HBO // 2011 // 600 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // December 6th, 2011
Everything comes to light.
In the beginning, Big Love was a thoughtful drama about relationships and religion, with the unusual hook of a family with three wives. As the seasons rolled on, it became more of a three-ring circus. Characters careened out of the boundaries of believability or likability as the writers crammed more and more outlandish plots into progressively shorter seasons. Starting this fifth and final season, I was sure I was in for more of the same and was mostly proven right. But something of a TV miracle occurs near the end, as so rarely happens to flagging series: Big Love: The Complete Fifth Season picks itself up, dusts off, and ends with some real grace and dignity.
When we last left our characters, newly elected Utah State Senator Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, Twister) has just outed his polygamist family, making his acceptance speech with three spouses by his side: first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct), second wife Nicki (Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry), and third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, Once Upon a Time). However, Bill's victory in the election could not erase the many tensions in the family's marriage that grew during the chaotic campaign. Bill has bonds to mend not just with his wives, but also with his longtime business partner/sidekick, Don (Joel McKinnon Miller, Las Vegas), and his eldest son, Ben (Douglas Smith, Blast from the Past). There are great threats to the family from without, too, especially from Alby (Matt Ross, American Horror Story), the new leader at the corrupt polygamist compound Juniper Creek.
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Five.
* "Winter" -- The family tries to hold things together in the fallout from Bill's big announcement, but Bill's employees and constituents are barking mad, Margene's career and green card marriage are both kaput, and the kids are getting bullied at school (a matter Nicki deals with in her own special way).
Margene, after being scolded for swearing at a school board meeting: "Why are you yelling at me? Nicki beat up a kid!"
* "A Seat at the Table" -- As Bill tries to mediate between the
polygamist compounds and the state, each of his wives goes through a personal
struggle: Barb searches for community and a renewed connection with her mother,
Nicki has doubts about how to raise Cara Lynn, and Margene worries about losing
Ana and Goran.
Margene: "You're putting your eggs in a leaky basket. I'm sinking, Bill."
* "Certain Poor Shepherds" -- It's a less-than-merry Christmas at the Henrickson house as the family deals with grandma Lois' dementia, grandma Adaleen's depression, Barb's growing unease with gender relations in her marriage, and a bombshell Margene drops on the fragile family.
Bill, on his romantic Christmas gift of handguns to his three wives: "I thought they'd be fun."
* "The Oath"
As Bill's contentious swearing in to the Senate approaches, the family fights about Margene's revelation that she was sixteen when Bill married her. Cara Lynn grieves about her father's death and gets a visit from her cousin Verlan, whose new bride is an old nemesis for the Henricksons: Rhonda.
Barb: "Maybe polygamy can change. Maybe women can be more empowered."
* "The Special Relationship"
Bill and Barb need to get divorced so that Bill can marry Nicki to legally adopt Cara Lynn, but the just-on-paper act threatens larger implications because of the tension in the marriage. Bill's business partner, Don, has an attempt made on his life.
Margene, as the LDS church threatens the family: "Does anyone ever wish we just lived in Houston?"
Bill feels his religion is under attack from without and within as the LDS church puts out a proclamation that targets him, and Barb draws a line in the sand about women being able to hold the priesthood. Cara Lynn kisses her math teacher and Ben has an equally unwise make-out session.
Don: "What's going on with us here, Bill? No one's ever tried to kill me before."
* "Til Death Do Us Part"
Nicki strives to make her legal marriage to Bill an event rather than a mere pragmatic action. Ben rebounds from getting dumped by sleeping with Rhonda. Surprise, surprise: he regrets it.
Bill: "We're dangling over an abyss."
* "The Noose Tightens"
Statutory rape is cropping up all over the place as Bill faces serious charges for knockin' boots with sixteen-year-old Margene and Cara Lynn's romance with her thirty-seven-year-old math teacher is uncovered.
Alby: "It is time for that insolent suburban shopkeeper to go."
Violent and crazed, Alby is on the run from the law and still trying to fulfill a vendetta against Bill. As the wives try to figure out what they'll do if Bill goes to prison, Nicki drives Cara Lynn to a breaking point with shame.
Nicki: "I didn't think this household could handle another statutory rape."
* "Where Men and Mountains Meet"
Sinking under the weight of his arrest for statutory rape and his mounting marital problems with Barb, Bill decides to go big with his last session on the Senate floor and the Easter Sunday service at his church. Barb plans to be baptized at a different church, Nicki seeks reconciliation with Cara Lynn, and Margene contemplates an act she sees as selfless and her family sees as selfish.
