Tuned In

Big Love Watch: God Only Knows What We'd Be Without You

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HBO

Spoilers for the series finale of Big Love:

[Apologies in advance for any typos or errors in quotation; I’m typing this on an iPad in an airport lounge.]

In the beginning, there was man and woman. Before we met them on Big Love, they were husband and wife, alone. Later, as we learned, came the kids, two more wives, more kids, almost a fourth wife, but at the core of this family, onto to which all these additions were attached, was Bill and Barb. And with the final episode of the series, “When Mountains and Men Meet,” the series returned–as, in retrospect, much of the final season did–to those two characters, and whether their diverging spiritual journeys could be reconciled.

They were, although it took Bill’s murder to do it. I’m still sorting through my feelings about the last minutes of the finale–or, rather, separating my feelings from my thoughts. I was undeniably moved by the ending and Bill’s last moments, and it made sense (in a way I’ll get to in a bit) that the three wives would be together in the end. And whatever I’ve thought about Bill and what he’s done with and to his family, there was something touching and right about him and Barb reaching out to one another at the end of all things.

And yet that it came to that–that it took, essentially, the deus ex machina of Carl to make Bill accept Barb’s holding the priesthood–seemed a sign of what a corner Bill had painted the family into, and perhaps what a corner the show had written itself into. Because it’s hard to imagine, whatever happened in Bill’s church, that the marriage could have survived with him alive.

In or out of jail, the marriage was conditioned on Barb being denied part of her soul–a belief in her spiritual calling that she felt at her core. (To be fair, it was irreconcilably opposed to something that Bill felt at his core, too–I don’t want to sell his faith short, as for all of his failings it has always appeared to be genuine. But his “testimonies” also always seemed to conveniently line up with his interests.)

The series seemed to be setting itself up to end on the most wrenchingly sad note: Bill becoming, if not the Prophet, then something like one, more assured in his righteousness than ever–while Barb, defeated, was unable to pursue her spiritual calling because she knew she would have to do it without her family. As Barb points out in w nicely understated fight scene between them, the stakes between the two of them are not equal at all, because—as she has rarely stated so explicitly—there is an inherent imbalance in a polygamy that is about multiple wives, not husbands. If Barb and Bill split up, she says, he has two other wives to go to; she has no one. Just as when she got cancer and went along with Bill’s return to the Principle, she was subordinating herself to him so as not to be alone.

I had never been one of those people who felt that Big Love had to end on some sort of punishment or repudiation for Bill; I thought he made terrible mistakes, but I didn’t need to see him get his in order for the series to end satisfyingly. (It was something that Bill Henrickson ended up getting what even Tony Soprano didn’t, at least on screen.) But I have to say–heartbreaking as that last goodbye was–I was glad to see him go. Because it seemed like the only way this marriage could be saved.

Even at that, it was on the strength, literally, of a deathbed conversion. Now, one could make the argument that Bill was in the process of coming around to this way of thinking regardless, that he would not have asked for Barb’s blessing at the end had the belief not already been in him. Bill’s closing vision as he addressed his newly full church may have indicated some kind of change. But that’s not how I read it. Seeing his flock transform into the early idealistic polygamists of the 19th century, with an approving nod from Joseph Smith’s wife, played to me like an affirmation to Bill that he had been right all along, that he had stayed true to his vision of the Principle and now needed to stand by it.

Which, by the way, is not itself a failing in the show. I don’t need to like Bill or his philosophy, and I don’t need him punished for what I disagree with. One thing I’ve always liked about the show is its willingness to depict the importance and sustaining power of faith, even—or especially—when it’s a faith that most of the show’s viewers would reject and likely even consider harmful. Bill’s beliefs are not ours but I’ve always believed that they’re real, and that, despite his flaws, they’re genuinely meant. It’s important to separate liking or disliking a character from liking or disliking his portrayal, and I don’t believe Big Love owed us a comeuppance for dramatic reasons.

But while I found Bill and Barb’s last moments very moving, in retrospect I’m not sure it was dramatically satisfying. The reason: it took what was a real, crucial difference between them—her rights in the faith and the power imbalance in the relationship—and resolved them not through their action but through the crisis of a gunshot.

