We open the fifth and final season of “Big Love” (Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO) with the whole world mad at Bill Henrickson, who outed himself as a polygamist at the end of last season. His new colleagues in the state Senate view him as radioactive and try various measures to boot him out of office. The employees at his chain of hardware stores feel betrayed by the man who talks so much about family values. A constituent spits on him, one of his sons is bullied at school for having three moms, and his wives – none of whom wanted any part of this political campaign, nor of coming out of the closet – find themselves just as hated as Bill.
And that feels like an appropriate place to start, given that the fans of “Big Love” were as mad about the fourth season as the people of Utah are about Bill.
“Big Love” season four was a disaster on virtually every level: too many stories stuffed into too few episodes, ridiculous plot twists (the trip to Mexico, pretty much everything involving Zeljko Ivanek’s character), and Bill further cementing his place as an all-time irritating lead drama character. It was so bad that even co-star Chloe Sevigny dismissed it in an interview as “awful” and “very telenovela.”(*)
(*) That she later made a shameful attempt to blame the reporter for those words, and that the “Big Love” producers themselves made a ridiculous lie last week in claiming she was drunk at a party when she said it, shouldn’t take away what she originally said. Given how stage-managed and buttoned-down most actors are when it comes to discussing their shows, “Big Love” season four had to be pretty damn terrible for Sevigny to admit it like that.
This final season takes some steps in the right direction away from the disaster of season four. I’m just not sure it takes enough of those steps.
Where season four suffered from sprawl, the first three episodes of the new season focus primarily on Bill (Bill Paxton) and wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Where Bill blithely ran amok last season, ignoring the concerns of friends and family in pursuit of his vision of going public, here he’s scolded at nearly every turn. His best friend Don (Joel McKinnon Miller), who took the fall for Bill in an early campaign scandal yet still stuck by him, is speaking for every character and every viewer when he tells Bill, “You have to get used to the fact that your actions, rightly or wrongly, hurt others.”
Even the wives, who have largely suffered Bill’s oblivious narcissism in silence, finally begin bonding with each other over their hatred of it. As Christmas approaches, they swap stories of various inconsiderate gifts he’s given them, and Margene notes, “He got me a scale – when I was pregnant.”
The problem is that while the show and the characters are now very much aware of how insufferable Bill’s become, Bill himself is only intermittently aware. There are moments where he briefly seems to recognize how much he’s hurt everyone around him, but then he inevitably goes back to being a horse’s ass.
And while cable TV often does well for itself in with shows about inflexible, unchanging anti-heroes, Bill Henrickson – as written, and as played by Bill Paxton – has never proven to be a compelling enough character for me to be able to overlook just how much I hate him. Tony Soprano was a monster who talked about changing but clearly never wanted to do it, but David Chase and James Gandolfini made me want to watch him in spite of that. Ditto Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” or even Edie Falco as “Nurse Jackie.” With Tony Soprano, you understood why people were drawn to him, why he was able to rise to the level of power that he had. With Bill, I’m often left wondering how he was able to keep one wife, let alone three. And that’s a huge stumbling block for the show. There’s a scene in the season premiere where Bill again seems completely blind to the ramifications of his actions, and as I watched it, I said to myself, “Bill doesn’t get it, he’ll never get it, so why am I watching?”
Mainly, I’m watching for the performances by Tripplehorn, Goodwin and, to a lesser extent, Sevigny. (Nicki’s a problematic character herself, though the show does some interesting things with her this year, now that she’s finally divorced herself from the teachings of her polygamist cult leader father, mother and brother.) They get some fine moments in this season, just enough to keep me around through all the things that frustrate me.
Season five is a definite improvement on season four, but only to a point. There aren’t as many different stories rattling around, but the show’s still so crowded that it has to bounce from scene to scene, subplot to subplot, so quickly that very little gets a chance to breathe. There’s a scene in the third episode where Bill takes the family ice skating, and when it’s time for a couples skate, he insists on circling the rink with all three wives, even as the crowd pauses to gawk at them. It’s a potentially great moment, and one that ideally would play out over a minute or two as we just focus on the faces of these three women and see the emotions wash over their faces as the man they’re not sure they love anymore turns them into a spectacle. Instead, the episode cuts away to a different storyline after only a few seconds, because there simply isn’t the time to give anything the proper time and attention.
That’s a metaphor for Bill’s life, I suppose, but it doesn’t make for satisfying viewing a lot of the time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For those wondering, my approach to blogging about “Big Love” this season will be roughly what it’s been for the last couple of years, and also the way I treat “Dexter” and “True Blood” and a couple of other shows where my passion level doesn’t match the readership’s. If I’ve seen an episode in advance, I’ll put up a quick post that maybe has an opinion or two but is mainly an excuse for y’all to discuss it. If I don’t see it in advance but get to it not long after airing, I’ll do the same. If I’m backlogged, no post. And if an episode stands out in some way (good or bad) that invites a longer commentary from me, then that’s what I’ll do.