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Big Love Watch: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

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SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched last night’s Big Love, watch out for that Holy Spirit sucker punch.

HBO photo: Lacey Terrell

Last week we watched Bill take off his ring with Ana in the diner and wondered: was it love or was it lust? Turns out it was love–just on a different person’s part. Ginnifer Goodwin got a showcase last night, as Margene found herself growing more and more smitten with Bill’s Serbian prospective fourth wife, only to have her heart broken when things didn’t work out. (Or, that is, didn’t work out for Bill.)

It was another example of how Big Love continues to confound our knee-jerk expectations of what the dynamics must be like in a plural marriage–some of those expectations, to be fair, set up by the early episodes of the show. The pilot and the early part of the first season focused much more on competition among wives: the calendars, the sharing, the power relations between the Boss Lady and the second and third wives. But the show seemed to realize that it didn’t have much future as a series without showing why three very different women would want to be in a multiple marriage, as well as sometimes chafe against it, and that has made Big Love a richer show.

The irony is that, as Bill contemplates popping the fourth question to Ana, he and his poly-hubby buddies assume that Margene would be threatened by a new wife–the same assumption that, I’m betting, most monogamous viewers of the show would make. “Remind her that earthly increase is the due of every righteous man,” suggests Don Embry. Yeah. That’ll do it.

In fact, as this plot played out, it showed what a nuanced view of the marriage the show has developed. On the one hand, we see that Margene, for all her insecurities, genuinely embraces polygamy; meeting Ana, she not only falls in sister-love with her, but falls back in love with Barb and Nicki, convinced that Ana will only make the family stronger. (“She’ll love Barb! She’ll grow to love Nicki!”) But she wants Ana for herself–not just for Bill–and even naive, guileless Margene pushes back against the patriarchical assumptions of the setup, asking why she shouldn’t be involved in choosing a new wife, too.

All of which explains why it surprises me that it surprises so many other people that Big Love is popular among women. Bill may have three wives, but there are four spouses in this marriage, and he’s outnumbered.

In the meantime, I’ll be curious to see what happens with the newly surfaced Greene family, who threaten to make Roman’s clan seem wholesome. (Bill’s video poker adventure, it turns out, nearly came back to brand him in the ass, literally.) And I’m looking forward to getting back to the compound next week. Other favorite beats from this episode:

* Nicki’s response to Barb’s attempt to make peace in the diner: “It’s like talking to a fortune cookie.” No one does contemptuous like Chloe Sevigny.

* Likewise enjoyed Nicki’s clumsily attempt to trick Rhonda away from Heather’s house. (Nicki manages to take over even episodes where she’s on the margins.) “We want to tell your story too. But television. Bill owns a TV station.”

* Love that Ben takes the car out for his first solo drive to sneak out, not to his girlfriend, but to a bishop, to confess to nailing his girlfriend. Double-love the handful of pamphlets the bishop gives him, including “Satan’s Thrust.” I call dibs on that as a band name.