Tuned In

Big Love Watch: Mexican Standoff

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, turn off that telenovela, get into your ostrich cage, and watch last night’s Big Love.

There is a certain kind of primetime drama that people will sometimes refer to as being “like a soap opera.” Often they’ll use the term to refer to a serial show that’s heavy on melodrama or stories about relationships. Sometimes the phrase will be used to describe a show like Caprica, as a way of saying that it’s less action-oriented than the martial Battlestar Galactica. Or “soap opera” will be used for a family drama, like Brothers and Sisters, because it involves a lot of talking and emoting.

But those aren’t really soap operas. This episode of Big Love—now this is a soap opera!

“Blood Atonement”—which indeed earned the “blood” portion of its title—was perhaps the most ludicrous, over-the-top episode of Big Love yet, and that’s saying something. From the family home to Juniper Creek to the lurid Ciudad Greene compound, the show went full-on into daytime-soap mode: there was a violent cult, a bomb threat, a surprise pregnancy, a surprise wedding, histrionic family showdowns, abductions, near-executions and a confession of murder. (There was even an identical twin involved, though of course she was already there.)

This may sound like an insult, but “Blood Atonement” was really a thing of garish, baroque beauty. (TIME’s movie critic and Big Love fan Richard Corliss has a review of the previous two episodes, elsewhere on this site, where he argues that the strength of the show is how often and lustily it embraces storylines that are traditionally jump-the-shark moves.)

I enjoyed the episode not so much for the storylines, which contained plot holes you could drive the entire Greene family motorcade through, but because with few exceptions, and for all their outrageousness, they brought the conflict back to the Henrickson family and away from Bill’s run for state Senate, which is the aspect of this season that’s bothered me most.

Why would that storyline–as opposed to, say, the one about a Mexican bird-smuggling syndicate–be the one to bother me? Because for all its heightened drama, Big Love’s plots have generally been rooted in the continuing storyline of Bill and his wives trying to figure out how to live their alternative lifestyle, without falling afoul of the law or getting sucked back into the compound’s criminality. Bill’s run for Senate nominally relates to that: supposedly he sees public office as a way that his family can finally live openly.

But not only does that not much make sense–how does it not make him more vulnerable from exposure and not less?–it also gets in the way of the existing storyline about the casino, which was a much more plausible scheme for the family to become financially independent, from a business venture that would not be ruined by their exposure. The Senate run seems tacked on and rationalized after the fact, as if, incredibly, the producers felt there wasn’t already enough to occupy the family. They may as well have given Bill a Testimony from Heavenly Father to become an astronaut. And in the process, the casino, potentially a far more interesting story with culture-clash ramifications, has often been shunted to the side.

Bill’s run for the border with Joey to rescue his family, on the other hand, worked within Big Love’s realm of the weird-but-contextually-plausible. Within the demented alternate world that the polygamist compounds have created—operating outside the law and, here, with the tacit indulgence of local authorities—a kangaroo court in an ostrich pen conducted by an eccentric criminal and his transvestite wife makes perfect sense. That is, it makes sense because it’s so outside the normal: this is the twisted, debauched life that Bill has tried to escape, while trying—often with very morally flawed results—to live polygamy by a higher moral standard. And yet, as he tells his brother in frustration, he cannot escape his family, nipping at him “like crabs in a barrel” to pull him back down. (Ironically, since a few episodes ago Barb told us that Mormons love crab.)

That is, as unrestrainedly weird as “Blood Atonement” was—and what a hoot it must have been to design the Ciudad Greene set—it was rooted in the real emotional circumstances of Bill’s past, culminating in Frank’s revelation to Lois that he banished Bill on Roman’s orders, and his admission that his cowardly acquiescence destroyed his family. (Not, of course, that this suddenly makes Frank sympathetic; Roman didn’t order him to be a royal a-hole to Joey, so far as I know.)

Likewise, the Ana storyline resolved itself in a soap-opera fashion, with Margene’s sudden idea for a green-card marriage to Goran, because that’s the realm the show operates in. But that plot twist was also rooted in the real dynamic of the Henrickson group marriage—in this case, that Margene is growing increasingly confident in her agency as a sister-wife, and less inclined to let Boss Lady Barb take her down a peg. In Margene’s eyes, she is no interloper in this marriage; she was brought in to freshen it up, not just sexually or genetically, but to bring in new ideas and a new way of seeing through problems. When she tells Barb to see the quickie marriage not as a problem but as the solution—keeping Ana and the new baby in their lives—that’s really how Margene is telling Barb to see Margene herself.

Now, did I buy it? Some parts more than others. Like so many things in Big Love, Margene’s marriage might have made more sense if it had more time to develop—nobody has any time to meditate on anything here, and clearly that’s just the metabolism the show has set for itself. And the denouement to the standoff at Ciudad Greene was puzzling in several ways. How could Bill have possibly busted into the pen undetected to free his family when Hollis knew that he was on his way? Couldn’t Selma easily have ordered her goons to detain (or kill) Bill and the rest and still have gotten Hollis to a hospital?  And does Lois really have the upper body strength to whack a man’s arm off?

Maybe it was just a very sharp machete. That, I guess, is the secret to whether you like or dislike Big Love: whether you are willing to believe that its edge is sharp enough to cut through the bone and sinew of its implausibilities.

With that, I’ll leave you to think about the rest of last night’s story. In particular: what exactly is J.J. up to? And is there any chance we’ll have enough time this season to find out?