[13 December 2011]
The story of a polygamist Mormon family, HBO’s Big Love centers on Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton); his three wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nikki (Chloe Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin); and their large brood of children. The five seasons following the Henricksons focused not only on their family dynamics, but also on the larger issues of religion, gender, and morality.
Bill is the traditional head of the family, both financially and spiritually. Although he and Barb were already married with three children, Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), Ben (Douglas Smith), and Teenie (Jolean Wejbe), Bill received a calling to live a plural marriage. His second wife, Nikki, was raised in a polygamous home as her father, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), serves as the Prophet for the Mormon community in Juniper Creek. Margene, Bill’s third wife was their young babysitter who eventually converted to Mormonism and polygamy. The dynamics of their marriage are complicated and obviously complex and the series strives to explore how it makes them like any other marriage and how it keeps them apart.
While Bill is initially portrayed as the focal point of the series, it’s the three sister wives and their almost unfathomable relationships who actually serve as the most compelling aspect of Big Love. Barb, Nikki, and Margene could not be more different from one another, and their differences often bubble to the surface in passive aggressive and manipulative ways. However, they clearly love each other and are committed to their unconventional family.
While Barb is the older, practical first wife; Nikki is the traditional and often manipulative second wife; and Margene is the young, naïve and idealistic third wife, they complement one another in unexpected ways. By putting them in situations that frequently have them at odds, they are forced to compromise constantly, and in the end they have the most respect for each other.
Bill’s role in their collective marriage may be that of their spiritual and family leader, but it’s the sister wives who continually challenge and expand their roles despite how non traditional they may be. In fact, because their plural marriage is already non traditional, any leaps they make in establishing different roles only seem necessary, and not necessarily groundbreaking. By placing Barb, Nikki, and Margene as the real center of the series, their relationships with Bill and with each other drive the emotional and most thought-provoking arcs throughout the five seasons.
The early seasons have the Henricksons struggle with the jealousy between the sister wives, and schedules are created to ensure each wife has equal time with Bill. At the same time, each wife deals with her own personal issues, such as Barb’s efforts to come to terms with her new role as first wife after a traditional marriage, Nikki’s spending problems and manipulative tendencies, and Margene’s struggle with her own identity. Tripplehorn, Sevigny, and Goodwin are all excellent in making these characters come to life in ways that alternately have the viewer sympathizing and frustrated with them. They are the life of the show, as unfortunately, Paxton’s Bill is rather flat and wholly unsympathetic in his role as the self-righteous head of the family.
Issues of gender roles are inescapable in the series. The concept of plural marriage is already one that puts women in a position of lesser status. By making the husband the head of the family spiritually, his wives are expected to follow absolutely and without question. Big Love attempts to subvert some of these dynamics by contrasting the Henrickson’s version of polygamy with that of the more traditional Juniper Creek. While the Henrickson’s clearly have it better than their compound counterparts, the core of their beliefs are still tied directly to Bill’s religious callings. Barb’s attempts to come to terms with her religious beliefs and choices is one of the stronger stories in the later seasons precisely because the series attempts to offer a real understanding of polygamy and Mormonism.
While the first three seasons do a great job of putting the polygamy issue in a context that is more identifiable and therefore, more absorbing, Bill’s run for political office in the messy fourth season comes across as reaching too far and ultimately, less interesting. With Bill’s political ambition taking center stage and things at Juniper Creek going off the rails, Big Love lost its way for a little while. The fifth and final season was eventually able to bring things around to a satisfying conclusion, but the series had to undo some of its mistakes first. Fortunately, the last episode leaves the Henricksons in as balanced and affecting a place as its best moments in earlier seasons.
While the main cast is almost all uniformly excellent, its supporting cast is equally great. Harry Dean Stanton plays Roman Grant with an unnerving calm that makes all he says and does suspect. Mary Kay Place plays Nikki’s mother, Adaleen, while Grace Zabriskie plays Bill’s mother, Lois. Both Place and Zabriskie are atypical of the Juniper Creek wives in that they are very strong and opinionated characters, if not always perfectly stable, and in turn they steal every scene they’re in. Big Love has benefited greatly from its capable cast and at times they has elevated the material.
Big Love ran the gamut in its five seasons, from life hidden away from the public eye, to struggles for power within the Juniper Creek organization, to the leap in making their lives public, the series achieved a varying level of success with these stories. The strongest seasons were its early ones, culminating in the brilliant third season. In introducing these characters and placing them in such an unusual set of circumstances, there was great deal to mine in terms of private family dynamics and public personas and the series did an admirable job of addressing such charged material.
Unfortunately, this new complete series set does not include any new special features than those already a part of the single season releases. However, the commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and short prequels are still a nice addition to the regular episodes.