The third season of HBO’s acclaimed Big Love drew to a close recently, a season that easily contained some of the hour drama’s best work. From its beginning, Big Love has masterfully represented an uneasy duality in its polarised representations of polygamy; juxtaposing the disturbing eeriness of the Juniper Creek compound alongside the best intentions of the Henrickson’s, trying to live their Mormon faith in the suburbs. Increasingly, these worlds are encroaching on each other, and the line between fundamentalist and mere follower becomes progressively blurred as good people do bad things.
Big Love takes the backdrop of Mormonism or adherence to the faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), and explores the intricacies and conflicts that arise in the Henrickson family from trying to practice their faith through a long abandoned (and illegal) former principle of LDS: polygamous marriage. Bill (Bill Paxton) and Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorne) have two other wives or sister-wives, Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), and a whole tribe of children living in three houses side by side in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. Big Love deals with issues not only of faith, but of love, family, and of morality through the lives of the Henrickson’s and their extended families, allowing a true insight in to the workings of Mormonism, LDS, the outlawed practice of Polygamy, and indeed, of human interaction itself.
The importance of casting in television can be the difference between a good show and a great show; if you’re looking for an example of exquisite casting, Big Love is like a master-class. Performances are consistently exceptional, even from supporting players, and the leads are continually inspiring. Bill Paxton, whom I normally have no love for, seems perfectly placed as the patriarchal glue of the Henrickson clan, providing for, guiding their faith and ensuring their smooth passing in to the Celestial Kingdom.
During season three, we witness the trial of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) for the atrocities he propagated during his rein as prophet of Juniper Creek, most notably the rape of young girls whom he ‘sealed’ (married) to older men. During the trial, Nicki is torn between the love and sense of belonging she feels for her new family, and the sense of duty and obligation she feels for her father, Roman, whom she still believes to be the true prophet. Using a fake name she takes a job in the district attorney’s office, and from the inside she knowingly betrays her new family, delivering information to her mother and father on the developments of the prosecution and on the witnesses that would be called. During Nicki’s time at the DA’s office, she begins to realise the depth of devastation her father caused so many young women. Whilst looking through the Joy Books—pages of photographs of young women including stats on their height, weight and other physical features, which would be used by the men of the compound to select their next wife—Nicki comes face to face with her young self. At the trial her disdain becomes evident, and she shows it by pushing her father down a flight of stairs. She doesn’t, however, reveal her true identity and testify against her father; instead allowing him to walk free. In the final episodes of the season we learn that Nicki was sealed to an older man at age 13, and gave birth to the man’s child at age 15. In the season finale, this child, Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson), comes to live with the Henricksons. Chloë Sevigny shows unparalleled depth and range through this arc of inner turmoil and divided alliances.
Episode 6, ‘Come, Ye Saints’, is the most inspired episode of the season. The entire clan takes a road trip across country to historical sites in LDS history, culminating in attendance of the Hill Cumorah Pageant depicting the birth and history of Mormonism. During the road trip, several important story points are revealed and dealt with; namely, Nicki’s use of birth control pills, Bill’s use of Viagra, Ben’s (Douglas Smith) crush on Margene, and most importantly, Sarah’s (Amanda Seyfried) pregnancy. Sarah’s character development has always been important to the show; her perpetual struggle with her parent’s decision to begin a polygamous life—which began only when Barb was battling with cancer and feared she would die and leave her children without a mother—serves almost as a refuge for audience members who may at times struggle with the unfamiliar and controversial religion they are asked to immerse themselves in. Sarah has actively betrayed her parents faith, a faith she is not sure she supports or believes. During season two, she began attending support group meetings for ex-Mormons, where she met Scott, the future father of her child. Sarah hides her pregnancy from her parents (and Scott), and struggles with the decision of whether to abort, adopt, or keep her child. Although she may not support her parents’ interpretation of Mormonism, she has still been raised with the teachings of LDS and is certain abortion is not an option falling within her own moral compass. But the thought of giving away her child is also unbearable. She decides to keep her baby, yet during the ill-fated road trip, she suffers a miscarriage, and it is Nicki who consoles and supports her. Nicki convinces her that she needs to tell her family, and of course, although disappointed in her actions and betrayal of her faith, they nurture Sarah in her loss. Amanda Seyfried as Sarah shows great maturity and strength; her expression of grief and sorrow is profound.
Bill also suffers a crisis of faith during the road trip, expressed through several instances along the way. During a disagreement with an LDS member in Carthage Jail (the site of the death of LDS founder Joseph Smith), Bill fails to defend the practice of polygamy, a notion he clearly believes in. Later, he similarly fails to defend the beliefs of his religion when confronted by a Baptist Minister who questions the validity of the teachings of LDS, and finally, on his knees at Hill Cumorah, he pleads with the Lord for guidance. He feels ‘lost’ and ‘foresaken’ by the Lord, and has ‘never been so worried for his family’ in this time during the trial, the uncertainty of his Casino business venture, and in light of Nicki’s use of birth control, an action representative of ultimate defiance of their faith’s beliefs.
Season three also saw the excommunication of Barb from the LDS church when she is outed as a polygamist, the devastating death of Kathy (Mireille Enos) at the hands of Roman, and the equally shattering actions of Joey (Shawn Doyle), who ensured that Roman got what he deserved. Big Love’s third season, through its impeccable writing and execution, served as a remarkable representation of what truly great television can be; thought provoking, challenging, daring, heart breaking, enlightening and inspiring, all in one season. It may be a drama about religion, but at its heart it is really a drama about family, and the sacrifices we make to ensure our family’s happiness. Big Love season three is available for pre-order from Amazon.com.