Spoilers for the penultimate Big Love coming up:
“When people join churches, they change. Not the churches.” —Bill Henrickson
Is there a puddle in front of my TV? “Exorcism” may well qualify as Big Love‘s cryingest episode of all time; it seemed as if hardly a character managed to get through a scene without red-rimmed eyes. Yet for all the tears, the exceedingly busy episode did not convey a sense of grieving or sadness exactly as of horror and dread: we were looking at characters who feel they may be facing the end, if not already past it. There were tears of frustration and despair and exhaustion, and then that most efficient of catharses: gunfire.
But the gunshots that closed out the episode, in what seems like a metaphor, didn’t finish off their targets. They were non-fatal, non-final, and left the question open, for the final episode, of what kind of price the Henrickson family would pay for Bill’s single-minded devotion to his wrongheaded testimonies.
After a mini-run of strong episodes, “Exorcism” felt, well scattershot—or, to be more generous, like a prelude to an actual resolution. Part of this stemmed again from the accelerated storytelling—I counted, depending on your definition, eight subplots given serious attention in this episode. Then again, the last couple of episodes were frantic too—arguably that’s Big Love’s default mode—and yet managed moments of resonance. The fireworks in this episode, from Nicki’s breakdown over Cara Lynn to Bill’s takedown of Alby in the Capitol—felt more mechanical, for all their pathos.
I actually liked how the gunplay resolved in the episode: Big Love is not The Sopranos, and its violence has always been half-comical and humanly clumsy, often perpetrated by people trying to make themselves more monstrous than they are (often at the behest of actual monsters like Alby or Roman). Jeanne Tripplehorn’s chipper “I’m fine” as she held the gun wide-eyed on Adaleen was perfect, and the showdown between Bill and Alby believably sloppy.
But to take one example, the Nicki / Cara Lynn story seemed to go off the rails with Nicki’s appearing in her daughter bedroom to tell her that she’s unworthy of love[!] Nicki actually has a point in the scene; we’ve seen that Cara Lynn is much more manipulative than other characters believe, and because that describes Nicki as well, she should be the one to see it. But the act is awful and unbelievable on a couple of levels. First, it would have made more sense from the Nicki of a couple of seasons ago than the Nicki who seems to have matured as she’s let go of her ties to the compound. And second, it doesn’t really mesh with Nicki’s overarching problem with Cara Lynn, which is that Nicki sees what she wants to see—and doesn’t want to see that Cara Lynn is falling into any of the same destructive patterns that she has. It’s simultaneously more spiteful and more objective than Nicki has shown herself elsewhere in the episode, and it seems set up mainly to give Nicki a reason to beat up on herself later.
As for Bill, we’re seeing two sides of him in this episode: the well-intentioned crusader who genuinely wants to end the abuses of the compound and the domestic despot who’s driven his family off multiple cliffs. That can be a strength of the show, but sometimes, as in “Exorcism,” it has a hard time showing that he is both men at once. Instead, we get them in alternating bursts—look, there’s Good Bill speaking out against the compound, and there’s Bad Bill limiting his wife’s spiritual choices! For Big Love to syntehsize the two, to show that they come from the same source of strength and weakness, without making excuses for him, will be the big challenge of the finale.
There was, at least, a kind of thematic unity to the many stories, which largely had to do with a choice between escaping and making one’s stand. Does Alby go to Mexico or stay and fight? Should Nicki admit Cara Lynn’s problems to the family, or try to make the problem go away by sending her to boarding school? Should Lois stay at the home or make a run for it with Frank? Should the family go on a mission or stay a their homes and face the legal consequences? Should Ben go to Nevada with Rhonda or try to make a life with Heather? (In his despair and guilt at being caught out, he throws out the idea—literally or figuratively polygamist—that he can do both. In what was possibly the most satisfying Big Love scene of all time, Heather gave the only appropriate response, dousing him with a milkshake.)
Oddly, the one scene that keeps replaying in my mind was the most minor scene from a sub-subplot: Pam’s miserable breakdown in front of Margene, who blithely hands her money while packing up her Goji Blast things, apparently unaware that the juice scheme didn’t just “not work” for Pam but has destroyed her life, or at least helped that destruction along. Of all the scenes of crying and pathos in the episode, this was maybe the most effective: Pam has a haggard, blasted look in her eyes, like a woman who’s survived the Dust Bowl.
As she confesses her money troubles, her separation and her husband’s apparent suicide attempts, we get a heartbreaking picture of the small lives casually ruined by someone else’s grand plans—arguably, the major theme of Big Love all along. Here’s hoping the finale can pursue that theme on a big scale, with a sense of honesty and consequences.