the covers, you find something poisonous and potentially lethal. Some of these snakes are external, the sort that you can avoid, rebuff or wait out (from the threats to the family from Alby Grant (Matt Ross) to the family’s outing at the end of season one). But some of the snakes are internal, not so easily repaired, from Barb’s (Jeanne Tripplehorn) fears about how she’s harmed her family to Margie’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) fears of being marginalized as the third wife (tonight she even implies that she is little more than a baby machine to Barb). The actual, physical snakes are easily dealt with. But the idea that the marriage bed is poisoned, that the very security of your home is threatened, is more deep-rooted and far less easy to shake. In putting the snakes in the bed, Big Love found its own way of aping that famous shot from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet where the camera pans down into the roots of those perfectly manicured lawns to see the writhing, natural pandemonium at suburbia’s heart.