After cooling down from the nonstop thrills of the Oscar broadcast, watch last night’s very special episode of Big Love and join us at the reception.
The vast majority of people on TV—whether on a dramatic series or sitcom, a reality show or a political talk show—are encouraged, indeed obliged to express themselves in the starkest, most outraged or insulting fashion. But the Henricksens: they mostly suppress. For most of the HBO epic’s first four seasons, the family withheld its identity from the mainstream-Mormon world. And often, Bill and his sister wives have kept their emotion bottled up, as if it were a sacramental wine to be uncorked only on special occasions. A rare and wonderful thing about Big Love is how the family codifies domestic conflict into silences, empty stares, euphemisms and changes of subject. Other TV characters could get a heart attack or a stroke from all their venting; the Henricksens’ display of terse good manners as they face a plague of crises makes Sandy, Utah, more like Ulcerville.
Focusing on Bill’s legal marriage to Nicki, the sharp, satisfying Episode 7 of Season 5 (50 shows down, three to go) sent a half-dozen or so plot lines careering toward catastrophe. “Til Death Do Us Part,” written by staff member Aaron Allen (his first-ever script credit, according to IMDb) and directed by David Petrarca (who’s done every odd-numbered episode this season), included a wedding, a near-death experience and a police intervention. But the episode earned its full emotional savor in the ways the Henricksens react to cataclysmic events: by seeming not to react; by swallowing hard or flashing a wan smile. In other words, the way most of us get through life. We know we’re in relationships for the long haul and so, in a hot situation we choose to internalize, to risk a little heartburn rather than burn the house down.
Not that arson isn’t discussed. That’s the retaliation proposed by Bill’s Home Plus partner Don when they learn that Albie Grant has bought the building that houses their main store. (The news shocks Margene: “Home Plus is Bill. Bill is Home Plus. Home Plus is us.”) Bill gets nowhere pleading with the Juniper Creek elders to overturn Albie’s land grab; one UEB board member says Bill will “burn in hell.” Burn in hell? Heck, he was born there.
Today the Lord of that dark realm is Albie, with his new same-sex minion Verlan. As if he were the referee at some gay-SM prize fight, Albie tells the poor hillbilly to “Strip. Stay in your corner.” (And what does Verlan hope to get from this criminal humiliation? “A boat.”) Even by the standards of previous UEB prophets, Albie is just a touch on the extreme side. As Bill tells him, “What would your flock do if they found out their shepherd had lain with another shepherd?” Good question. Another: Why hasn’t Bill fired that silver bullet yet? More emotional withholding, I guess. But by episode’s end he’s decided that opening a can of scandal is too mild a punishment for Albie. The bastard needs killing.
Elsewhere on the UEB compound, Bill’s father Frank suffers a terrible fall, over a cat, and his dementia-ridden wife Lois doesn’t call for help. (Didn’t Bill tell Frank, in last weeks episode, that he was “arranging for a home nurse” to watch over the elderly couple?) Sneaking into Frank’s hospital room, Lois stuffs dozens of pills into the sleeping man’s mouth, whispering, “I’ll be right behind you.”
Old love, young love and plural love—all are in bloom in episode seven. Gentle Ben seems to snap out his love with an improper deranger, Rhonda, who, between shifts as a pole dancer at a strip club, feeds her infant French fries and herself baby food. Heather says she again wants to be Ben’s girl friend, but not until consulting an LDS bishop and unburdening her confusion about being engaged to a young missionary while having fallen for a polygamist’s son. Apparently the Seal of the Confessional doesn’t apply to Mormons, since (if I got this right) Heather’s conversation pries open a secret, about Margene’s underage marriage to Bill, that leads in a whispering-down-the-lane chain from Ben to Heather to the bishop to the church hierarchy to Senator Martin to the local police and, in the last scene, back to Barb. In Utah, the ecclesiastical-political-constabulary complex is simple, direct and potentially crushing.
