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Big Love Watch: Golden Moment

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Quick spoilers for last night’s Big Love coming up after the jump:

No time today for a full exegesis of last night’s Big Love, sorry. Part of the reason for that is having spent last night watching and livetweeting the Golden Globes—at which, rightfully, Chloe Sevigny picked up a Best Actress award for her outstanding work on this show. Fittingly timed too, since opposite Sevigny’s Globes win, HBO was airing an episode, “The Greater Good,” that demonstrated why she’d earned it. (Not alone—Big Love has hands down the best group of actresses on TV—but as well her as anyone.)

After last week, which resolved the question of Roman’s death, this episode looked at Nicki’s response to it, and to the re-introduction of her ex-husband to her life. Nicki is a polarizing figure for viewers. She’s not easily likeable—selfish, dishonest, self-rationalizing—but more than that, she’s beyond our ordinary understanding. How can she have been shopped like chattel by her father, pushed around by her mother, and yet still feel attachment to the twisted religion they practice? How can she so often undermine Bill, and her sister-wives, and still love them?

The key to getting Nicki is to realize that these contradictions do not represent a “fake” and a “real” side of her: they are genuine, and they are all her. She genuinely despises Roman, and yet mourns him; genuinely wants her daughter to avoid the predations she was victim too and yet deeply, above anything, believes in The Principle and that there must be a right way of following it. And as much as she has been an impediment to Barb and Margene, in a way, her love for them and her devotion to their bond is fiercer and more geniune exactly because it’s more difficult for her.

Everything we’ve been taught in stories leads us to believe that Nicki must be a phony, a snake: a mean-spirited, Juniper Creek version of Nellie Olsen from Little House on the Prairie. But that’s not true: she’s a genuine person—badly, badly flawed, but with deeply held beliefs that she holds to, however difficult.Her contradictions are a product of her experience: much as growing up at Juniper Creek means that she can be a woman in a patriachal, male-dependent culture, and yet a badass with a tool kit.

And it’s Sevigny’s accomplishment to let us see the humanity in this initially off-putting character. She showed us this many time in “The Greater Good,” but look at the closing image of her, red-eyed with anguished tears at Sarah’s secular wedding. Yes, she’s come from burying her father. But clearly there’s another reason for her tears: she believes Sarah is making a terrible mistake in marrying and rejecting her faith. Not because Nicki is controlling or judgmental or sanctimonious—though she can be all these—but because she genuinely loves this girl, who is not even her biological daughter, but whom she feels bound to as the daughter she’s trying to save from (at the other extreme) J.J.

That’s the larger, great project of Big Love: getting us to understand, in the context of a secular story told for the secular world, the workings and expressions of faith, and take them—however alien to us—seriously and sincerely. It’s a tall order, and, I think, part of the reason that Big Love seems too disjointed or weird to some viewers. But it’s a great accomplishment, and it owes a lot to Sevigny, so congratulations.

Like I said, no time to break down the rest of the episode in detail, so I’ll leave that to your comments. We’ll take it from here next week.