The world can go to hell in a hand basket, but as long as we stick together, we’ll be all right.
— Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton)
For Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), everything is about family. That’s no surprise, given that he’s patriarch of a polygamist Utah family, with three wives, three houses, and seven children. In addition, he owns and manages Homes Plus, an appliance store on the cusp of a profitable expansion and much admired as a family-owned and -operated business. Trouble is, his professional success depends on keeping his multiple wives secret, and his father-in-law Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), a self-anointed End Times prophet, is threatening to dismantle Bill’s carefully managed public image. In Big Love, “family” is a slippery concept.
Last season concluded with Bill’s first wife, Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), contending for a Mother of the Year Award. Attending an elaborate ceremony at the Governor’s mansion, the family was horrified to see the First Lady of Utah confront Barb about her alternative “lifestyle.” Barb tearfully confessed, later telling Bill’s second wife, Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), “I got what I deserved.” Bill was upset too, telling his best friend and fellow polygamist Don (Joel McKinnon Miller), “We’ve been exposed.”
Season Two opened with Barb questioning her place within the family and Bill furiously working damage control. While she lost herself in repetitive pool laps, he wondered, “I’ve got 10 souls in my charge, and if I can’t protect them, what kind of man am I?” Otherwise a somewhat bland, upwardly mobile suburbanite, Bill sees himself as a tribal leader responsible for the eternal disposition of his “charges.” As he puts it, “I believe family is the key to celestial heaven.” The connection he sees between the banal and the celestial, the temporal and the eternal, drives much of the second season’s storyline thus far.
Big Love generally handles the Henricksons’ faith respectfully, but there’s no forgetting that they are polygamists. (The series’ often inexplicable tone shifts seem an attempt to humanize the family while keeping the audience at an emotional distance — too often melodrama yields directly to camp, and vice versa.) A recurring subplot indirectly emphasizes their outsider status by focusing on fugitive polygamist Orlean Abbot (see also: Warren Jeffs). As Abbot continues to evade capture, Roman fumes, “Stupid, greedy perverts. They’re gonna ruin it for the rest of us.” Like Bill, he’s content with his partial assimilation into society.
In this season’s first episode, Bill asked the authorities to help him discover who exposed his secret. “I try to be an honorable man,” he said, “I just want to live peacefully with my family.” The district attorney reminded him that his “lifestyle” is not currently popular in Utah. And so Bill has reframed his trouble as a test of faith. “The life we’ve chosen leads to eternity,” he said, “but yes, there are consequences.”
Barbara, however, is less ready than Bill to declare her own righteousness. The exposure directly challenged her wavering faith in plural marriage. After temporarily leaving the family in this season’s first episode, she decided to return to college. Despite her status as first wife — Nicki and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), Bill’s third wife, both refer to her as “boss lady” — Barbara is feeling increasingly marginalized within the family, evidenced when she lashed out at Bill: “Don’t you lecture me on family. I sacrificed our love for the love I have for this family.”
Where her husband draws strength from his “us versus them” worldview, Barbara feels their outsider status hurts her family. When her oldest daughter, Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), said she’s called “pliggie” by her peers, Barbara frantically suggested they move to another city and start a new life. Frustrated in his own way, her son Ben (Douglas Smith) has contemplated joining a “second family” by taking the “straight-edge pledge.”
Though he sabotaged Bill, Roman consistently asserts the importance of familial solidarity, saying, “On this we stand as one, as family must.” But his conception of family is a purely utilitarian one. In the second season, he’s working to undermine Bill’s claim to Roman’s business interests. He unmasked the Henricksons to the First Lady, but didn’t confess when Nicki asked him to find out who did it, willing to lie to his daughter in order to shore up his sense of power.
Family may come first, as he says, but he has his own definition of it. Where Bill sees himself as provider and protector, Roman is King of the Hill. He makes decrees and expects them to be followed. (It’s no surprise that unlike Bill, who lives in the suburbs, Roman lives on an isolated compound, surrounded by acolytes.) His wife, Adaleen (Mary Kay Place), has similarly used the idea of family as a cudgel, warning Nicki, “One day you’ll realize the importance of family.” Family, for her as for Roman, demands obedience.
Tolstoy famously noted that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The polygamous families of Big Love, full of internal intrigues, share an aversion to outsiders and an implicitly apocalyptic faith. The show is not interested in endorsing or deriding the practice of polygamy, but instead, holding it up as a funhouse mirror to mainstream constructions of “family.” In doing so, it reveals “family”‘s many absurdities.