“Sins of the Father” seems as if it wants to be the “Come, Ye Saints” of season four. That season three episode, one of the best hours of television of 2009, was a collection of story points coming to a head, of characters finally confronting each other about things they’d been holding in for far too long. “Sins of the Father” has some of the same feel to it, but it ends up falling just a step or two behind “Come, Ye Saints,” ultimately, mostly because the series’ increasing reliance on the Bill runs for state Senate plot to hold everything together shines even more light on just how ridiculous of a plan it is. Now, I think that’s the point. We’re meant to see that Bill’s hubris and belief in his own greatness are blinding him to just how deeply his run for election is hurting his family. But that plot has been a deal breaker for many viewers this season, who just don’t buy that Bill would never be talked out of his idiocy.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (Feb. 7) “Big Love” after the break…]
All of this probably stems from the fact that the central tenet of the show is one that is hard to dramatize, much less get an audience to wholly buy. The center of this series requires that we believe that these people have wholehearted faith in Bill Henrickson, that they really believe that he knows what’s best for them and will follow him even when they have doubts. Faith is a notoriously hard thing to dramatize because it’s perhaps the most personal of emotions, so easily picked apart by even the slightest amount of doubt.
A faith-based life accepts that things are supposed to be a certain way, that they were meant to be that way, ordained by God who gave his word to certain men. So when Barb seems to spend most of this episode realizing how unhappy she is but doesn’t do anything about it, it strikes us in the audience — who’ve been conditioned to expect change in narrative — a little nuts. Why wouldn’t she leave him, we wonder. We have to accept that she’s based her entire life around the idea that Bill is somehow the man who will bring her to a celestial kingdom of perfect happiness after she dies, and that she can’t allow herself room for doubt. Room for doubt would cause too many problems, and so she soldiers on, unhappy, but not really allowing herself to admit it.
Doubt’s a scary thing for anyone who belongs to a fundamentalist religion. (This is something Stephanie Drury has written about multiple times at the excellent religious/cultural blog Stuff Christian Culture Likes.) Doubt often becomes a rolling ball that takes down an entire belief system. Most religions end up having entire bodies of apologetic literature because leaving no room for doubt becomes so important to sustaining what’s believed. And the fear is that if someone begins to doubt that, say, God created the world in seven days, that that will open up the room for that person to doubt everything else, from the existence of God Himself to even something as mundane as their parents’ love for them.
Because crises of doubt vs. faith are so potent in this environment, every season of “Big Love” becomes a meditation on just how far someone can be pushed by doubt before they snap back to that belief system or before they break free of the lifestyle entirely. (So far, on “Big Love,” only Sarah has really removed herself from the polygamist life with anything approaching regularity.) What’s interesting about “Come, Ye Saints” and “Sins of the Fathers” is that both episodes seem intent on introducing doubt into the mind of the one character who has the least room for it before the cards come tumbling down: Bill Henrickson.
“Come, Ye Saints,” of course, showed that Bill’s family was fraying around the edges and he almost hadn’t even noticed this. He was seemingly “saved” when his prayer to God to pull his family back together resulted (in Bill’s mind, I imagine, though not in the mind of the series) in the miscarriage of the child Sarah was carrying out of wedlock. It was an audacious moment, one that you don’t expect to see on a TV series — even one on HBO — and there’s no moment to match it in “Sins of the Father.” The revelation of Bill’s criminal record just didn’t have the same zip to it, and the fact that Bill managed to win the Republican party nomination (over poor, under-utilized Tom Amandes) after giving a heartfelt speech about his experiences was a little too TV conventional.