Nicki’s daughter Cara Lynn, who has taken to wear teen-tramp gear out of the old Britney Spears catalog, is deep into an affair with her teacher Greg. She wants to date Greg under the ignorant watch of their mothers. The occasion: a road show production of Les Misérables. “It’s a comedy with music,” she explains to her mother, “about poor people fighting the government in France.” (A wonderfully stupefied take from Nicki: “And they’re singing?”) In the theater lobby, Greg’s mom quickly detects the odor of ardor, but not Nicki, who thinks Greg has a crush on her—even as she’s in the prenuptial whirl of buying her wedding dress, a gift from Barb, and preparing for the wedding ceremony, also officiated by Barb.
It’s Nicki’s wedding, but Barb’s episode. More than ever, we are shown the family through the eyes of Sister Wife No. 1. At the start of the hour, she’s clipping coupons from the Sunday paper, having ostracized herself from Bill’s church. In the middle she declines Bill’s wish to have a three-wife resealing. And at the climax, she’s the minister at Nicki and Bill’s wedding—a first wife presiding over her husband’s marriage to his second wife.
This comes thanks both to Bill’s indulgence and to a preacher certificate Barb got from the mail-order Universal Life Church. Her big debating point: that officiating at the ceremony would be “just like Sarai giving Hagar to Abram.” (Nice Biblical touch, Barb: Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and Hagar her Egyptian slave, and she gave Hagar to her husband to bear him a child, not as his next wife.) But from this plateau of self-regard, Barb gets two kicks in the gut. At the reception she goes upstairs and sees Bill resealing with Nicki and Margene; and the police drop by to take her away as a material witness in a case of “statutory rape”—Margene’s marriage at 16 to Bill. (Again, if I’ve got that right. Your thoughts?)
Of the four major Henricksens, Margene might seem the easiest to read. Ginnifer Goodwin’s familiar expression is that broad smile, full of fun and self-assurance, which makes me think of Rachel Maddow in her giddier moods, or Anne Hathaway in her “Wooo!” moments on the Oscar ceremony. But when Margene hears bad news, her smile doesn’t turn cartoon-grumpy or little-girl-frowny-face; it simply freezes, as if she’s posing for a photographic documentation of the last moment she was happy. When she spots Greg and Cara Lynn (the character closest in temperament to Margene as a teenager) at the reception, she knows that look of gooey lovesick lovey-love, because she was deep in that adolescent passion puddle only a few years ago.
Nicki is the most outspoken sister-wife, but she doesn’t articulate even half of her myriad resentments. Chloe Sevigny’s nervous lips suggest that Nicki is always carrying on an intense, internal, subversive conversation, which she only occasionally gives voice to. That’s why her blushing-bride dewiness seems so strange on her—as startling and sweet and as her wedding dress.
Jeanne Tripplehorn is a particular master in the subtle signaling of moral frazzle. Under pressure, her gaze goes discreetly heavenward (no eye-rolling, never that) and her face creases ever so slightly; when Barb is really vexed, you see her dimples. And her voice becomes not icy or sneering but more melodic (“I just think…”). Her spine, though, is made of steel. At the hospital, Lois blames her for scaring away Frank’s sister wives (by insisting they be checked for, as Bill put it last time, “the same venereal disease you gave Mom that caused her dementia”) and tosses aside the food Barb has brought her. Never spitting nails or raising her voice, Barb does her best to retrieve Lois from the land of fury.
This channeling of anger into domestic diplomacy makes Barb the ideal spouse—no matter who got resealed—for Bill Pittman’s Bill, another artist in emotional misdirection. In the matter of the resealing, when Barb says she can’t do that until “we resolve our issues” about her priesthood, Bill doesn’t deliver a patriarchal ultimatum; his version of “Screw you” (or its HBO equivalent) is to say, “I’m gonna go salt the back patio.” He doesn’t want to fight; he does need to win. So without telling Barb, he reseals with Nicki and Margene. Among all the nice people with soft voices and desperate aims, Bill is the biggest passive-aggressor.