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Big Love Watch: Know When To Hold 'Em

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Before you read the following post, mix yourself up some fry sauce and watch last night’s season premiere of Big Love:

So, they got me. Though I saw Joey smother Roman in his bed same as you did, the appearance of the bank deposits, Harry Dean Stanton’s participation in the Juniper Creek Christmas album, and Big Love‘s history of fake-out deaths had me thinking that Roman had not yet sloughed off his snakey husk.

He did, of course, and the way his death was revealed was essentially Big Love: both bizarrely funny, horrifying and strangely moving. Adaleen’s luring Nicki into the walk-in freezer to find her father’s corpse was a grotesque way of springing the news on anyone. I suspected something up with her urging Nicki to fetch “the bacon,” but did not see it being this. And yet it made perfect sense for her and Nicki: Adaleen has never been able to talk straight with Nicki, or admit vulnerability generally.

This is how their family talks. And as gross-out horrible as Nicki’s discovery was—and as much as she often hated Roman—the fact that she has seen her father and her Prophet reduced, literally, to a piece of meat is also deeply sad. (As, in its own way, is Mary Kay Place’s desperation and inability to say the words—which struck home to me when I watched the episode a second time, knowing what was coming.)

In the off-season, as we’ve waited for Big Love to come back, I’ve debated the show with friends and colleagues who don’t get its appeal. To some of them, the characters and situations are too exaggerated and outlandish, especially those having to do with Juniper Creek. I disagree, obviously. Not only do they make for the show’s outrageous surprising heart, but thematically, the weirdness shows how the characters have been twisted, their sense of reality set 45 degrees off plumb, by the abusive environment that Roman Grant fostered.

Four seasons in, that is the thing with Big Love: either you buy a woman apologizing to her husband for trying to kill him, thwarting his attempt to abduct her by jamming a gun in his ribs, then asking him out for ice-cream cones—or you don’t. I do, because, as much as most of Big Love’s characters may be outside my experience, especially those on the compound, the show never violates the integrity of their characters.

Hats off, anyway, to Big Love, for having the guts to kill off perhaps its most memorable character in Roman Grant, and to Harry Dean Stanton for having made him both reprehensible and yet believable in his faith (however twisted it was). Both on the compound and in the cast, he leaves some tall boots to fill. The premiere, however, did a strong job of continuing some storylines (Margene’s continuing move toward independence with her sales career and Nicki’s uncomfortable re-integration into the marriage) and setting up new ones (Alby’s inconveniently situated man-crush, Barb’s difficulty relating to Bill’s Native American partners).

It was fitting, by the way, that the episode should involve a canceled appearance by Kenny Rogers, singer of “The Gambler,” and not just because the storyline involves a casino. Bill Henrickson has been a gambler, really, since well before he got into that business. In a recent Atlantic cover story about the role of evangelical churches in the real-estate bubble, Hanna Rosin writes that there are two countervailing traditions in America. The first is the self-made man, “disciplined and hardworking.” The second is “a kind of gambling man,” who believes that if he wishes and trusts—and, maybe overextends himself—good fortune will fall on him through divine grace.

Bill has elements of both; he has an undeniable work ethic, but central to his belief system is also the idea that he must trust in fate to an extent–that he can take on massive family obligations and God will provide. Big Love, too, takes gambles, trusting that it can risk big and things will fall into place. I’ve seen this episode and next week’s, and I’m still glad to roll the dice with it.

Now for the Roman Grant Memorial Hail of Bullets:

* “I was wrong in attempting to hasten your demise.” No one can apologize for an attempted murder like Lois.

* I saw the first two episodes of Big Love in advance, but they were sent out without the new opening theme and credits. Suffice it to say I wasn’t happily surprised. Changing opening/music credits rarely ends up being an improvement on any show, much less when you already had perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, “God Only Knows,” used entirely fittingly. Anyone like the new ones?

* Of all the reactions to Roman’s death (Nicki’s breakdown in the car, Bill’s tenderly closing his father-in-law’s eyes, then thanking God in a prayer circle), award for the funniest/creepiest had to go to Alby’s wife, first grinning smugly, then breaking out that long-waiting can of beer to celebrate.

* If you were wondering, “fry sauce” is in fact a regional condiment: one part ketchup, two parts mayonnaise. And if you haven’t had mayo on fries, you haven’t lived. (Although the habit will probably also make you die sooner.)

* Having ended the last season with an outstanding dramatic arc, Jeanne Tripplehorn was relatively sidelined in this episode, but I liked her comic moments here: “Nobody in Utah eats salmon!”