Big Love: Am-Bushed!

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Before reading this guest post by TIME movie critic Richard Corliss, plant some azaleas while watching the latest episode of Big Love…

Big news: In a backyard ceremony, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) took counter-girl Ana (Branka Katic) as his fourth wife. This concluded a courtship that spread over two of the series’ three seasons, and was capped by Bill’s charming proposal, “Will you marry us?” But stand by, fans, we have Breaking News: the Bill-Ana union looks to have been one of the shortest marriages ever – about 45 mins. of small-screen time and, in “real” time, pretty close to the 55 hrs. that Jason Allen Alexander was wed to Britney Spears.

It was another bustling episode, in a series that dares its fans to miss even one week. (Next Sunday, I may skip the Oscars.) Just last week,  the trial of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), prophet and despot of the fundamentalist Juniper Creek compound, was abruptly terminated, No season-long legal theatrics needed, the show’s producers decided; let’s move on. And now they’ve ditched the plot element that threatened to upend Big Love’s delicate equilibrium. Four wives in three houses? And doesn’t Bill, who’s facing the potential collapse of his hardware-cum-casino business, already have enough mouths to feed? And did we really want another skater in the God Only Knows opening credit sequence? These and other doubts may have been put to rest this week – and all because of azalea bushes.

In related stories:

– Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), eldest daughter of Bill and wife #1 Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), revealed to her girlfriend Heather (Tina Majorino) that she’s pregnant, a confidence overheard by one of the pod children from the compound;

– Bill uses muscle to get Barb’s lawyer brother Ted (Patrick Fabian) to stymie anti-casino legislation among the church elders;

— Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), wife #2, is pleased to entertain the romantic interest of Ray Kelly (Charles Esten), her boss in the D.A.’s office where Nicki was working as a mole for her father Roman; and

– troubled teenager Franky (Mark L. Young), who is Bill’s half-brother but 30 years younger, hied off to Nicaragua in search of his banished mother.

The Henrickson family dustup came soon after the wedding, when a dispute rose among the wives as to which house Ana would stay in. Bill’s ruling that Ana would move in with Nicki -the one sister-wife who didn’t want her – quickly proved to be one of those awful executive orders that instantly make everything worse. It was like G.W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq … except that, instead of taking six-plus years to play out, the Ana problem was resolved in a few days.

Why did Barb agitate to bring Ana into (a) the family and (b) her own house? In earlier episodes, Barb’s motives for approving a fourth wife seemed related to her cancer scare, and a need to replenish The Principle in the event of her demise. The cancer issue apparently resolved satisfactorily, she still supported Bill’s wish to bring Ana into the family. This week she said why: because she needed a mature friend – because her sister-wives, Nicki and Marjene (Ginnifer Goodwin), were more like daughter-wives, and “to be with an adult,” namely Ana, “makes me feel normal.”

Even with all the sisterhood, chez Henrickson is a fairly insular place. What the wives – anyway, Barb and Marjene – really need are plain old gal-friends. Marjene felt that rare kinship with Ana; that’s why she wanted the new girl in the family. Barb came aboard when she and Ana clicked. And that made Marjene jealous, as if Barb was cheating on her. “You womanizer!” she spits at Barb.

Nicki is so twisted, she’d never accept a new addition. Hence her playing of Iago to Marjene’s Othello, whispering malignancies into a naive girl’s ear. Wife #3 takes the bait, accepting Nicki’s story that, for the imminent wedding reception, Ana prefers one color of azaleas, and Barb has insisted on another. In the tone of a righteously indignant eight-year-old, Marjene says of Barb, “I can’t believe she planted magenta azaleas when she knew Ana wanted white!” -adding, in a perfect fury of bafflement, “Who does that?”

It’s one of the series’ great little outbursts, like Bill’s “what the aitch?” and Barb’s “I don’t give a fig”: the way the characters respond to minor domestic wrangles with an antiseptic intensity that’s both comic and poignant. This is the deep pool that Big Love plumbs, in its evolving answers to that essential issue of TV comedy and drama: What is a normal family?
Three notable absences:

1. Rhonda Volmer (Daveigh Chase) – the compound’s prime teen bride, and the show’s most malignant bad seed – left town last week, and is missed. God knows what havoc she’s wreaking out in the world. But Nicki showed again this week that she can scheme in the best Juniper Creek tradition. A constant of the series is that the characters’ mental stability is in inverse proportion to the time they’ve spent in the compound. (The weirdness of the fundamentalists makes the Henricksons seem kinda average.) Nicki, who grew up there as Roman’s princess-daughter, has never unlearned the scheming that flourished under her father. She’s like Rhonda, but with more subtle wiles. And it’s always a treat to see Sevigny, a marvelously mannerist actress, use her curled or pursed lips to express Nicki’s rancor, resentment, duplicity. Even when she doesn’t speak, Sevigny’s mouth is always in motion, as if she’s playing an invisible harmonica.

2. Bill’s mother Lois (Grace Zabriskie) was put in some sort of Witless Protection program after the aborted murder-by-suffocation attempt on her husband Frank (Bruce Dern). It’s just as well that this magnificent overacter was given a week off; if Zabriskie keeps sucking in her cheeks in fulminous indignation, there’ll be holes where the flesh was. No question it’s fun to watch Dern and Zabriskie in a who’s-nuttier competition. Behaviorally, though, they should be Sevigny’s parents; and Paxton should be the offspring of the other main compound couple: the steelier, subtler Mary Kay Place and Harry Dean Stanton.

3. Except for eldest kids Sarah and Ben (dreamy Douglas Smith), and Marjene’s baby in furtive glimpses, the Henrickson children have all but disappeared. Don’t they have eight or nine kids? They weren’t even present at the wedding. Maybe they were in their rooms reading scripture, like dutiful Tod and Rod Flanders on The Simpsons. Random thought: Wouldn’t Ned Flanders – a devout, relentlessly cheerful soul who did-duddly-oesn’t curse any more than Bill – be an excellent neighbor for the Henricksons? Remember, he’s been a widower since the 2000 season; Bill could lend Ned one of his spares.

A question for TUNED IN readers: What exactly was the leverage Bill used to strong-arm Ted into killing the anti-casino motion?

And thanks, all. Your real TV critic will return next week.