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"Damage Control," "The Writing on the Wall," "Reunion," "Rock and a Hard Place," "Vision Thing," "Dating Game," "Good Guys and Bad Guys," "Kingdom Come," "Circle the Wagons," "The Happiest Girl," "Take Me As I Am," "Oh, Pioneers"
by Alex Jackson There's definitely something cheeky and slyly subversive at the core of HBO's "Big Love". The show is the brainchild of Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, an openly-gay couple who've been together since the early-'90s. That single fact opens up some interesting connections when it comes to polygamy. The standard argument religious groups have against homosexuality is that it's unnatural: Two men or two women cannot naturally procreate and therefore it's deviant, godless behaviour. By contrast, polygamy is possibly more natural than monogamy--you could argue that males are hardwired to spread their seed with as many females as possible and it is not cost efficient, evolutionarily speaking, to restrict yourself to one woman. And if the ability to procreate is what makes heterosexuality more moral than homosexuality, then we have to admit that polygamists are able to procreate "better" than monogamists and so polygamy should be embraced as the morally superior lifestyle.
The great irony of "Big Love" is that this family of polygamists, living an "alternative" lifestyle that is essentially heterosexual to a fault, is forced to stay in the closet and follow a script of public self-denial similar to the one gays have followed for years. The second and third wives of suburban patriarch Bill (Bill Paxton), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), must pretend they're just his neighbours, which eats away not only at them--they are hurt by the idea that their marriage to Bill is not as legitimate as the one between Bill and his first/recognized wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn)--but at Bill, too. He has to act like the children he sired with Nicki and Margene aren't his. I sense a twinge of crude revenge fantasy in this I don't want to ignore or minimize. In true "Twilight Zone" tradition, the heterosexuals get a taste of what it's like to live as gay when they're forced to hide and disguise their proclivities.
"Big Love" scores a couple more specifically political points over the course of its second season. Bill's father-in-law, series villain and rural fundamentalist prophet Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), is openly opposed to legislation that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Even more delicious is the subtext of Barb's rejection by her mother Nancy (Ellen Burstyn) when she discovers that her daughter is a polygamist. Attempting to prove she's not bigoted, Nancy tells Barb that she tolerated her sister-in-law's coming out as a lesbian long before it was fashionable to do so. She explains that she has to do more than tolerate her own daughter, but still, I think this reflects that most mainstream conservative Mormons would be more accepting of a gay child than a polygamist one. You can't underestimate the extent to which the LDS church wants to put the practice behind them; it seems the polygamist "threat" puts the gay one in the proper perspective. Furthermore, this link between polygamy and homosexuality strikes an arterial blow for the "gay agenda." It illustrates that matters of sexual morality (perhaps matters of any morality) are always socially constructed and never innate or natural.
Bill and Barb's 16-year-old son Ben (Douglas Smith) goes to see a bishop in another ward (as a polygamist, he can't see his own) and admits to having intercourse. More than once. And he doesn't think he can stop. The bishop cautiously asks whether the sex he's been having is gender specific. No, Ben is not gay--he's talking about sex with his girlfriend. Ben's sheltered naivety does seem exaggerated for the sake of making a satirical point, but it follows a clear logic: if Ben's religion strongly prohibits pre-marital sex, then his heterosexual yearnings are as "deviant" as homosexual ones. (His father tries to remind him that what he's feeling is "normal" and that these feelings are simply intended for marriage, but of course this argument is never going to persuade a teenager. What 16-year-old has that kind of long-term perspective?) There's no getting around the irony that Ben's father has three wives and Ben regards this as perfectly normal, but because he's having pre-marital sex--with one woman in an exclusive and fairly mature romantic relationship--he considers himself a sexual deviant. It suggests that the concept of "deviancy" is pretty much always contingent on social context.
