‘Big Love’: Reviewing the series finale

A review of the “Big Love” series finale coming up just as soon as I name my impractical little car…

In the closing scene of the “Big Love” series finale, we see the three widows of Bill Henrickson each fulfilled in her own way: Barb as the leader of the church Bill founded before his murder, Margene as a globe-trotting humanitarian aid worker, and Nicki as the nurturing head of the household. Barb turns to eldest daughter Sarah and says, “Your father made this possible.”

It’s a nice sentiment, and the Henrickson women do seem very happy in this moment, but all I could think was, “Bill made this possible by dying.” Because a living, breathing, preaching Bill Henrickson had been shown pretty clearly over five seasons of “Big Love” to be an utter cancer to his family: myopic and petulant and manipulative and self-righteous and constantly causing pain, large and small, to the three women who had chosen to be his wives. That they’ve all finally come into their own and learned to co-exist peacefully without the usual tension and jealousy is something that only could have happened once Bill left the picture.

Bill’s destructive effect on his loved ones was clear to me as a viewer of the show for a very long time, and it was clear to many other viewers of the series. I’m just not sure if that was ever what creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer intended us to think of Bill, and the finale left things very muddled in that regard.

Those who came to the finale expecting some kind of great emotional comeuppance for Bill had to leave feeling disappointed. Yes, Bill gets shot and killed, but his assailant is a fairly minor character (frustrated, divorcing neighbor Carl) whose reason for hating Bill is pretty low on the list of the beefs other characters have with the guy. And in dying, Bill is spared the indignities of a trial, and time in prison, and having to live each day knowing of the public humiliation he had brought upon himself and his family. In his dying moments, Bill finally comes to accept that Barb was right to insist that women should be allowed to be priests in his new church, but in every other way his death is treated as a great tragedy and the death of a great man, who was never successfully challenged by anyone – not his wives, not his fellow politicians, not a group of reporters from some of the biggest newspapers in the country(*) – throughout the finale.

(*) Epic fail by the representatives of the New York Times, Washington Post, et al, in coming into a room with the Henricksons and just letting Bill, Nicki and company stay on message throughout. I went into that scene hoping we would see Bill’s various hypocrisies and rationalizations picked apart by a few smart reporters with an outsider’s perspective on things. Nope.

No, Bill makes various big speeches, gets hundreds of new followers to his church, then dies for such an incredibly stupid reason that there’s no way to view that scene and think, “Oh, he had it coming.”

After the closing credits rolled (featuring Natalie Maines covering The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” the show’s theme song from its original, far superior opening title sequence), HBO ran a teaser for an online making-of feature about the finale, which included Ginnifer Goodwin saying of the episode, “I love that we’re proving this family right.”

Now, that may just be her perspective, and not that of the creators. After all, actors tend to identify with their characters – actors who play villains are taught to see things from a perspective where they believe they’re really the hero of the piece – and I can see the performers who have spent five years inhabiting the lives of the Henricksons wanting to believe that they were all good people, this was a good family unit, and everything was okay in the end.

But virtually all of the finale played out along the lines Goodwin suggests. Bill was a good man, his church a good idea, his family unit a wonderful thing, his death a tragedy. And while the things he put his wives through did help build character – as Barb tells Sarah in that final scene, “We’re strong. We’ve been forged. We endure.” – there were probably better ways to go about doing that.

The one scene that felt like the Bill Henrickson I knew for the past five seasons came in a visit to the nursing home to see his senile mother Lois. It’s a bad day for Lois, who physically fights back when Bill tries to get her to wear her old Easter bonnet, but he keeps pushing it on her until she placidly gives in. Then he pulls her over to a mirror to show her what he thinks is a perfect mother-son picture, only for Lois to be horrified by what she’s really seeing (and by the fact that she no longer recognizes her own reflection).

That was Bill for the run of “Big Love”: pushing, prodding and manipulating to get what he wanted, frequently in extreme denial of the reality that was right in front of his face, smiling blandly throughout.

After two sloppy, ill-conceived final seasons of the show, all I really wanted from the finale was to see Bill finally forced to see the error of his ways. And while giving Barb the priesthood is no small thing for a man who was so aggressively, obnoxiously paternalistic, it also didn’t feel like nearly enough.

If you went into the finale with more affection for Bill, and/or the series, perhaps you were more touched by it all. (Though before Bill’s grandstanding at the state Senate meeting, it was a fairly listless hour.) But ultimately, the show I wanted “Big Love” to be apparently wasn’t the show Olsen and Scheffer were making. I can see that quite vividly now.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com