A house divided

Of the many great television dramas of the last decade, from The Sopranos to Mad Men, only three HBO series approached the half-kept promises and intrinsic hypocrisies of our American republic with a radical fundamentalism. Deadwood told us how the West was really won: by strongmen and expedient compromises that passed for progress. The Wire explored the consequences of two centures of American pragmatism, greed, and racism through robbers who were every bit as nuanced and sympathetic as the cops, and cops who were equally trapped by circumstances out of their control.

The third show in this historical media intervention? Big Love, of course, which began its fourth season Sunday with the hysteria-fueled blend of thwarted desire and impending doom that made the first three so irresistible: The prophet’s in the walk-in freezer, the FBI is circling, and Bill’s Blackfoot casino partners are getting cold feet. Also: Nicki has kidnapped her once-abandoned daughter, and Alby is exploring his long-repressed sexuality in the park hedges.

The natural female-to-male ratio of Big Love’s premise — a progressive polygamist family struggles for acceptance in modern-day Utah — plays perfectly into the soap-opera paradigm: women fighting over prestige, territory, and sex with tragicomic results. Troublesome extended-family members (some of them with secret compounds south of the border!), generations-deep grudges, and alliances that shift with the breeze also come standard with polygamy, making for endless melodrama magic. Just combine and shake. Naturally, because it’s a nighttime soap, Big Love indulges in its fair share of irritating tropes. Most of the female characters are just this side of the nuthouse, the closeted gay man is a sadomasochist, and the costuming is atrocious. But if you condemn the show for its weekly doses of gender-stereotyped loopiness — in the season opener, Bill’s sociopathic parents renew their homicidal vows, and Nicki is enraged that her sister wives know she’s not getting any — you’re choking on the wrong affront.

When I first started watching Big Love, about halfway through season one, I was appalled that three intelligent, attractive women would happily kowtow to a middling burgher who clearly loves playing “head of household” (and looks a lot like a flounder when he grimaces, which is often). Sure, in Nicki’s case it makes some sense: She’s the daughter of Roman Grant, the prophet of Juniper Creek — a character modeled on Warren Jeffs and played with maddening ambiguity by Harry Dean Stanton — for whom a polygamous marriage outside the compound is a big step up, both in fashion and personal autonomy. But first-wife Barb enjoyed a normal monogamous marriage with compound refugee Bill before a cancer scare led them to bring in Nicki; and Margene, the youngest wife, was a buxom young babysitter, raised sort-of Catholic, who never left.

Gradually, though, I began to respect Bill Paxton’s portrayal of Bill Henrickson, which occasionally suggests that all this talk of Heavenly Father and the Principle may just be a self-aggrandizing cover for a fresh lay whenever the opportunity arises — especially in Season Three, when Ana the Serbian waitress shows up. Turns out pretty much the whole family wants this sexy new member, though; and whose hopes are most dashed when Ana decides she can’t handle the four-way politics? Barb, whom Ana made feel “normal.”

But long before Ana broke the family’s collective heart, cracks were showing: No, Big Love wasn’t going to sidestep the issue of forced underage marriage and the damage it does to young women — most of all Nicki, a venomous, conscience-challenged soul who backstabs family members an average of three times per episode. Nicki, like her brother Alby, could have been a one-note caricature, but Chloë Sevigny brings to the role a pent-up desperation that makes her the most sympathetic character on the show. Nicki cuts to the core of Big Love’s challenge to America’s idea of itself: Born into slavery, she is now half-free, and following flirtations with independence in Season Three (contraception, an almost-affair) is pining for more, even as her sister wives, born nominally free, fight for the right to practice their retro religion. The radical constitutional question Big Love poses is this: Shouldn’t all consenting adults — assuming they are consenting adults — be able to form the families they choose, free of legal harassment and discrimination? It’s a challenge equally to non-Mormon Christians who would claim America for themselves, and feminists who refuse to believe that some women might find contentment in a religion and lifestyle that appears to relegate them to second-class status.

What makes Big Love a great show, rather than great propaganda, though, is that it sticks to its narrative guns, not to a thesis. With Roman dead, this season Bill will be tempted to return to the compound and challenge Alby for his stolen birthright. He’s already started his own family church, and lately when he’s not talking up the casino, he’s delivering irritating ad-hoc homilies at a third-grade reading level. The costs of choosing polygamy are mounting for Barb, the family’s centripetal force: She’s been excommunicated from the mainstream Mormon church, she’s estranged from her mother and sister, and distanced from her daughter. For Margene, though, an orphan who is clearly thrilled to have found the family she always wanted, the more the merrier. Her love is as big as it comes, but it looks like this season, finally, it might not be enough.

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