Why would anyone be married to Bill Henrickson? That’s one of the bigger questions at the center of “Big Love,” a question that the show has never really answered as well as it might have, since the three women at the show’s center are so much more interesting and compelling figures in comparison to their mutual husband. Some of that may be due to Bill Paxton, a good, reliable guy at playing regular Joe types but someone who can’t really live up to the lines the show gives the other characters about the charisma that shines off of him. Some of it may have to do with the show’s milieu, a world where unquestioning patriarchy is the norm, as opposed to the more gender-equal society most people who can afford HBO live in. And some of it may just have to do with the fact that there’s really no one who’s good enough to score with Barb AND Nicki AND Margie. And, hell, Ana while we’re at it.
[Full recap of Sunday (Jan. 24) night’s “Big Love” after the break…]
That question is one of the ones that also winds through “Strange Bedfellows,” an episode that seems to be paying homage to both the best and the worst episodes of “The West Wing.” Bill’s at his jerkish worst in this episode, behaving like an entitled oaf while wandering through Washington, D.C., purchasing one of the most unthinking gifts ever for Nicki and chasing around after his Congressman while trying to pitch himself as the best guy to get the state Senate seat back in Utah. And despite all of this, God still seems to be on the guy’s side, giving him just the in he needs at the fundraiser when he needs an in. But maybe God isn’t, exactly, as Bill’s family, as always, is coming closer and closer to spiraling out of control.
In general, “Strange Bedfellows” had its finest stuff in the storylines revolving around Margie and Bill and Nicki’s trip to Washington. The compound stuff in the episode was irrelevant enough to the main storyline (outside of Alby’s continued temptation) that it was easy enough to ignore, but the story of Barb and Sarah trying to take care of an American Indian girl they hit with their car while on a trip up to the casino echoed those episodes of “The West Wing” where the White House staffers wandered out into the real America and learned about how things really worked for most average Americans. Now, this episode wasn’t written with as tone-deaf an ear for the problems of American Indians as those “West Wing” episodes were, but at times, the whole plot seemed like a lecture.
I’m perhaps more willing to cut the reservation plotline a little slack. I grew up about ten miles from a reservation, and the strained relations between the white, middle class people off the reservation (where I lived) and the American Indians – successful and unsuccessful – on the reservation were a constant theme bouncing through my childhood. The reservations in this nation are the sort of subculture that a really terrific HBO show could be made about, should the network ever want to try. (I’d recommend stealing the concept, if not exactly the execution, of the Vertigo comics series “Scalped.”) And since this network has shown a willingness to pursue stories of the poorest of the poor, the most forgotten American citizens, with “The Wire” and “Treme,” I suppose it’s always possible we could get this sort of a series in the future.
I also admire the way that “Big Love” keeps expanding the world of its story, and expanding to focus on the often uneasy conflicts between Mormons in Utah and many of the American Indians they displaced in the 1800s is a natural new place to turn the show’s gaze. “Big Love” is too in love with soapy machinations to ever be as hard-hitting as “The Wire,” but its willingness to explore more and more of the weird American subculture that is the state of Utah is reminiscent of that series. Still, this whole plotline is mostly tone deaf, despite Jeanne Tripplehorn, Adam Beach and Amanda Seyfried’s best efforts. Explored as a way to show Barb just how little she still knows outside of her sheltered existence (a motif that often leads to her questioning just why she’s in that sheltered existence), it has some relevance. Looked at as a way to read Sarah’s increasing liberal guilt about her life and attempts to express just what she’s unhappy about, it’s kind of interesting. But as an overall story about the reservation life and the uneasy intersection with the Henrickson life, it’s often surprisingly tone-deaf, full of the reservation characters telling Barb and Sarah what’s what with little nuance. Since reservations are a facet of American life most of us spend little time thinking about (or know anything about), a little lecturing isn’t the worst idea in the world, but this too often lacks any feel for the way these conversations might actually go down.
Back on the compound, the power struggle between Alby, the specter of Bill and J.J. continues apace, this week revealing that Alby’s being haunted by thoughts of his father tearing into him for the way he’s struck up a relationship with a man. The scene where he and Dale talk about how their urges for other men will be taken away from them when they go to the celestial kingdom is a heartbreaking one, one of the show’s continued reminders that no matter how much faith you have, you’re still a human being, and you’ll still want things you believe you shouldn’t have. (This point is echoed wonderfully in the story of Cara Lynn, who’s finally off the compound and realizing everything she could have in the modern world but also all of the fear that goes with it.) While the Alby storyline continues to be surprisingly tenderly written, everything with J.J. and Wanda and Joey is the sort of twisty storyline that often gets tiring in the show’s universe. It doesn’t help that J.J.’s character is not horribly well delineated so far, outside of “the bad guy.”