Yet Olsen and Scheffer have too much compassion and intellectual curiosity to limit "Big Love" to a snarky attack on the Mormons by the Gays. If it started out that way in the early conceptual stages, it has since snowballed into something much deeper, messier, and more challenging. My favourite episode of the second season is "Dating Game," wherein Bill becomes infatuated with a Serbian waitress named Ana (Branka Katic). The twist is that Margene catches Bill flirting with her and becomes infatuated with her, too. She comes to believe that Ana is fourth-wife material and courts her in tandem with Bill. The episode has a jittery energy because we like Bill, we're rooting for him, and instinctively we don't want him to cheat on his wives and screw up his marital bliss. But Margene's presence casts things in a different light. She doesn't see this as cheating--she sees this as Bill grooming a potential new bride. This appears, then, to be a confirmation that polygamy is a legitimization of male promiscuity.
Then something interesting happens: Bill puts on the brakes. He decides he doesn't want to marry Ana. What he's experiencing is mere lust. Huh? I agree with Bill that Ana does not exude fourth-wife potential. In Barb, Bill has a true life partner on equal footing with him politically and psychologically. There's a strong "Ricky and Lucy" vibe with the other two whereby he has to clean up after their crazy shenanigans. Not so with Barb. Nicki, because of her ties to Roman Grant (she's his daughter), was probably a dumb choice for Bill in the long run. (The first season implies that Bill married her for strategic reasons: he started his business, a chain of home-improvement stores called, heh, "Henrickson Home Plus," with a loan from Roman and maybe was desperate for a buffer to keep Roman at bay.) But Bill was also kicked off the compound as a teen, and perhaps he wanted to marry somebody from there as a way of uniting his former and present selves. Margene, meanwhile, is young and adorable, though it's reductive to say that Bill was trying to recapture his youth by marrying her. Because it's all brand-new to her, she allows Bill to view the path he's chosen through unjaded eyes. These aren't women chosen by random, in other words--they all make very specific sense to Bill. I can't figure out what role Ana would play. (She's an especially odd fit with her Serbian background.) Why exactly is Bill so attracted to her? He doesn't really know, and neither do we.
But Margene wants to keep seeing her. She's convinced that Ana is "the [fourth] one." While Margene's reasons for liking her are more explicable than Bill's, they have even less to do with who Ana is as a person. Margene simply does not want to be the "new" wife anymore. Throughout the series, she's operated under the assumption that she doesn't have the same authority as Barb and Nicki because she hasn't put as many years into the marriage. Introducing a fourth wife would finally give her seniority over someone. This isn't necessarily a malicious or selfish attitude; Margene loves being a polygamist and she wants to be the one to introduce another person to this great lifestyle. Still, this is not a good reason to marry Ana specifically. Margene isn't in love with Ana, she's in the love with the idea of a fourth wife.
Notably, there is never any indication that Margene's infatuation with Ana equals a sexual attraction to her. It seems simplistic and crass to say that the intense need to be with somebody and have him or her in your life is necessarily sexual in nature. There's a place on the female intimacy scale where two women can be more than friends but less than lovers, and "Dating Game" suggests that the institution of polygamy formalizes, legitimizes, and gives a name to it. Margene tells Ana, "You know how they say everyone has a soulmate? Well, I have three." Ana is intrigued. She might actually be willing to give polygamy a try. She really likes Margene, she really likes Bill, and as a stranger in a strange land, she's incredibly lonely. Ana needs a girlfriend possibly as much as she needs a man. There are times when the show dares insinuate that monogamy is inadequate in meeting our emotional needs. For most of us, the love of one spouse isn't going to be enough to sustain us.
"Big Love" steers away from apologia later in the season and reminds us why plural marriage may not be so ideal. We're shown that the sister-wives are vulnerable to sexual jealousy and sometimes deeply resent having to share their husband. This is particularly true of Barb, who for years had Bill all to herself. (Evidently their envy hasn't developed into feelings of neglect, as to our knowledge none of them have ever strayed.) A bigger problem is that Bill's children each split their father among seven other kids spread across three different families. This is especially destructive to his teenage son and daughter (Amanda Seyfried), who need a strong parental figure to help guide them through the shame and embarrassment as they grow up hearing these mixed messages but more often than not are forced to figure it out for themselves.