The other effect of this climax is that, maybe quite by design, it made Bill’s last moments on Earth about him and Barb, not him and his wives. But it was in representing that part of the marriage—the marriage among the three women—that the finale, like the series in general has always been, was strongest.

Big Love has always been about the sister-wives’ relationship with each other as much as each of their relationships with Bill. And the finale emphasized that their partnership and marriage has an existence and rationale of its own, beyond Bill, even before his death. Whether it began as a compromise, was expanded through statutory rape or often existed in a state of battle, it was also highly functional, and made sense on it’s own contradictory terms. (It helps, as I’ve said repeatedly, that Big Love had the best cast of dramatic actresses on TV.)

The joyride in Barb’s new Mini Cooper convertible was a lovely scene that captured this connection as well as the dilemma the trio found themselves in. Each of them sees the ride as something different: to Barb it’s a self-affirming statement; to Margene, a brief, futile escape fantasy; to Nicki, a pointless indulgence. And yet each of them is able momentarily to appreciate it on the same primal level, for just a second; even Nicki, who is not averse to nice things, gives Barb a quick smile in the rear-view mirror.

I’m guessing most of us watched the scene start with foreboding, since there was something Thelma and Louise (and Louise) about it. But instead of turning tragic, in a beautifully executed shift, it simply turns sad. They’re not really escaping anywhere. They’re just in a car. They have the same problems to return to. The wind catches Barb’s hair and gets it in her face. The moment plays out a bit too long, and curdles, the way that false escapes do.

The power of the scene, though–as well as the almost ruinous wife’s meeting pondering life without Bill and possibly Barb–is that it shows these women’s connection despite everything. So however engineered the show’s final moments may have seemed, that they should end up sticking together after Bill’s death makes sense. (In the end, Barb has her priesthood authority, Nicki has her family, and Marge–almost like the family’s college aged daughter–has the chance for the kind of youthful exploration that she finally recognizes she missed out on, even if Bill would never concede it.)

Should we take this as the show’s affirmation of the power and rights of women within polygamy? On the one hand, Big Love has never hesitated to show its women as strong. On the other, it has tended to finesse or sidestep the issue of whether polygamy itself, or polygamy as practiced by the Henricksons, empowers or subjugates women. The speech that Bill gets to give at the Capitol, noting that early polygamists were progressive about women’s suffrage, feels like a sop to counterbalance the fact that he subordinates his wives to his priestly authority in his marriage.

Which is not to say that he does not believe in women’s rights up to the point of priesthood, or that his faith isn’t genuine. But the series ends with him at odds with at least two of his wives about their freedom, and the impasse is resolved not through character but by default. The Henrickson women end Big Love strong and independent, but the way it happens feels like a Gordian-knot way to give everyone the happiest possible ending. (Even, strange as it feels to say, Bill and Lois.)

After we watched the episode, Mrs Tuned In told me she had a hunch the show would somehow end up in the afterlife, something you might be wary of post-Lost, but a resolution that would be fitting in Big Love. Its central mythology, after all, was not about a smoke monster but the question of whether the family would end up together in the celestial kingdom: were they right? Was it all worth it?

Instead, the episode closed with a cover of the show’s original theme, “God Only Knows,” which felt like a nod toward the finale’s return to the show’s core issues, and maybe, an admission that the series lost its way the last couple of seasons (when that theme was replaced by “Home”). There was a lot that fell away in the wrap-up–Lois got a tearful sendoff, and we had the brief return of Amanda Seyfried as Sarah–but in the end, Big Love came back full circle to the core relationships. With Bill’s death, we’ll never really see whether his vision for his family was doomed or sustainable while he lived. Instead, we closed on a moving if messy note for a moving if messy series: a affirmation of love, at least, in bodily form on Earth. As for what comes after? God only knows.

In the interest of getting this posted, I’m going to skip what would appropriately have been a final hail of Big Love bullets. Feel free to elaborate on any subplots, addressed or dropped–or the left-field choice of Carl as gunman–in the comments.

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