Back around the end of season two of “Big Love” (and I have no link for this, so you’ll just have to take me at my word), an interviewer asked the show’s creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, what they kept in mind when they wrote the show. The two said that they tried to keep in mind that the family at the center of the show is full of people who love each other and that the non-traditional family unit, such as it is, works. While I don’t doubt that the Henricksons all love each other, I think that the creators are either misdirecting the audience or rather underestimating the turmoil they’ve introduced into the show over the past few seasons with the latter description of it. “Big Love” is, fundamentally, a show about a family with members that love each other, but it’s also a show about the ways that family is somewhat inherently unsustainable. “The Greater Good” is one of the series’ best episodes because it returns frankly to that theme, to the tensions between love for others and self-preservation, between creed and self.
[The recap of Sunday’s (Jan. 17) “Big Love” continues after the break…]
It’s these tensions that lead me to defend, grudgingly, the Juniper Creek stuff much of the time. When the Juniper Creek storylines are just offering up a mishmash of disconnected wackiness, they’re usually intolerable (see: last week’s episode), but when the series manages to situate them in a world of people who have absolutely nowhere to turn but a faith that lets them down at every turn, it finds some wrenching personal drama in some odd corners. Take, for instance, Alby, a character the show has often played as something of a bumbling oaf, unsuited for his father’s throne (at least when compared to the virtuous-on-the-outside Bill) but also as something of a man who’s unable to truly be himself because he’s literally trapped in a world where to be himself would lead to the end of his world.
Alby’s a homosexual, deeply in denial about that fact, but gradually admitting to himself that he needs such a thing to be both happy and true to himself. At the same time, he’s wrapped in a power struggle to take his father’s seat at the head of the UEB, meaning that he’s got to keep all of this under wraps, probably for his whole life, lest he be seen as unfit for the priesthood. (The best episodes of “Big Love” set Juniper Creek and the Henricksons in ironic juxtaposition to each other, rather than trying to incorporate both settings into every storyline together.) While it’s a bit too big of a TV coincidence that the new UEB trustee is also the guy Alby hooked up with in the park last week, it’s the kind of coincidence that drives the drama and characters forward, showing just how far Alby is willing to pursue this guy now, when just a few episodes ago, these sorts of episodes usually ended in violence (occasionally self-directed).
Or look at Wanda and Joey, who returned to the compound this week after Roman’s body was found, ostensibly after dying in Mexico. They’re two people stuck on the compound largely because it’s all they’ve known, all they’re comfortable with (even though Joey went out and played football for at least a little while). They both sacrifice so much of their own selves in favor of pursuing a lost golden age, a dream that will probably never actually come into being. But they sit there and wait, even as their lives collapse into rot around them. Juniper Creek, the myth of the prophet who will lead the people forward into a brand new day, has such a hold on these people that they’re unable to see themselves for all of the mythmaking.
The telling line in “The Greater Good” comes, as it so often does, from Nicki, who functions in many ways as the character the show uses to demonstrate just how much the tenets of this fundamentalist life have screwed up so many of these people. When she goes to confront Ray the DA, the guy she fell for last season before their illicit kissing was exposed to the rest of her family, she blames him for everything that’s been happening to her, even though it’s really he who could blame her (and he does). He opened up an ocean of new feelings in her, she says, feelings she’s never had to confront before and now doesn’t know what to do with. She’s having trouble loving Bill again, even though she’s loathe to admit it, and she keeps pushing the leader’s chair of Juniper Creek on him, perhaps as a way to love and respect him again, a way to escape the way that she’s let herself slide. To a real degree, the faith of every religious fundamentalist is tested by that old maxim to be in the world but not of it. To withdraw completely from the world, as the Juniper Creek people do, is harmful, but to be in the world is to eventually realize that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy. And that once you let them in, some of them can feel good and send you down the long path to leaving everything you’ve ever known. That’s terrifying, and it’s what seems to be driving Nicki here, as she mourns the daughter that is more her than her ex-husband and even bursts into tears at the sight of Sarah and Scott as they wed, seemingly young and in love and everything she can never be now.
It’s also worth pointing out that this push-pull is affecting Barb and Margie, two characters who have basically nothing to do with the compound at this point. Bill’s big decision to run for state office (against the anti-polygamy Tom Amandes) is one that sends repercussions out through everyone he touches, but it has the most impact on Barb and Margie. Barb’s been slowly feeling her way toward confronting how she can love the family she has but also regret giving up the one she had before Bill married Nicki, and now, she’s placed in the unenviable position of again lying to everyone she meets about the fact that her husband only has one wife, forced to be the very public Henrickson wife yet again. And Margie, who’s been kind of an afterthought throughout the series’ run, has found herself in a very successful business, where she looks to clear $100,000 for the year (in a recession that’s affected the “Big Love” characters, no less). It can’t be stated just how thoroughly Bill’s decision to run for office crystallizes and sharpens everything that’s happening so far in this season of “Big Love.” Even Nicki’s struggle to mourn her dead father is sharpened by the fact that she’s trying to position her husband to be the next prophet, not just a state senator.
But, at the same time, even if being a part of something like the Henrickson family or Juniper Creek can result in losing your own self-identity, leaving you grasping for it desperately, there’s a certain calm and peace to it, a certain pride of place. And that’s what “Big Love” hammers home in that final scene, Scott and Sarah’s wedding, improbably presided over by a justice of the peace in the Henrickson backyard. Sarah’s path is taking her inexorably away from the life she’s been raised in, away from the principle and even away from Mormonism in general. She’s not sure she can believe anymore, but she’s still somehow able to be a part of a family that exists only because of how hard it believes. And that’s, ultimately, the thing that makes this family work, even as it seems like it can’t possibly do so. These people all love each other. They all want the best for each other. It’s just that the best, sometimes, is something that will tear them away.
Some other thoughts:
*** I could honestly go on for many, many words about this show, but I’m trying to keep it under 1,500 words to keep these pretty readable. If you want longer pieces, please let me know!
***If I generally am willing to cut the show some slack in its Juniper Creek plots, I’m less forgiving of the stuff about the battle for leadership of the UEB, which is what seems to have brought Zeljko Ivanek on the show, for the most part. The arcane politics of who gets to be the prophet are rarely intriguing, and I hope the show resolves this sooner, rather than later. (That said, some friends came up with a great game called, “Name a TV Show Zeljko Ivanek Hasn’t Guest-Starred On,” which is sort of the inverse of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Though it needs a snappier name.)
*** That cut from Nicki’s tear-streaked face to the credits is one of my favorite-r cuts to black of the TV season so far.
***Congratulations to Chloe Sevigny on her Golden Globe win. Richly deserved!
A question to get you talking: What the hell is up with JJ? (I mean physically, though you can sure speculate otherwise as well.)