Finally, the natural chaos of a large polygamous family, combined with the secrecy, can also be a breeding ground for incest. "Big Love" touches lightly on this. A brief ambiguous shot in the first season where Nicki sits on her father's bed is reinforced in the second with a cryptic taunt from her brother, Alby (Matt Ross): "Making eyes at papa? You'll never be Daddy's little girl." Of course, aside from Ben's developing crush on Margene, acknowledged and addressed by Barb and Margene if not by Ben himself, we have no reason to believe that our Sandy-area polygamist clan is involved in anything so debauched. But they have set themselves up for it. Purely on a structural level, this family is more vulnerable to the incest virus than most monogamous ones.
The ethical and religious issues broached in "Big Love" are as difficult to resolve as the sociological and sexual ones. In Season One, Roman Grant's Juniper Creek compound in southern Utah operated as an extended metaphor for the sordid polygamist past from which mainstream Mormons have struggled to distance themselves. The second season ups the ante by introducing us to the adjunct polygamist family the Greenes, a sort of underground Mormon mafia, and by underlining Roman's history of maintaining power through acts of violence. There's an echo of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, or at least of the massacre's re-enactment in Helen Whitney's superb two-part documentary "The Mormons", where fresh-scrubbed teenagers calmly slaughtered approximately 120 men, women, and children, sparing only those under the age of eight (the official age of accountability, according to LDS doctrine). Roman and the Greene family are certainly as ruthless and power-hungry as Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone, but they are so damned polite about it. The show captures that "milk laced with cyanide" sensibility that seems so specific to Mormonism. Roman's powerful euphemism for murder, "blood atonement," says all there is to say, really. This is not a man who will ever be haunted by the things he has done.
And yet, although he may distance himself from his evil actions through a thick web of rationalizations and justifications, Roman is at least a polygamist living "the principle" out in the open. He believes in his faith enough to be ostracized by the rest of society; Bill hides it to protect his business and to continue living in the elitist Salt Lake suburb of Sandy. He isn't ashamed to be a polygamist, exactly, but it's something he finds expedient to deny in order to enjoy a certain level of material comfort. Roman's income stems from a number of morally questionable sources--legalized video gambling, welfare fraud, and tithing from other compound members. However, his many wives aside, Roman hardly looks to be living as high on the hog as Bill. We could take from this that an ascetic life sustained by sin is morally preferable to a sensually excessive one earned through honest hard work. It's the idea that prostitutes and thieves are more likely to enter the kingdom of Heaven than the rich.
Bill resides in a secular, 21st-century world. He's one of us. I'm aware that the people on these compounds may not have much choice in how they live. They likely don't know anything else, or maybe this is where their family is. This is all broached within the series. The question is, how Christian can you be out in the suburbs? It's the leap into faith that gives Christianity its flavour--the idea that if you truly believe in Christ, you'll sell your belongings and move up in the mountains to devote yourself to Him. There needs to be a grand crazy gesture like that. It should always fall somewhere in the general area of cultdom.
Equating Mormonism with Christianity is interesting in that Mormonism is, let's face it, a uniquely wacky variant of Christian belief. "Big Love" savours this wackiness, re-uniting Bill with his deceased wives on their own personal planet in the title sequence and portraying, without an ounce of condescension or irony, that "prophecy in a black hat" stuff you saw on "South Park". But the crazier the religion, the more you sacrifice in taking the leap of faith. In this sense, it takes more conviction to believe in Mormonism than in conventional Christian sects. As such, it better satisfies the religious requirement to free oneself from rationality and reason.
