“Next Ticket Out” is another deeply flawed episode of “Big Love,” but at least it’s not as bottom-scraping as last week’s episode. Indeed, the whole thing moves with the illogic and terror of a nightmare, with all the strengths and weaknesses that that implies. Some of the episode’s best sequences – and there are many – have that sense you get when you wake up in the middle of the night, your gut churning with the sense that something has gone wrong, not quite able to remember the dream that sent you in that direction. And some of the episode’s worst sequences have the feeling you get in a nightmare, where logic and reason are tossed aside simply because it’s time for more bad stuff to happen. Nobody’s running from any monsters here, but they are running from the sense that all of their bad decisions are slowly catching up to them, and there’s nothing they can do to fight back.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (Feb. 28) “Big Love” after the break…]
But first, let’s talk a little bit about Bill Henrickson’s campaign for state senate. In his micro review of the episode, which went up shortly after it finished airing, TV blogosphere emperor Alan Sepinwall said that he thinks the whole plotline is the most credibility destroying thing since the unfortunate days of murderin’ Landry on “Friday Night Lights.” I, obviously, disagree, but there are moments when my faith wavers. The problem, I think, comes from the discrepency between whether the show thinks this is a good idea and whether Bill thinks this is a good idea. I can completely buy that Bill thinks this is a good idea, that he’ll follow this path to his own destruction and drag everyone down with him. If the show thought it was a good idea (as “Friday Night Lights” seemed to think Landry’s killing spree was), then I’d be more troubled. And in recent episodes, it sure seems like the show is taking Bill’s side.
But after tonight’s episode, I’m relieved to report that the show very obviously knows how ridiculous Bill’s idea is, how completely wrong-headed and bizarre it is, and how much it stands to ruin his family even if all of the best possible things happen. The show has always used Amanda Seyfried’s Sarah as a stand-in for the writers and their point-of-view. Whenever things seem to be getting too far-fetched or whenever it seems like the show is starting to buy into Bill’s ridiculous rhetoric, the series goes out of its way to have Sarah tell us in no uncertain terms that what Bill is doing is crazy and destructive, that it can only cause problems. The show certainly doesn’t think Bill is a bad guy, but it has always thought him fundamentally misguided, and it’s always used Sarah as a way to say that. Think back to the episodes in season two when she took her dad aside and told him in no uncertain terms that the polygamist lifestyle was not a good thing and that she would have no part of it. Or think of season three, when her struggle to figure out what to do with her unborn baby because the season’s poignant moral center, as she vowed to find a way to raise it free of the lifestyle she felt tearing her down at every turn.
The best thing about Sarah is that she, like the writers, is deeply conflicted about Bill. She can see the qualities that make him a good man and a good husband and good father. But she can also see how lost he is in the myth of himself, how much he’s going to hurt everyone around him before he admits that maybe he’s wrong and maybe he doesn’t have a direct conduit to God. Every time you think she’s out of the family for good – as in late season two when she seemed to completely cast aside the family’s belief system to have sex with Scott – something happens to pull her back in, in the way that these things always go with families. Just tonight, she’s heading off to live in Portland with Scott, wanting nothing of continuing further down her father’s path, when she realizes just how much she’s abandoning people like Teeny, who are finally old enough to start to question how they were raised and are unable to find a sympathetic ear, now that she’s heading out.
But she has to. There’s no more life for Sarah here, no matter how much seeing the family gathered at the birthday party at the end tugs at her heartstrings. And the further Bill goes down his self-aggrandizing path, the less room there is for someone to call him on his bullshit. Sarah will always be tied to these people by blood and love, but she needs her space, a place to get away from the cancer at the heart of her family. And that place is, apparently, Portland, Ore. But before she goes, the writers give her one last, “Haven’t you all noticed that Bill is crazy and so is an unquestioned patriarchy?” speech for old time’s sake, as she tries to corral all of the women in her family into admitting that they don’t terribly want to come out of the polygamist closet, no matter how intent Bill is on doing so. And so, the last time we see Sarah is as she looks out of the window of her childhood home, watching the family that she’s still a part of but not really a part of – separated from them now by very fundamental differences in beliefs – before she goes to join them as “Bill Henrickson’s daughter” and not her own person one last time. The final image, fittingly, is of the frame without her, the house without its moral center.
I do worry that the series will suffer sans Sarah, though I absolutely get why Seyfried, who hasn’t had a lot to do since season two, wanted out. I also think that if the series was going to remove Sarah from the equation, it had to do so at a point where Bill had embarked on a course there was no returning from. Since the character isn’t dead, she can certainly come back to visit and call her family on just how little their way of life has any resemblence to something that’s somehow more “pure” than other living arrangements or even than Juniper Creek. Unlike Roman, Bill’s not going to force his daughter into a life of polygamy as a teenager, but he’s always going to be hovering over her, disapproving, and breaking that spell will probably consume a good portion of her young adult life.
If there’s another good thing to say about this episode, it’s that it mostly stayed away from the travails of Juniper Creek, outside of the still-absorbing slow decay of Alby Grant. After last week’s Mexican shenanigans threatened to sink the entire show, the series was able to return to life in Sandy with surprising alacrity, as if the whole Mexican fiasco never happened. (Sure, Ben talked a couple of times about what had happened to him, but those moments were few and far between.) So while I appreciated that the episode focused almost entirely on the plots that have been working this season, the episode also fell into this season’s two biggest pitfalls: It’s way too busy, and it’s forced by the compressed season schedule to send people scattering to the winds, barely motivated.
