Big Love: Season Four Premiere

In a few crucial ways, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) — the patriarch of the polygamous Henrickson clan on HBO’s Big Love — is not unlike mobster Tony Soprano. He breaks the law, repeatedly puts his beloved family in danger, and ruthlessly connives to achieve his ends. But they are different as well: though Tony often blamed his parents for his shortcomings, he suspected there was rot in his own heart. Bill, on the other hand, believes himself to be a righteous man, and one of the most fascinating elements of Big Love, now in its fourth season, is watching him rationalize his worldlier instincts — his lust, greed, and pride — in the name of his unwavering Mormonism or as a directive from the Heavenly Father Himself.

In the third season, Henrickson expanded his business empire, which already included a string of home-improvement stores, to include a casino jointly run with a neighboring Native American tribe. As he attempted to nail down the deal, he tussled with his constant nemesis, Juniper Creek prophet Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), as well as the state prosecutor’s office and his own brother-in-law, angling for a taste of the action. He also invited a fourth wife into his plural marriage, though she left soon after the connection was “celestially sealed.” And of course, he had to continue to conceal his polygamous lifestyle from his the public at large while fielding family crises and the demands of wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicky (Chloë Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Season Three’s plotlines were fast-paced and riveting, including a number of twists and reversals. Bill’s life, in a word: stressful!

Judging by the first two episodes of Season Four, “Free at Last” and “The Greater Good,” his challenges are only multiplying. The FBI is harassing the Henricksons about Roman’s whereabouts (he was apparently killed in last season’s finale). Bill is now co-managing the casino, but with the Feds sniffing around, his partners don’t entirely trust him. In addition, he has started his own church, but he is being pressured by Joey and Nicky to take up his rightful place as the prophet-heir of Juniper Creek. And that’s only the tip of this iceberg: he is also thinking about entering state politics so he can champion his polygamist principle from a legitimate seat of power.

Even in the face of all this men’s realm intrigue, the most compelling aspect of Big Love remains the women. This season, Bill appears to be losing control of all his wives, and experiencing increasingly tenuous relations with his mother, Lois (a wonderfully demented Grace Zabriskie), daughter Sarah (the luminous Amanda Seyfried), and sociopathic mother-in-law Adaleen (the hilarious Mary Kay Place). Margene, after her first taste of financial independence, is becoming secretive about her income — and savvy about carving out a piece for herself. Barb is still struggling with her recent ex-communication from the Mormon church, and her faith is so tenuous, she can barely withstand her daughter’s own religious exploration. And Nicky, almost banished from the Henrickson clan in the third season, continues to harbor feelings for Ray Henry (Chip Esten), the prosecutor who bungled a rape case against Roman. She is also starting to see she has always been the pawn of powerful men (first her father, now Bill) and that her romantic choices have never been self-determined. As she forges a relationship with her long-lost daughter, Cara Lynne (Cassi Thomson), from her first marriage (at age 14), Nicky’s pride over Cara Lynne’s academic brilliance is evident, and she’s apparently willing to secure her daughter’s future success at all costs.

As Margene, the sunny Goodwin is always a treat to watch, but Tripplehorn and Sevigny have given astoundingly layered and sympathetic performances since the beginning of the series. They continue to do fine work in the fourth season. In the last few minutes of the second episode, Nicky witnesses the wedding of another female character, and her grief and longing are so deep, she is nearly overcome with sobs. Afraid that she has forever lost the chance for finding a genuine romantic attachment, Nicky reveals in just a few devastating few seconds how the love in the Henrickson marriage needs to be so big — to bandage the overwhelming heartbreak and disappointment at its core.

RATING 7 / 10