Many of the weirdest Mormon beliefs explicitly tie Christianity in with the establishment of the United States, i.e., that Jesus Christ arrived in the Americas long before the time of Columbus, that Native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel, and that the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired. Also reflect that Utah was admitted into the Union on the condition that polygamy be explicitly outlawed in the state constitution. By some reports, similar pressures on a national level led the Church to permit African-American men into the priesthood in 1978. In other words, the relative secularism represented by Bill could be seen as a natural progression of Mormonism's ongoing integration into mainstream society. This is fine, so long as the mainstream society being accommodated is our own. Times change, though, and if a religion continues to change with it, it loses its utility as a moral compass. The notorious anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer Father Coughlin was a Catholic priest, after all.
In Season Two, Bill "steals" a video-poker franchise from both Roman and the Greenes, buying it from the seller before they get a chance. His family was outed as polygamists in the previous season's finale and Bill is worried that his business will take a blow. He wants to diversify his holdings into an enterprise that's indifferent to polygamists so that his family will have some security. Roman and the Greenes are interested in the franchise for much the same reason--and largely because they are open polygamists, many normal moneymaking avenues are closed off to them. Barb is vehemently opposed to her family profiting through gambling, but how much of this moral outrage is an attempt to distance herself from the compound polygamists? She doesn't want to admit that she's as vulnerable as them because she doesn't want to admit that she's like them. She wants to believe that her polygamist family is somehow substantially different/better.
Is Bill Henrickson hypocritical? Has he lost his roots and compromised his core identity? Do we like him better than Roman because he does the right thing at the right time, or because we recognize ourselves in him while Roman is of an extinct species that is alien to us? I doubt that you can be a practicing fundamentalist Mormon out in the suburbs, but can you be one down at the compound? That is, if the compound is going to make you commit welfare fraud and promote gambling. There's pretension in preserving a 19th-century way of life, just as there's pretension in having three houses for your three wives. Roman's rationale for buying the video-poker franchise is that he's taking money away from sinners to support his own. This speaks of a crude evolutionary in-group morality that seems antithetical to Christianity. Notably, it's an argument Bill himself adopts. The point isn't that Bill has evil inside him--it's that the term "evil" has ceased to have any concrete meaning.
The audiovisual quality on HBO's four-disc DVD release of "Big Love: The Complete Second Season" is predictably stellar. The beautifully-modulated 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers betray a 35mm source that overemphasizes neither the plasticity of the Henrickson household nor the bland decay of the Roman Grant household the way a shot-in-HD incarnation of the series might. Despite that it's less than exhibitionistic, the attendant Dolby Digital 5.1 audio similarly leaves little room for improvement.
A trilogy of brief vignettes detailing key events in the Henrickson family are the set's only extras. In "Post Partum" (4 mins.), Barb visits Nicki in the hospital after she's had her first baby and gently eases her hysteria about being a new mother. Nicki is terrified that since Barb can no longer conceive they'll use her as a baby farm and she'll have to go through the ordeal of pregnancy repeatedly. Bill hires Margene as the family's nanny in "Meet the Babysitter" (4 mins.). The poor girl finds herself aggressively grilled by Nicki, who (correctly) suspects that Bill is test-driving a third wife. Lastly, "Moving Day" (3 mins.) sees the three sister-wives confronting Bill on the need for individual homes. "Meet the Babysitter" and "Moving Day" are played so broadly that I never quite connected with them. I enjoyed "Post Partum" a great deal, however. The piece makes Nicki simultaneously more sympathetic and more superficial and I like how it fleshes out the positive nature of the sister-wife relationship. It sure looks as though a husband and a sister-wife beats just a husband. I suppose these mini-episodes are ultimately superfluous, but no more than a standard making-of featurette would be and I praise the producers for thinking outside the box. I only wish they'd given us something more than this. In particular, I was hoping for audio commentaries, which were included on "Big Love: The Complete First Season". Originally published: April 7, 2010.