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Three Ring Circus

Jodie Janella Horn
The three wives at the center of HBO's Big Love

While polygamy has a place in the study of human history and culture, it has long been considered taboo. Leave it to HBO and its new hit drama series to make this socially profane subject seem... almost normal.

When I was a kid, I used to spend the entirety of my summer vacations watching daytime television. It was an activity that quickly squashed my desire to do anything else. June through August was dedicated to curling up in the abyss of soap operas, syndicated sit-coms, and talk show riots. For the most part, time spent suckling TV's milk would have been better spent, say, developing social skills or exercising, but there was one episode of a trashy chat fest that actually, truly changed my life. For the better, no less.

Allow me to paint the scene. A bearded man sat on the stage flanked by an entourage of dowdy long-haired women in unflattering prairie dresses. All extolled the virtues of plural marriage to an entirely hostile studio audience. Anyone could see that the polygamists were nutty zealots, but the studio audience struck me as equally unsavory. Ordinary folks lined up at the mic to get their chance to tell the polygamists they were Hell bound. The host's only function was to scowl in agreement with whatever judgment the viewers were putting forward. The whole spectacle was rather cruel.

But this particular episode proved to be different. A thin young man with dark curly hair stood up, and sheepishly asked, "So what if they're polygamists? They say it makes them happy and they're not bothering you. What's the problem?" The righteous mass booed the dissenter and quickly returned to their oral lynching, but his sentiment struck me. Wasn't he right? If everyone involved in an otherwise arcane social situation is a consenting adult and no one is getting hurt, shouldn't they be free to practice their religious beliefs in any way that they see fit? This is still America, right?

HBO's new drama Big Love is unique in that it plays to both the dissenter and the angry mob on the same subject. On one hand, the Henrickson family is modern and loving, with a separate house for each of the three wives and their children. They shop at the Gap, talk on the cell phone, and struggle to get their kids to the myriad meetings and practices that children have these days. Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), the patriarch of the clan, runs a successful chain of hardware stores that keeps the family moneyed to the point of being rather posh -- this despite the daunting number of mouths to feed. They are just like any other family, but for the simple fact that there is one husband and three spouses.

However, it all gets a little shakier upon closer inspection. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, the 40-something first wife, exudes a dispassionate professionalism that chafes with younger second wife, Nicki's (Chloë Sevigny) brash and manipulative emotionalism. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the baby-sitter turned wife, oscillates between wanting to be respected as an adult and girlishly flirting with Barb's teenage son. The wives function by establishing rigid schedules and boundaries and viciously enforcing them with sloppy emotional outbursts. The spousal drama certainly doesn't make polygamy look desirable, but it does make it real. Through the Henricksons, the viewer gets to observe such marital setups with more complexity and compassion in mind than is ever allowed on a tirade-based talk-show.

Slowly, we are learning about the scary commune that the family fled in favor of their comfortable but secretive suburban life. The Compound, as it is called, is rife with child brides, crooked leaders, and all-around ass-backwardness. For every step the Henricksons take to make polygamy more relatable, the loons at The Compound take 10 steps back. We learn that, as a young man, Bill was pushed from the community as part of the larger practice of preventing the stallions from stealing the fresh mares from the elders. We learn that the closed-off community supports itself with shady business schemes such as selling bum real estate to the elderly. And we learn about the poverty and lack of education that Compound children endure. In the dingy light of their origins, the Henrickson's choices seem a lot more defendable.

Historically and culturally, polygamy can make socio-biological sense, especially in a society that suffers massive male casualties due to war or the increased risk to men via similar sanctioned activities. In general, across many cultures, throughout time, and with many exceptions, males are more likely to die earlier than females. Males also marry much later in life than females in many cultures. If there are more brides than grooms, a system of polygamy may be the only way to ensure that everyone who wants a mate can get one. However, most of the time there aren't enough females for every male to have a few females. This means that only high-status males get bonus brides. If, on the other hand, there are too many grooms choosing from too few brides, then some males need to be removed from the competition, which is why some young men are often driven out of polygamous communities.

A shortage of any resource, from brides to bread, can induce violence in a closed community. The scarcity of marriageable females in contemporary polygamous societies explains the frequency of very young brides and the occurrence of brutality amongst polygamists. Another explanation for the violence is the unlawful nature of the arrangement. If the fundamental tenant of a culture is considered unlawful and must be kept a secret (as any '-gamy' is in the United States), then it's difficult to encourage followers to be lawful in other areas. The Henricksons are good people who work hard to keep their lifestyle on the down low, but dodgy business deals with The Compound continue to haunt them. As a result, they face the same problem as Nancy Botwin on Weeds (unskilled and recently widowed, Botwin turns to selling pot to support her family): how do you protect yourself and your family when your lifestyle effectively prevents you from calling the police?

The hardest aspect to justify for anyone, including myself, defending polygamy is the predilection for child brides. When Barb first learns that a former playmate of her teenage daughter is now married to the elderly alpha male Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) of The Compound, she is just as horrified as we are. You can see in her eyes that it disgusts her to have something in common with that kind of arrangement. In fact, Barb drops many hints that belie her disdain for her own choices. A self-flagellating polygamist is the most sympathy-inducing kind and discovering her motivations for consenting to a second wife is the most captivating back-story being developed in the series.

The Compound connubials create a sordid foil for the Henrickson's, making them seem rather relatable by comparison. It's easy to forget while watching Big Love how different this family is from other television clans. One anthropology degree and many years later, I still couldn't tell that dissenting man in the talk show audience exactly what's wrong with polygamy, if anything. I know that it's not a part of my culture or belief system and that I want nothing to do with it myself, but there is intrinsic value in understanding where folks different from ourselves are coming from. Big Love manages to not pathologize or demean its multifaceted families, and thus allows us to learn from the characters' choices and values. Just like I learned on those lazy summer afternoons years ago, TV occasionally gives as much as it takes. Lessons can be learned, even from a tacky talk show -- or a curious pay cable drama.

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