Big Love Watch: All About the Mormons

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Big Love is anomaly among HBO shows, in that it avoids the obligatory nudity and rarely utters a curse stronger than “G.D.” With these self-imposed restrictions, the series has to find subtler ways of providing its shocks. Sunday’s episode, “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” boasted two jolts—mouth-to-mouth scandals that touched on the series’ interlocking themes of the sacred and the profane. In the first, Rhonda’s scruffy husband Verlan had an inspiration for staying on Albie Grant’s payroll: by giving the UEB’s secretly gay prophet a big surprise kiss. Over at Bill’s church, the New Assembly of Mormon Pioneers, his first wife Barb declined to take communion. She simply whispered, “No, thank you,” but her refusal carried the seismic impact of a bathtub decapitation on The Sopranos.

As a film critic who moonlights on this blog when its esteemed proprietor, Jim Poniewozik, takes the occasional vacation, I’m alert to the major difference between the characters in movies and longform TV series. One group is a bunch of strangers you watch come and go in a couple of hours; the other is a family who moves into your home. For five years and 49 episodes, the Henricksens have resided in the spare bedrooms of our minds. And now that we know they’ll be moving out in another month, we sense an urgency to their disputes.

Barb, for example: she’s been the token sensible person in the family, as Bill pursues his grand harebrained visions, and Nicki seems in a perpetual state of mulish, adolescent insurrection, and Margene plunges giddily into her Goji pyramid scheme. She’s the problem solver and poop-cleaner-upper; the one grownup surrounded by these three headstrong, overgrown kids; the supermom in a family whose younger children tend to themselves, rarely speak up and are, for the most part, invisible. If this is a mark of Mormon polygamy, then let’s make membership mandatory for all parents.

No wonder, then, that Barb thinks she has a calling, which, chez Henricksen, must mean a priesthood. That the LDS and its offshoots are among the most patriarchal of religions (right behind Islam) doesn’t phase her. Nor do we know yet if gender equality in a Mormonish church would allow women to take multiple husbands. Ignoring Bill’s cogent, if not particularly self-aware advice that “The woods are full of kooks wandering around in robes saying, ‘That’s what God wants’,” Barb embraces her new cult of Heavenly Motherism. She finds a mentor in Professor Renee Clayton (Judith Ivey), the gray panther of Mormon feminism, whose latest scholarly paper is entitled “Lesbian Female Bonding as Resistance to Frontier Mormon Patriarchy”—females being the best kind of lesbians. Renee drops by for a tense colloquy with Barb, nouveau-polygamist Bill and Barb’s her regulation-LDS sister and mother, who thinks Barb and Renee are “being lesbians together.” Three forms of Mormonism face off in a Tupperware party turned demure shoot-out.

A fourth strain, Albie’s, grows ever more virulent. Having lost his male lover to a suicide of conscience, and with his pompadour now risen to near-Eraserhead fullness, Albie has embarked on a new crusade, code name Moral Toil, with Bill as the infidel in its crosshairs. First he ordered Verlan to murder Bill’s Home Plus partner Don. (“What’s going on with us here, Bill?” asks Don with just a note of rising concern. “No one’s ever tried to kill me before.”) Verlan botched the job, but a potent kiss on Albie’s lips gives the prophet a hint on the fool’s usefulness. “You may be able to overcome your natural and inbred character deficiencies,” he says with a wondrous contempt. Thus is Verlan cast as Gollum to Albie Grant’s Sauron.

A madman but no fool, Albie has bought the building that houses the main Home Plus store—a real-estate grab that, coupled with the boycott of pariah Bill by mainstream Mormons, could put our boys out of business. When Bill and Don pay him an angry visit, Albie manifests the icy self-possession of the gifted insane. In a Wicked Witch warning, he tells the men, “You should leave now, before night falls, before a house falls on you.”

