“We’re going to be a church that values women and their relationship with Heavenly Father.” —Barb Henrickson
“I am not Roman Grant.” —Bill Henrickson
An early knock against Big Love was that a drama about polygamy that did not condemn the practice across the board amounted to a male fantasy. It was an oversimplification, the simplest rejoinder to which was that multiple wives, kids and mortgages (as opposed to multiple sex partners) is not high on the list of male fantasies. But there was a nugget of truth there. Big Love presented a complex view of polygamy, its practices and its effects, and it has consistently had many of the best female roles and performances on TV. But we have often seen its events play out above all from a male perspective: Bill’s.
One thing that the final season of the show seems to be making an effort to do is double its focus on the show’s female characters, the effects of this life choice on them and the fact that—the abuse of male teens like Bill not withstanding—polygamy is very much a women’s issue. And though “The Oath” was organized around Bill’s swearing in, it looked at the effects of this lifestyle on several generations of its women.
Starting with the older generation, season five is giving Grace Zabriskie some excellent capstone work as Lois. This week, we found that her turn to dementia does not have to do simply with the effects of aging; most likely, it’s a direct result of the abuses and sexual exploitations of her husband Frank (so far offstage this season), who, we learn, gave her a venereal disease that likely contributed to her condition. If there’s one thing Lois is expert at, it’s denial, yet here she cannot shrug off or minimize the knowledge that—on top of all Frank has taken from her over the years—she is in the end losing her mind to him as well. Her abject depression—”It’s all been such a waste”—is simple, stark and devastating.
In the forefront, of course, are the three wives, who among their other problems are confronting their positions as women in a patriarchal tradition: Barb, through her rebellion against the idea of a male-only priesthood; Nicki, by turning on the compound as fervently as she once made excuses for it; and Margene, by finding herself, belatedly, the poster girl for polygamy’s history of guilt surrounding child exploitation. However willing he was to be married at 16, and however ignorant Bill was (a defense that Don not unconvincingly doubts), that she implicates him in the long shameful history of polygamist men recruiting underage girls threatens him and the family practically, and brings the family’s guilt and insecurity to the fore: namely, that maybe they are essentially no better than Juniper Creek.
That notion gets complicated, of course, once you look at Juniper Creek itself, and this week the long-absent Rhonda returned to recall the predations of the Roman Grant-era compound and the Joy Book. But her reappearance also highlights the story of Cara Lynn—who is maybe Rhonda but for the grace of God—who still seems to be on shaky ground as she adjusts to the news of her father’s death and her place in her new home. It may be that Nicki’s worry about losing her, as she expresses it at the beginning of the episode, is typical Nicki drama, but that doesn’t mean there’s truth in it: the series seems to be setting her up as the site of battle in its final season, the character through whom we will find out if the patterns of polygamy’s culture, and its cycles of abuse, can be broken.
On the one hand, the Henricksons and those around them are fighting current, contemporary challenges: the polygamy-felony law on the one hand and Alby’s intransigence on the other. But in another sense, they’re fighting history—the legacy of practices that go back generations and are being felt, compounded, by each generation after. They are fighting the dead, a notion that the episode makes literal when Bill on his hospital bed has a dream of meeting one of Joseph Smith’s wives, Emma. She—or Bill’s subconscious and guilt speaking through her—responds coldly to his inquiries about Joseph and his young brides by denying that there ever were any child wives: “Liars and sinners wrote those books.”
Whatever message Bill takes from that, as he wakes and takes the oath of office, one thing is clear: people may die off, but lies, and their effects, outlive them.