In its fourth season Big Love, HBO’s drama about plural marriage, had problems with plural storylines. As befits a show about big families, Big Love was never afraid to be expansive, developing a large cast and piling on story developments, but the torrent of can-you-top-this plot developments became almost comical. To his big-box housewares store and Indian casino, patriarch Bill Henrickson added a run for Utah State Senate, while at home and at the fundamentalist compund he left as a boy, there were twists galore, including kidnapping, exotic bird smuggling and a plan by a fundamentalist interloper to seize power at the compound through a baroque plan involving bizarre fertility experiments.
It was all, even for a show about abundance, a little much.
Season 5 will be Big Love’s last, and while I can’t say—based on the first three episodes—that it’s back in top form, it has taken some course-correction steps to end its run by focusing on its central story: the struggle of Bill and his three wives to create a life for themselves in their own faith, outside the abusive traditions of the compound and the support of the mainstream Mormon community. The story is still sprawling, but extraneous plots have been either dialed down or pared away, as the return episodes focus tightly on the central family.
At the end of season 4, Bill had won election and carried out his plan for the family to come out as polygamists. (Under state law, he cannot be impeached for being a polygamist, though it is technically illegal.) The idea is that, having won the confidence of voters and shown himself and his family to be regular people, they would come to be accepted by the community—and in so doing, show that there’s a third way for people like them to pursue their faith in the open.
It doesn’t quite work that way. Bill’s colleagues and constituents take his deception as, well, a deception, and as the season opens, the family is beseiged and feeling the sting of ostracization. There are strains within the marriage too. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who has lost her job, is at loose ends and desperate. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is having second thoughts about her marriage, and feels that she is not truly an equal within it. And Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) has finally broken with her allegiance to the compound, only to now face the possibility of her long-estranged daughter repeating her past mistakes. Meanwhile—there are always a lot of meanwhiles on Big Love—Juniper Creek compound leader Alby (Matt Ross) is consolidating his power as Prophet and becoming increasingly isolated and cruel, while Bill immediately faces new enemies within his own party at the State House (including Gregory Itzin as the Senate majority leader).
The first two new episodes are better focused and often affecting but don’t quite cohere, possibily in part because of the mop-up work left after the whirlwind of season four. The third episode sent to critics, however, is one of the strongest the show has done in a while, possibly since the excellent third season. It gives hope that this big-hearted, unruly but ambitious series can, as it wraps up for good, find a way home.