That said, if the episode doesn’t have anything as audacious as the closing moments of “Come, Ye Saints,” it doesn’t have to. The vast majority of it is turned over to Bill’s growing realization that his plan and his self-centered pursuit of his goal of normalizing polygamy has torn apart his family in ways he’s only beginning to grasp. Bill can be so single-minded, so convinced of his own righteousness, that he often becomes blinded to the ways he hurts those around him, the ways he comes off to the world. This is one of the episodes when the show necessarily tries to bring him a bit down to Earth. It’s a tricky balancing act, because when Bill’s being an asshole, that makes the show tick. But if he becomes too big of one, it doesn’t make any sense that he has any family around him, divine purpose or no. To me, the key moment here is when Bill gets the phone call saying that he’s won the nomination and after he hangs up and lets everyone know, the score booms out with a rather overwrought minor chord. Bill’s won the battle, but he’s rapidly losing the war, and he’s powerless to stop it.
The central conflict that drives everyone here is the fact that Bill drove Ben out of the house last week after learning the truth about what happened with Margie. Bill realizes the error of his ways after seemingly everyone tries to drill it into his skull (including Lois, in a sequence that reminds us that the show should use Grace Zabriskie dramatically far more often than it ever has). But it’s too late. Sarah informs him that Ben’s gone off with Lois, heading further away from the father who forgot himself and his roots and turned his son out. The heartache that the rift between Ben and Bill causes the family is all played absolutely straight, and it’s the emotional core that manages to hold together an episode that occasionally threatens to turn too convoluted.
It also doesn’t help that Bill hasn’t told Barb the complete truth about what happened between Ben and Margie two episodes ago or that he hasn’t told her he kicked their son out. All of the former comes out in a terrific scene where Bill and Barb are meeting with someone from the church (the better to be reinstated to the institution’s rolls), and Barb acts as Margie by proxy, so Margie and Bill can work out their issues. Everything goes south, of course, after Barb finds out Margie kissed her son – who’s still a teenager after all – intentionally, and this ends up driving a rift between Barb and Margie that isn’t wholly gone by episode’s end.
Sissy Spacek’s Marilyn Denshom also returned, mostly just so she could get the casino to agree for her to represent its interests in Washington. I love Spacek in most everything, and I think she’s doing a great job with Marilyn, but it sure seems as though she’s been given a bit of a slow burn of a storyline here. I liked the way that she worked with Bill to get Paley on board his campaign, and I liked when she met with Tommy and he rejected her, but I’m not so sure the rest of this storyline is really making the most of the actress’ talents just yet. And, yeah, I hear you when you say that the way the series figured out to get everyone up to the casino in the same car was ridiculously contrived, but the show seemed to be having fun with it, so I was willing to laugh and go along.
But the heart of this episode is about fathers and sons – specifically Bill and Frank (not to mention the ghost of Frank that hangs over everything) and Bill and Ben – and in that regard, it absolutely delivered. “Big Love” is often a series where the greatest flaw is the fact that everything is pulling in five too many directions at any given time. You sometimes wish that the show would just calm down and figure out a way to focus on one thing and just push forward on that. But that’s never what the show has wanted to do, and, thus, its strongest episodes are ones that find an emotional core the series can hook in to to keep everything moving along. The core isn’t as always readily present as it was in “Come, Ye Saints,” but “Sins of the Father” finds a way to play up the ways that these people continue to hurt each other, almost casually, and ends up being an episode of television with a muted power all its own.
Some other thoughts:
*** I’m not sure I buy that Nicki would ever monologue about how she’s many different people all at once like that, but Chloe Sevigny sure sold it well.
*** I loved the fact that the show seemed to be heading toward some sort of sexual thing between Tommy and Barb (and it may still be headed there) but, instead, chose to just have him bring her to a place where she could release some of that stress she feels. The final image of Barb in the bathroom, trying to recreate the sweat lodge, is a haunting one.
*** If you watched the “next week on,” you’ll know a recurring character is returning next week. I’m not sure the show needs one more recurring character to keep track of, but I’ll remain hopeful.
*** Finally, I didn’t miss Juniper Creek in the slightest. Even things like Lois and Frank are more interesting when they’re played through the lens of the Henrickson family proper. I’m still interested in what happens with Alby and Dale, but the power struggle on the compound? I’m not so sure I care.
This week’s talk-about: Do you think Bill’s change of heart was real? Or will he be back to his jerkass self next week?