The rest of “D.IV.O.R.C.E.” focused on loving couples at the rapturous beginning, troubled middle or tender resolution of relationships. Cara Lynn and her Ken-doll teacher Greg, who’s 37 going on 14, have been inching toward consummation. This week they achieved it, though mama Nicki also has the warms for Greg. (“Please call me Nicolette.”) Sneaking home late after the tryst, Cara Lynn asks Margene to cover for her. Wife No. 3 notices the girl beaming and says, “I see that you are just about to burst with gooey lovesick lovey-love.” Yes, Margene, but not with a boy in his teens; if only Margene knew that Cara Lynn and her beau are about the ages she and Bill were when they fell in lovey-love.

Bill and Barb’s son Ben briefly seemed destined for a pairing with the previously-plain, suddenly-cute Heather; but one look at bad-seed Rhonda singing Bobby Darin’s “I’ll Be There” while wearing a bikini and pole-dancing at the local strip joint instantly put her in Ben’s protective custody, and landed him in love with a lost woman. (Heather, no longer a dish, retreated into her previous dumpling dumpability.) The plethora of teen-love subplots was right up the alley of this episode’s director, Howard Deutch, who made his feature-film debut 25 years ago this month with the John Hughes-Molly Ringwald heartthrob comedy Pretty in Pink.

While Ben’s concern about his divorcing parents gets soothing but ineffectual words from Barb (“We’re having on ongoing dialogue”) and Bill (“I’m worrying so you don’t have to”), Bill’s parents Lois and Frank move in together. Feeling homeless as Bill’s house guest, Lois has demanded that Frank take care of her. After a testy exchange with Bill—who utters a classic soap-opera lime when he says that all of Frank’s sister wives are being examined to see if they suffer from “the same venereal disease you gave Mom that caused her dementia”—Frank takes the responsibility, telling Lois, “We’re gonna have some quality time, you and me.”

For the rest of the episode, they do. Lois was daft long before dementia clinically set in, and Grace Zabriskie has pushed her character’s eccentricities, reminding us that she is Big Love‘s connection to another Mountain Time Zone town of surpassing weirdness, Twin Peaks. In Frank’s company, though, she ascends to a level of serenity, reminiscing about that old TV show The Cisco Kid and, in measured tones, planning for her demise. (Just keep an eye on that kitchen knife in her handbag.)

Loving Big Love doesn’t blind me to its faults. All fans ask of a longform series is that its narrative keep chugging forward without too many multi-episode derailments (remember the half-season of The Sopranos dedicated to Vito Spotafore, the gay Mafioso?) and that its characters, however garish their emotional contours, follow their own logic. For viewers, no less than for the Henricksens, Big Love has demanded many tests of faith. The Casino arc lasted nearly a season, which was fine—but why drop it, in favor of the State Senate plot, with hardly an explanatory look back? And Bill: did he not see that running his Senate campaign as a regular Mormon, then in his acceptance speech announcing that he was a polygamist, might smack of defrauding the voters? That’s like Barack Obama telling the Grant Park crowd, on election night 2008, “And by the way, I am a Muslim.”

Lately the show has spent a few episodes on the question of Bill and Barb’s divorce. The legal sundering has its roots in Nicki’s insistence that her daughter Cara Lynn be officially brought into the fold; thus she and Bill must marry. But Bill and Barb could have adopted Cara Lynn and kept the martial status quo. Further, for Bill to have a public divorce from the person the State of Utah considers his one wife puts him and the family in a needless controversy. (Maybe he should divorce Margene too; then his marital status would be above reproach.) This is one more example of the show’s producers being seized by some bizarre testimony and, like Bill, acting on that impulse. It’s one reason I sometimes feel the show slipping away from me.

Now that I’ve delivered the sermon, I’ll give my blessing. For all its wanderings and internal contradictions, Big Love is still a cogent, coherent organism. Five years in, the show has kept faithful to its central mission: presenting a unique but ordinary family with identifiable dilemmas, grievances and warmth. Containing as many as 40 scenes in each weekly hour, it never feels hurried or slapdash. Its writer-producers’ confidence and the perfectly pitched performances (Jeanne Tripplehorn as Barb has been this season’s standout) still make for terrific viewing. In the final four episodes before the show shutters, Barb and Bill may divorce—and who knows what malefic mischief Albie will let loose? I’m no Mormon, but I still pray that Big Love could go on forever.