“Big Love” ends a frustrating, flawed season with what might be its best season finale yet. There will likely be a hue and cry from people who just don’t buy that Bill would ever get so far as to out his family as a polygamist one on the steps of the state capitol, and I suppose I can see the point of view that Bill’s wives, who are clearly uneasy about this whole turn of events, should have struck back harder, should have killed this idea dead. But I’m still on board. I think that the path the show was on of the family keeping its secrets secret was always going to be somewhat untenable. This has always been a show about a very different family trying to take control of its destiny and the slow realization by some of its members that that destiny isn’t what they want after all.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (March 7) finale after the break…]
Take a look at the two wives who seem to be sabotaging Bill’s plans. You have Barb, who directly attempts to sabotage him by outing the child he’s having with Ana and tells him at episode’s end that she doesn’t really know if she wants to be with him anymore, but she’s been on this path a long time. The show’s run since the finale of season one (when Barb was outed as a polygamist enough to keep her from winning the mother of the year award) has been largely about Barb coming to terms with just how much she’s sold herself out to follow her husband, with just how little this patriarchy has in it for her. When Barb tells Bill she’s out, it’s a quiet moment, but it’s one that’s earth-shattering for the show. We’ve been building to this for three seasons now, an epoch in television time.
Then you have Margie, who’s often seemed to be adrift this season. You can read a lot of her actions as either pragmatic ones to keep the family together or the subconscious actions of a woman who wants out of a bad marriage and hasn’t yet realized she wants out. She’s preparing an escape route, even if she doesn’t know it yet, and her bonding with Goran and Ana is an intriguing moment in the history of the series, as well. “Big Love” has often played the desire for polygamists to leave the closet and live their lives in the open as a sort of analogue to the desire for legalized gay marriage, but that’s always been a cheeky message snuck into the show by the two creators (who are a gay couple). This, however, feels like an argument that there are ways to build relationships between multiple people that can work; you just need to make sure every leg of that marriage carries equal weight. “Big Love” has often had an essentially libertarian soul, believing that people should do whatever makes them most happy. This feels like the show’s strongest endorsement yet that relationships like this CAN work. You just need to make sure they’re not based on retrograde patriarchies.
What ties these women together, though, is that they strongly believe in this Principle. It seems ridiculous to us that they would believe in something that so clearly harms them, but we’re not them. “Big Love” has always been clear-eyed about how its protagonists are sometimes blind about how their way of life holds them back. They’ve had so much of the propaganda about this way of life drummed into their heads that they often seem incapable of breaking through the fog to a kind of clarity. Barb, as a woman who’s finally started to realize what’s going on, is able to break through that fog, but Margie and Nicki are just beginning the journey toward figuring out who they are. “Big Love” is not a show about secrets or about families or about faith so much as it is a show about delusions, a series about the ways we lie to ourselves to hang on to things we think we really want. It’s also a series, increasingly, about how those things we think we really want often become the things that end up tearing us apart. The Henricksons understand themselves as a family unit, but they don’t understand themselves as individuals just yet, and the only one who does just decamped for Portland.
I think some of the resistance to the Bill’s Senate campaign plotline hinges on two things. In the first case, it seems unlikely that Bill’s polygamy would have successfully been kept under wraps, even in an election as small scale as a race for a state senate seat. I agree on this point – particularly with the smart and savvy Marilyn Densham in town – but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief as far as that goes. It’s a necessary evil for the show to examine Bill’s decision to run for office in a way that sheds light on each of the characters and just what they still want out of being in this family. The other point is harder to dismiss. By having Bill out his family, the series finally leaves behind the world of suburban comedy of manners it often was in its first three seasons completely and utterly. Funny things will still happen in the episodes, but this makes the series, essentially, a dark tragedy about a man whose ego prevents everyone around him from living the lives they should be living. In its own way, Bill coming out on the capitol steps is as big a game-changer as the gang from “Lost” leaving the Island.
Even as I really liked “End of Days,” it was easy to see how it was yet another brick in a fourth season that’s been hugely uneven. There have been fantastic episodes in it – particularly “The Greater Good,” “The Mighty and Strong” and “Under One Roof” – but the overall story arc has been all over the place, and there’s often been a sense of the show trying to cram too much into one season. In particular, Barb’s journey hasn’t made a lot of sense until those final scenes when she finally elucidates her desire to leave Bill (a desire she ends up abandoning when she sees how much he’s out there, a leaf in the wind, when he makes his speech).
