Starting off with a larger-than-usual round of hype (even for a new HBO series) back in the spring of 2006, Big Love at first tried unexpectedly hard to show off the normality of the Henrickson family of polygamists. Certainly there were attention-grabbers in the first few episodes, particularly those illustrating patriarch Bill’s (Bill Paxton) need for Viagra when it comes to pleasing his three wives, whom he rotates between according to a firmly-fixed schedule. There was also the introduction of the series’ primary conflict, that between the Henricksons – who see themselves living as righteous followers of the Mormon faith’s original polygamist teachings, albeit secretly in the Salt Lake City suburbs – and the criminalistic Juniper Creek polygamist splinter sect out in the Utah boondocks where had grown up but which had cast him out as a teenager.
This efficient plotting triangulation, in which Bill Henrickson and the corrupt, perverted boss of Juniper Creek, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Station, at once ominous and queasy) fight over control over various financial concerns while keeping one step ahead of the state/religious complex, which would put them both in jail if it could, set the show up for a lengthy battle of wits through the first season. However, given how secretive nearly all the show’s principals needed to be by their very nature, there was only so much conflict that could be resolved out in the open.
So the show, while hinting often at the real-life violent skirmishes that erupt between the various polygamist sects (which the mainstream Mormon church officially disavows), set its sights more closely on the relationships inside the Henrickson household. And given the inherent tensions involved in a family where three “sister-wives” (two of whom were uncomfortable with many aspects of polygamy, to say the least) must jockey for attention and power inside a mostly closed world, there was plenty of material to go around.
Until the second season, that is. During those dozen episodes, the showrunners seemed to lose much of the inspiration that had really set it apart, and a kind of malaise set in. Most of the plot points, particularly those about Bill’s trying to safely grow his home-supply store business by other means and his trying to fight off Roman while protecting his family still living on the Juniper Creek compound, were dragged out well past their expiration date. The show seemed to be taking it easy, happy to have made it to a sophomore season, but the domestic drama started to become repetitive and nearly reminiscent of Desperate Housewives in its overdone manner. That it spent too much time on storylines centered around Bill – easily the least interesting of the four – didn’t help things at all. The show looked dangerously close to turning in to just another evening soap opera, with squalling children and adult secrets all percolating in a quiet suburban neighborhood.
Fortunately, things tightened up in the shorter third season (ten episodes compared to the previous seasons’ dozen each), producing a darker and more potent drama than expected. Bill and his wives each reached some kind of crisis point in the clashing of family and personal needs and spirituality, which is where Big Love finds its most enlightening conflicts.
The third season also engaged more robustly with its religious subject matter, which had been increasingly pushed to the background in the second. Whereas the Mormon church had previously been a background matter, it now comes into the foreground as “first wife” Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) gets caught in the crossfire of a business deal between Bill and her disapproving sister’s husband, and as a result gets threatened with excommunication by the church.
The trauma that this development – vividly described as being cast into “the outer darkness” – throws Barb into is bruisingly depicted, and serves as a vivid explication of the faith’s insistence on keeping family together and connected with the church during one’s lifetime so as to ensure salvation in the hereafter. For a show whose almost every character is a practicing Mormon, whether in a mainstream church or one of the splinter sects, engaging on such an existential level with the everyday realities of their theology is late in coming, but welcomed nevertheless.
In addition to the church itself, patriarchy casts a long shadow over the characters on Big Love, where nearly all the women are either married to men with other wives or were raised in such families. Contrasts were drawn sharply earlier in the show between the comparatively enlightened way Bill runs his household (the wives get after him when he doesn’t include them in his decisions) and how men like his ogre-like father Frank (Bruce Dern, playing a particularly unctuous kind of evil) bully and terrorize their cowed wives back on the compound.
What the third season brings to the fore is the sexist imperative inescapably at the core of the polygamist belief – referred to as “The Principle” – and how little difference there can be between a putative hero like Bill and a villain like Frank. Time and again, it becomes clear how much heavier the burden of polygamy falls on the sister-wives than the man. Both Barb and the youngest, third wife Margene (Ginnifer Godwin, bright-eyed, daffy, and clueless) gave up most any ability to live openly in the outside world. And even though second wife, Nikki (the unusually excellent Chloë Sevigny) didn’t have to be talked into polygamy, as she was raised on the compound as daughter of its chieftain, Roman, she suffers almost more than either of them.
Next to Barb’s terror at being cast out of her church, Nikki’s fight to carve out some form of independence inside the marriage is the third season’s most impactful development. Seemingly a child of the compound, the kind of apparently brainwashed follower in long hair and 19th century dress one always sees in news reports about police raids on these kind of sect hideouts, Nikki turns into the one wife to truly fight for her own self-determination on the most basic level. By secretly taking birth-control pills, she fights being turned into a baby-making machine by a husband who believes raising as many children as possible is a religious directive – and sister-wives who comically but quite believably think it’s very simply her turn to have the next kid. By the end of the season, it becomes difficult to see Bill as so fundamentally different from the compound men he despises.
Barb and Nikki’s plotlines don’t constitute the bulk of the third season, but they are definitely the most engaging. Other critical developments range from the purported discovery of a document that claims to show Mormon church leaders never intended to obey the anti-polygamy laws they publically endorsed, Bill’s problematic investment in an ‘Indian’ casino development, and the potential of a wider government crackdown on polygamists. (The latter is covered in more detail in a third-part mini episode, “Three Past Midnight”, included as one of the only features on this very sparse DVD set.)
A good cable drama loves little more than characters whose closeted natures get the better of them, and so Big Love throws its viewers a gift in the season opener, “Block Party”. To very few people’s surprise, Roman Grant’s son and onetime henchman Alby (Matt Ross, a specialist in button-eyed threats and high-collared tension) is seen cruising for same-sex fun at a truck stop. It’s a wrinkle that makes Alby somewhat less of the villainous caricature that he had been before, humanizing him right at the point when he looks likely to take over the compound from Roman—whose name is appropriate, given the high level of deviously violent plotting his family members engage in, particularly his devoted and borderline insane wife Adaleen (Mary Kay Place, a model of brusque and businesslike pathology).
Thanks to a more genuine engagement with its characters’ religion and some tightly-wound plotting, Big Love proved in its third season to be more than just a modern American family melodrama with a twist. By illustrating how its characters must continually clip their own wings in devotion to The Principle, and how that belief keeps them at odds with nearly every aspect of the world they inhabit, the show turns into a smartly-imagined examination of the place that religious devotion has in 21st century America – and questions its very ability to survive.