Before you read this post, put on the cardigan I bought you and watch last night’s Big Love.
Big Love can’t catch a break. The night of its most powerful episode so far this season, it ends up smack against the Oscars—where Amanda Seyfried shows up as a presenter, effectively counterprogramming against herself. A shame, because this episode, which focused single-bore on the family and brought each major character in it to crisis, was a doozy. The highlights:
* With such a phenomenal cast of women, it’s rare to see a Big Love in which Bill Paxton gets to shine. I used to think of him as a dull actor. Truth be told, I guess I still do. (I will admit it: I still sometimes have to IMDB him to make sure he’s not Bill Pullman.) And yet he has found not just a perfect role for him, but made it appear much easier than it must actually be. Bill is a boring, vanilla guy in many ways, but he’s a boring, vanilla guy of intense passions, life force and faith. There’s something very Hank Hill about him: his fixation on doing small things right, like burying the time capsule, is a stand-in for his need to maintain order and values in a nonsensical world. Little points of principle (little-p “principle”) mean everything to him, whether he’s demanding honesty about Joseph Smith’s wives or confronting Mac from Night Court about theology. “Sir, all I have to say to you is: Have a nice day.”
It takes some doing to portray both those elements without letting one overwhelm the other, to show the strains and fire roiling under that whitebread exterior, and from Bill’s obsession with the time capsule to his breakdown under the gaze of the Angel Moroni, Paxton nailed it here.
* I feel like I’m always writing about how well the show balances the bizarre with honest emotion, but well, I have to do it again. The journey of Margene’s mother to her final end was both hilarious (the kids getting caught, to their horror, in accidental Grandmaphagy) and touching. The temptation to go for cheap jokes or Lynchian weirdness must be constant, and Big Love doesn’t always pull it off. The secret, I think, is that while the characters’ circumstances may be alien and laughable or horrifying, they are always themselves sincere. It says something for a series that it can give you a scene of a religious fundamentalist posthumously baptizing his mother-in-law, via his other wife as a proxy, in a hotel Jacuzzi, and have it be genuinely moving.
* There’s definitely been a sense that, after its strike hiatus, Big Love has been accelerating stories to make up for lost time, and this episode won’t do anything to change that impression. But I liked that the stories—particularly, Sarah’s pregnancy and Nicki’s birth control use—were pushed forward in a way that each naturally advanced the other. I was pleasantly surprised that Nicki ‘fessed up to her pill use, and again impressed that Chloe Sevigny can find sympathy in what could be an entirely unlikeable, Nellie-Olsen-on-steroids character. We don’t often see it, but as evidence by her support for Sarah, she genuinely has maternal feelings for her sister-wives’ kids. Even more refreshing to see her taking Margene’s side on refusing her mother’s ashes to her weird relatives. (“Oh, for Pete’s sake. They were petting rats. Rats!”)
* Nicki’s flirtation with Ray, obviously, is less sympathetic, though it occasioned a delightful call to Wanda, perhaps the last person in the world anyone should consult for advice. ( “Has he chased you at night? Has he tried to put you in the trunk?”) Then again, when you contrast her attempt to make Bill into Ray via the cardigan with Bill’s using Margene as mental porn in bed with her (after Marge volunteers as marital fluffer in lieu of Bill’s Viagra)—can you blame her?
* Ginnifer Goodwin, meanwhile, showed us Margene as lost daughter and in-command wife/mother—in a way that showed how one caused the other. She’s at a loss dealing with her mother’s death, physically (i.e., disposing of the ashes) and mentally. Yet we see that her childhood with her lush of a mother taught her a self-reliance that belies her ditz exterior. Confronting Ben—whose feelings for her did resurface after all—Margene knew she had to firmly, unambiguously shut him down. And Goodwin showed us the gears clicking into place as she forced herself to be the adult—something, her performance conveys, that she probably had to do long before she ever actually grew up.
* And speaking of Margene: “My mother loved Jim Nabors, and I don’t think he had a daughter.” Loved it.