Furthermore, the entire plot of J.J. Walker trying to make Juniper Creek his own was rather poorly plotted, simmering along on a back burner where it often seemed to be making little to no sense. Now that we’ve learned his ultimate plan – to inseminate the women in his life with the incestuous spawn of himself and his various female relatives – he seems less a character than a supervillain, and his final end – burned in the clinic at the hands of Adaleen – seems less a way to examine either character and more a way for the writers to rid themselves of a plot that didn’t really work in as expedient a fashion as possible. The show just never got a handle on who J.J. was, and it never figured out what he was doing in the show’s wider universe. He was just another creepy polygamist, and it often seemed like he was there solely to fill the void left by Harry Dean Stanton’s absence from the series.
I’m also a bit saddened by how little the series used Matt Ross’ Alby Grant, a character I couldn’t have cared less about before this season but one that became vital and alive after he finally pursued a homosexual relationship. After his big showcase episode – “Under One Roof” – he didn’t even appear in the next, and in the last two episodes of the season, he was more or less window dressing (though compelling window dressing). Alby’s always been the guy who was ready to take command, and now that he is, he’s discovering just how little prepared he is for discovery of who he really is. You can lie to yourself for a while, but not forever, and Alby’s lost and alone. Hopefully, the show makes a point of giving him more time in season five.
But I actually have fairly high hopes for season five. Now that J.J.’s out of the storyline and now that the show seems to have refocused on the Henricksons as characters, rather than as plot devices designed to push Bill’s campaign down the road, it finally feels like “Big Love” can head into its end game, into the final portion of its storyline. I’ve always felt that “Big Love” can’t go on indefinitely, because it eventually beggars belief that this family would stay this hidden for this long. This has always been a show that was going to be divided in two, between the family in hiding and the family out in the open, with the difference between the two states gradually tearing the family apart.
I said last week that the show knows Bill’s decision is stupid, while Bill obviously thinks it’s a great idea. I still think that’s the case, and “End of Days” is filled with moments designed to show us how Bill’s hubris is ultimately going to destroy him, perfectly foreshadowing that heartrending scene where he comes out as a polygamist to the anger of the people who just supported him in his improbable campaign. There’s the scene where we see what’s become of Don (a plot point that the show had mostly buried and I was glad to see return). There’s Marilyn’s final kiss-off to Bill about just how stupid this whole plan is, just how little his voters and campaign staff are going to appreciate having supported a liar. There’s that dark, final conversation between him and Barb. And there’s all of the suggested, unintended consequences, like the way that this plot stands to bring down the casino or the way it will likely send Goran packing.
“Big Love” has never been a show about a traditional hero. It acts like one, and it talks like one, but it’s ultimately a show about a man who seems like a traditional hero but is always, always revealed to be a man who’s undone by his own beliefs of his superiority. Season four has been, in a lot of ways, a season that’s all about how the people around him have had to sacrifice everything they are to follow him down his paths of self-involved whims. And those final moments on the capitol steps are moments no one can back down from. There’s no way toward a normal future for any of these characters any more, no matter how much any of them might think this is the “right” thing. There’s always a cost to true honesty, and in Bill’s case, that cost is so steep as to make the lie seem almost, somehow, better.
Some other thoughts:
*** More than ever, I hope season five is the final season for the show. I really like the reinvigoration of the show’s universe, but I’m fairly certain it can’t go on for very long, though I’m always willing to be proved wrong.
*** So Bill really just left Adaleen there with J.J. and company? I don’t quite buy that.
*** Additional plots that didn’t really work: Everything on the reservation. I admired the show for going there, but it just never felt like this was anything other than a Wikipedia article the writers had read about the Nez Perce and then tried to dramatize.
*** And now the hiring of Sissy Spacek becomes clear. The show needed her to be the voice of the audience, since Amanda Seyfried was largely sidelined and no one else was going to tell Bill off. Her speeches to him in these last episodes carried a kind of moral authority that needed an actress of Spacek’s caliber to sell.
*** All in all, I much prefer this to the overly busy and grim season finales of seasons two and three, particularly since it didn’t go in for any over-the-top soap operatics. The conclusion of Bill’s arc was all the show needed in that regard.
*** And excellent use of Peter Gabriel’s new cover of “Heroes” at the end. Haunting, and a nice play on the lyrics.
A final discussion point for the season: Do you like the show’s new standing for its characters? Or do you hope Bill discovers Roman in his shower next season and realizes it was all a dream?