Tuned In

Big Love Watch: Nearer My God to Thee

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Before you read this post, steal your Mom’s Hummer and race home to watch last night’s episode of Big Love.

Because of the controversy over the endowment ceremony scene—which sparked a lengthy and fascinating debate here last week—we may as well divide up this week’s Big Love into That Scene and Everything Else.

Part of the controversy over depicting the ceremony, whose details the LDS church prefers to keep among its own members, has to do with how the ceremony is received by outsiders, and part has to do with the affront felt by LDS church members (though evidently, at least judging from the earlier post comments, not all of them). As an outsider, I can only speak to the former, and I don’t believe the ceremony qua ceremony changed my perception of the Mormon faith one way or another. It was definitely unusual, but that’s religion: I’m the product of two religious traditions, in one of which somebody changes bread into someone’s body and feeds it to you, in the other of which someone ritually blows into a ram’s horn. It’s all relative, no? 

Within the context of the show, I saw Barb as a woman whose life is in turmoil, and in the midst of this is threatened with being cut from the religious mooring she has had most of her life. Spiritually, she is facing more than being kicked out of a group through excommunication; she fears literally losing the people she loves in eternity. The term “Outer Darkness” the title of the episode, is interpreted differently by different Christian sects, but in any case it means separation. Without respecting and accepting her faith, you can’t appreciate what her character is facing. 

And in her personal life, losing the church means losing the one framework that she’s been able to depend on to make sense of the world, at a time when her life is in crisis. The speech she give to Bill gets at the crux of it, in a way that’s unusually friendly to organized religion for a secular TV show: “Bill, we’re just free-floating out here. … We have no church, and I am about to be cast out of mine.” 

The challenge of the Henricksens’ lifestyle has always been that they are attempting to fly solo—to create a family and a religious life without the support of the established spiritual supports of either the compound or the LDS (not to mention without the support of secular society). For Barb, it’s becoming all too much–she is losing her social mooring and literally believes she may be lost for eternity. And from an LDS outsider’s perspective, it was powerful to show this through her involvement in a ceremony that is about attempting to reach and know God through the veil of mortality. And Jeanne Tripplehorn was outstanding portraying Barb’s conflict throughout: from her hesitation at telling her visitors she was in a polygamist marriage to her trembling at the ceremony to her desperate breakdown in front of her mother and sister. (Ellen Burstyn deserves credit too, for her despair at the thought of losing her child eternally.) 

Conversely, I’m surprised that, with all the LDS reaction to the endowment-ceremony scene, I’ve heard none about what’s been a more central–and, it would seem, more damaging–focus of the season: the subplot involving the letter revealing that the church did not initially intend to renounce polygamy. Besides the letter itself, the way its discovery has played out (Barb being excommunicated apparently as punishment for it, and the statement “Some things that are true are not very useful”) has not exactly been flattering to the church. I’d be curious to know what any LDS readers have thought of it. 

Now for the rest of the episode, in a hail of bullets: 

* Speaking of being cast out, the controversy overshadows the big bombshell in the episode, Bill preparing to divorce Nicki. What did everyone think of this? While it’s hard to blame him for being unable to forgive and trust her, I also get the sense he is, in a way, taking the easy way out, since at some level he seems to believe he’s to blame for her behavior. In the end, he decides that, either way, “there is something in you, something deeply broken. And I don’t know how to fix it.” 

* Should we assume from Nicki’s conversation with J.J. that she has a daughter from her earlier marriage? This makes the notion of her losing another family here even more cutting. It’s hard to know exactly how sympathetic to feel for her. On the one hand she actively resists learning from her mistakes or taking any responsibility for them—see her smug smile and hand-clapping when she gets the message from Bill asking her to come back. On the other hand, I can’t help but like her mother-lion ferociousness against Scott: “Zip-zip-zip! I don’t like you and I don’t trust you!”

* It’s ironic, by the way, that Margene–in many ways the most secular of the wives–is also at this point the spouse most deeply committed to maintaining the four-way marriage and making it work, even if her reasons are probably more personal than spiritual.

* One thing I did not like about the episode was its repeated use of daydream sequences, in which Bill imagined a conversation (with Don, then Nicki) before having his actual conversation with them. I hate this device, though Big Love is hardly the first or the biggest offender with it (Six Feet Under leaned on it constantly). No matter how cleverly done, it always takes me out of the drama and leaves me wondering at the beginning of subsequent scenes, “Is this real or isn’t it?” I understand the attraction, but there are other ways of showing a character’s thought process. 

* Meanwhile, the whole Roman-Kathy-Greenes storyline is hurtling forward in such a way that I have to wonder how much Big Love can possibly handle in just one more episode. The final confrontation between Joey and Bill was effective, though, and even if he was speaking in anger, Joey had a point: it is easier for Bill, however much he may be going through–with Joey’s, Bill’s problems managing his wives and business are at least problems of abundance. And as Joey notes wrenchingly, because Kathy died before he was sealed to her, he lost her, according to his religion, in a way far more permanent than death. Roman did not just murder his fiance; he separated them for eternity. Joey has always been long-suffering and patient; can he possibly stay that way? 

* Because the Tuned In Jrs. and I have made a regular ritual of Wheel of Fortune lately, I got a particular kick out of Roman’s Wheel-watching: “‘More fun than a barrel of monkeys’! Moron!”