The biggest example of this is probably the storyline where Barb, apropos of nothing, makes one of the biggest campaign gaffes in history by suggesting that Utah women are so put upon to be perfect that they’re all secretly addicted to anti-depressants. While what Barb says may be accurate in the series’ universe, I find it extremely hard to believe she’d just launch into this speech without some sort of serious prompting. Sure, her life is rapidly spiraling out of control, but it definitely feels like she’s just doing this because the show needs to throw a wrench into Bill’s campaign related to his family and can’t think of a better way to do so. The whole plot ends up feeling like a bit of a waste, especially of the very fine Amy Aquino as Bill’s opponent (though she’ll always be the mom from “Brooklyn Bridge” to me).
And the more I think about it, the more I realize that there was plenty of Juniper Creek stuff in the episode, but it was unremarkable enough that I mostly forgot about it. J.J. remained enigmatic (though he seemed to smother Adaleen). Nicki kept seeing the miracle obstetrician of Juniper Creek. And the truth about who killed Roman came out to various people, most notably Nicki (though I liked the way the show played this revelation, pushing it way to the back burner and then only bringing it back when you had mostly forgotten about it). None of this really worked, and nearly all of it felt like it was setting stuff up for next week, which threatens to make an already overstuffed finale far, far too full of stuff going on. “Big Love” is not really known for its ability to pull off a great season finale (only the season one finale has managed to bring a season arc to a fitting close), and it seems to be betting all of its chips on this season’s finale. That strikes me as a dangerous thing for the series to do.
But it’s not as if there wasn’t other good stuff going on here. Margie’s slow drift from the family continued, and I really love the way the series is playing this as her central denial of the fact that in her process of finding herself, she’s come to a place where she may need to step away from the family for good. Margie’s becoming all that she could be, but she’s also unwilling to admit that all that she can be involves probably making a bigger break with a husband who believes what he says is the only rule. Similarly, I was impressed with Nicki’s realization that she was in love with Bill and with her insistence that she wanted him all to herself, only to back away from that when she realized what she was saying was literally heresy to her.
And I thought the episode finally made good use of Sissy Spacek as Marilyn, though I’m still not sure why the show brought in an actress of her caliber for a plot that has often seemed to be chasing itself in circles. I’m pleased that the show made it clear that Marilyn only hatched this scheme shortly after meeting Bill, that she hasn’t been following his life for ages and ages, waiting for a moment to strike (as it seemed like the show might be heading in that direction last week). Marilyn’s slow unpeeling of Bill’s secrets was a long time in coming, but I thought Spacek played both scenes where she confronted Barb with Bill’s “affair” perfectly, and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s final kiss-off to her was the one good moment in a really messy episode for Barb.
But if I say the episode moves with the illogic of a nightmare, what I most mean is that the Alby plotline continues to be one of the most riveting things the show has ever done. Here’s a man who’s been cut loose from everything he ever understood, but without the support net that Nicki was able to fall back on last season. He’s drifting, utterly alone, and the scene when he dances by himself in the UEB office to “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” is just terrifically done, even if it collapses into a scene where Harry Dean Stanton shows up to completely underline all of the subtext going on in the show. Matt Ross has never been my favorite link of the show, but this season, which has lacked the kind of core that held the other seasons together, has been finding its strength in his performance, in the sense that in a world that’s held together by faith, it’s so, so easy to find yourself lost and at sea, awash in a world you can barely understand, trapped by the monsters of your own desire.
Some other thoughts:
*** “A woman can’t have two husbands.” But wouldn’t it make a great TV show!
*** I’m seeing sharply divided opinions on the “Bill plays Goran at tetherball” scene, which I simultaneously loved the hell out of and kind of hated. It was one of those broad, over-the-top moments that make you cringe to see the show even attempt them, but there was something about the way that Bill tried to usurp both of the other men in his youngest wife’s life that made the scene work. Bill Paxton pretty much sold that entirely on his own. [Also interesting was the way that the scene casts Margie as Bill, watching as her three love interests vie for her affections and blithely saying she really has no choice in the matter. In an episode that had already raised the spectre of women taking multiple husbands, this seemed a cheeky way of suggesting it would end just as poorly as having three wives has.]
*** I will never, ever find Teeny’s dancing anything other than a forced bit of faux-creepiness.
*** I like that Margie’s starting to realize just how little acclimated she is to her own desires, that she wants to push aside Goran because she can realize a kind of feral attraction to him. Too bad Bill just doesn’t get it. (Well, not “too bad,” since I think Margie’s the wife who’d most benefit from being single again, but you know what I mean.)
*** Bill’s opponent’s youngest daughter sure does look like Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement.”
*** For a long time, since I found out Seyfried was leaving, I was certain the show would kill her, since it’s often seemed like the series was heading in that direction. But I’m glad she will live on in Portland for future guest star appearances. It was too bad we couldn’t get Heather back to say goodbye, though.
This week’s discussion point: Is there anything the finale can do to salvage this season’s problems for you? Or will we just have to accept that this one’s going to be fascinating, but flawed?