But the rest of this episode was very well done, meaning it’s not a total wash by any means. A lot of viewers get hung up on the question of just why these women love Bill, but I think that’s often a case of projecting the values of the world most of us live in onto the world of “Big Love.” I think that Barb, Nicki and Margie love Bill because the alternative – NOT loving Bill – is often so horrifying to them as to be unimaginable. They’d be cut off from the world beyond this one, from a family they very much love and from what they believe to be their direct conduit to God. Leaving a fundamentalist religion is a series of little steps, not one big decision made all at once, and over the course of its four seasons, “Big Love” has done a good job of putting all of those little steps in a row. (Whether or not the show will pull the trigger on that plot when the show is actually close to ending is the bigger question, and given how often the series has flirted with this happening, I’d say it would be quite disappointing if something like that didn’t happen in the end.) In this regard, Bill’s very unremarkableness is what makes his character and relationships so interesting. He’s never going to be a deeply charismatic antihero or anything. He’s just the stand-up guy that so many of the men in his line of life believe themselves to be. That forces us to question why we feel the way about him that we do and why the characters feel the way about him that they do.
I think all of this is placed into sharp relief by having the Sissy Spacek character – a powerful lobbyist named Marilyn Densham – so immediately bristle at the sight of Bill. Densham, for better or worse, lives in our world. She’s someone who lives in the world where women can seize power and where she’s never treated as Bill treats her (as he immediately just assumes she’s a secretary). To say that Densham and Bill don’t hit it off is putting it mildly, and I think it’s notable that Densham only comes around on Bill after Nicki tells her about what a big shot he is. By seeing Bill through the eyes of Nicki, who clearly has plenty of affection for him, she’s finally able to make the leap to seeing him something other than the brusque, unfeeling guy he often seems to be (his present of a bottomless teddy to Nicki being exhibit A in this argument). Still, the character of Densham seems to be one of the show’s occasional attempts to remind us that it gets that Bill’s character and, indeed, the whole Henrickson setup are often unthinkable to many of us. (It’s also helpful here that Spacek immediately justifies the show’s choice to get an actress of her caliber for the part, giving Densham a sly, understated way of undercutting everyone she comes in contact with. The on-location filming in Washington is also nice.)
And then you have Nicki, who goes along with Bill in a slightly poorly thought out attempt to rejuvenate their relationship through a romantic vacation. (She brings along Cara Lynn as well.) While I’m willing to follow the show along this path, so far as the two’s attempts to rekindle the passion they once felt go, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Bill would embark on a campaign where he must keep his true private life secret by … taking his second wife along on this trip, even if very few people in Washington know who he actually is. Still, everything between Nicki and Cara Lynn here is fantastic, as Cara Lynn confronts just how little she’s ready to step out of her sheltered world and join society as a whole, just like her mother. A wordless scene where Cara Lynn gazes at a caricature of her as a big-haired, sad-faced girl is heartbreaking. (While, at the same time, a scene where Nicki is nearly arrested for bringing a gun to the fundraiser is a little too far over the top.) Nicki’s journey toward being able to get beyond her upbringing has always been one of the show’s central storylines, and it’s nice that she’s being echoed in her journey through her daughter now.
And then there’s the plot I’m sure everyone will want to talk about, where Margie finds herself ignored by everyone in her family on the eve of her debut in primetime on the home shopping channel she works for. As she spends the night in her house alone with Jodeen, J.J. comes over to demand he be allowed to see his daughter. At which point, enter Ben, shoving J.J. to get him to leave the house. I’ve always been uneasy about the way the show has played the Margie and Ben relationship, though it would make sense there would be some attraction between the two, and I don’t necessarily like the way the episode stacks the deck in favor of Ben, but I have to admit that the moment when Margie kissed Ben when he showed up to watch her film her show was a gut punch, even if nothing else comes of it (and the ramifications have to be explored, you would think). I also loved that shot of the endlessly replicating Bens on the TV screen when the show cuts to him watching Margie from offscreen, the sort of casual brilliance the show occasionally just comes up with on the fly. (Ben, you see, is forced to be three different sons for three different moms.)
So now we’ve got nearly every plot this season will tackle, I should hope, moving along and cooking, even if some of them – Barb and Sarah’s adventures in cultural sensitivity – don’t work as well as others. As a bonus, we’ve got two of the wives – Nicki and Margie – living with alter egos created almost by accident – Daphne Curtis, Bill’s campaign employee, and Mr. Ben Henrickson, respectively. “Strange Bedfellows” is a messy episode, much of that mess created by the series trying to cram too much into just nine episodes, but it’s got moments that sing, and that’s one of the things the series does so well that you’re willing to overlook the stuff it doesn’t do so well.
Some other thoughts:
***Teeny’s been recast! To be perfectly honest, I’m not as broken up as some fans. Here’s hoping Bella Thorne has a fine tenure in the role.
*** So is Margie’s home shopping network regional, local or national? I don’t think the show’s been especially clear on this point.
*** I also have no clue why, exactly, Doug Smith (who plays Ben) has been bumped from the main credits to the closing credits. I hope this isn’t indicating that he’s leaving the show.
This week’s question for discussion: Just why do these women love Bill?