It begins with standard images of suburbia. A couple wakes, kids prepare for school. Then something shifts. The man leaves behind a $100 bill, sheepishly. Two teenagers ask mother when it’s dad’s “turn” again. We have entered the unusual world of hardware entrepreneur Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton), a polygamist. Married to three women, he keeps three houses and a single pool in a middle-class section of Utah. Having left the ultra-fundamentalist Compound years ago, he now maintains the illegal arrangement, secretly.
Big Love has been touted as a big gamble for HBO. But maybe it’s not. Bill is not unlike other men consumed by contradictions. On the one hand is his growing business, a Home Depot-like DIY warehouse that is about to go franchise. On the other is a surreal set of family issues that include the wives, a whacked-out clan back at the Compound, and adolescents hoping to explore the outside world. Along with the intoxicating mountainous setting, a backdrop both serene and unsuspecting is created. And that’s appropriate, since something wicked seems ready to work its way into the Hendricksons’ hectic life.
This would be Roman, the Compound head played to perfection by Harry Dean Stanton. Not only is his daughter Nicki (wonderful Chloë Sevigny) married to Bill, but Roman also claims a financial stake of 15% in the burgeoning Hendrickson empire. Confronting Bill over his obligations, Roman asserts, “There’s man’s law, and then there’s God’s law. You know where I stand.” Nicki resists dad’s stand in her own ways, including excessive shopping that stretches the meager budget Bill gives her to beyond breaking. Yet she also mimics her father’s fiendish formalism, knowing it will get her what she wants — in this case, an increased share in the already stretched household budget.
That is, if she can get such a disruptive financial ploy past matriarch of the Hendrickson clan, Barb (Jean Tripplehorn). Part overseer and part organizer, Barb wants nothing more to do with the religion that created her interpersonal conundrum. When Bill learns his father is deathly ill, he takes Barb and Nicki back to the Compound. Barb’s face reveals he disgust, as she observes women dressed in dour garb, working the fields. Having already escaped the rudimentary patriarchy once before, she has no desire to revisit its repulsion. It’s a concept that comes crashing around her again when she learns that a 14-year-old family friend named Rhoda is Roman’s latest “bride.”
It’s also reminiscent of a festering situation simmering in Barb’s own suburban setting. The fresh fly in this ointment is Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). The newest addition to the Hendrickson clan, she worries when Bill loses his virility in bed, that she’s “broken” him. She seems unsure of her part in this mix of households, escaping into romantic fantasies.
At the same time, Big Love reveals Bill’s own unhappy background. Running a gas station on the outskirts of the Compound, his mother (Grace Zabriskie) is starting to snap. Dad (Bruce Dern, looking old) is slowly dying of arsenic poisoning, and Bill is convinced that it’s a case of subtle spousal revenge. His brother, a former NFL star who suffered a mental breakdown, is married to the miserable, whiny Wanda (Melora Walters). All eyes turn to Bill, the one who “got out.” They can’t see that his current family is a fool’s paradise, a pretend version of partnership destined to become overtly dysfunctional. Mom lets Bill know that he’s never too far from his roots. You will always be where you came from, she chides, you will always be who you are.
Such melodrama is grounded in mundane concerns, like money: the households share in Bill’s profits equally, though Barb and Nicki are already showing impatience with this arrangement. Perhaps most acutely, Big Love illustrates the ways the cell phone serves as faux “intimacy.” Everyone voice mails or pages each other, creating bland clips of conversation without contexts. Ever faithful Bill makes sure to answer each and every message, no matter the situation or setting.
All of this creates a terrific foundation for the exploration of faith in “everyday life.” Not just religious belief, but the bonds between relatives and relations. As it stands now, Bill is balancing a series of predicaments — philosophical, personal and professional — that threaten to destroy his self-designed utopia. Love, no matter how big, is difficult.