Bill: "If we're going down, we're going down in flames."
Viewers who were annoyed with the increasingly outlandish, soap opera nature of Big Love in Season Four will find plenty to stoke those flames of irritation in Season Five. By the same token, any who loved that turn to the absurd will be pleased to see the show continue on that course. I was among the annoyed, and kept feeling that way through most of Season Five as all four spouses endlessly fight with each other like alley cats. It's hard to remember during the relentless stream of bickering that these people are supposed to share a pure love for each other in this life and in celestial eternity, and that's not a good thing for the viewer to feel.
Continuing a proud tradition of writing great female characters and then suddenly ruining them, as they did with Barb temporarily in Season Three, Big Love now sets about withering the audience's fondness for Margene. The truly interesting plot of her relationship with Ana and Goran -- which offered the possibility of a different kind of multi-partner relationship to which she might actually be better suited -- is quickly abandoned in Season Five. Instead of exploring that path, the writers decide to make Margene suddenly really into Mormonism and to have her fall for a pyramid scheme. There are enough characters on this show who are devoutly Mormon. What was always compelling about Margene was that she was a not-very-religious woman who didn't seem to care much about The Principle and just genuinely loved these three people, so the religious epiphany story feels misguided, and the Goji Blast pyramid scheme plot just makes her look like a fool. Yes, it is consistent with Margene's optimism and trusting nature, but having the writers continually remind us that this endearing character is rather stupid (not to mention that she is inadvertently preying on the women she gets to sign up below her) isn't a great thing.
I've never been a fan of Bill, but his behavior in the Senate now that he's been elected mostly confirms that his character -- apparently the hero of our show -- is kind of an awful person, as we learned during his campaign in Season Four. Sure, he's got his Safety Net program to help oppressed women on the compounds, but he also uses his power to threaten or bribe others (including the attorney general) and tells a fellow senator that if he doesn't get what he wants he'll turn the Senate session into a circus all about his polygamy and they won't get anything done. What a good public servant that Bill Henrickson is. I sure do hope he gets reelected.
And then there's that crazy nativity tableau vivant at the end of "Certain Poor Shepherds." Why, oh why, would a polygamist family that is the target of a hostile press and public and that has just had the worst Christmas ever pose in a giant diorama of the nativity scene on their front lawn as a stream of cars rolls by to gawk at them and snap photos?
Even early in the season, Big Love balances out its silliness with a few excellent elements. As we've come to expect, the three lead actresses still manage to, shall we say, make lemonade when the writers give them lemons. Tripplehorn, Sevigny, and Goodwin are all consistently compelling to watch, even when their storylines are not. Goodwin often shows her talent through unique loveable deliveries of her lines, like this one that she says to Nicki: "People think I'm the sunny face of polygamy. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I smile once in a while." While most actresses would layer that line with sarcasm and gentle accusation, Goodwin spits it out in a more innocent, breathless panic that is simply charming. Sevigny's has plenty of great deliveries herself, but her best accomplishment on the show has been to walk the fine line between Nicki's scheming side and her earnest striving to be better, more loving. There's a great summation of that series-long internal battle in the final episode as she shares her worries with a frank-but-fully-compassionate Barb:
Nicki: "I don't have one ounce of the milk of human kindness in me. I'm
spiteful and jealous and mean."
Barb: "I know."
Nicki: "No, I really am."
Barb: "I know."
Tripplehorn gets a well-deserved reward with the best storyline of the season going to her long-suffering character, Barb. When she suddenly became obsessed with having more babies and devoutly following Bill with The Principle in Season Three, I worried that the strong, independent, critical thinker Barb of earlier in the show was gone. In Season Five, that character comes roaring back as Barb finally makes a sustained exploration of what she wants from life and her family. Her newly formed and fiercely felt conviction that women, too, can be hold the priesthood challenges the Mormon faith and Bill's new church directly, setting up an engaging struggle that spans the season. One of my favorite moments from the series comes in the final episode when Barb rolls up to the houses in a new convertible, having traded in her old clunker station wagon in a symbolic gesture to do something that's just for herself. As the walls are tumbling down around their family and the future looks bleaker than ever, the three wives get in and just drive. It's a rare joyous moment in the midst of crushing despair, and a moment of expansive, big-sky freedom for three women whose lives are usually so cloistered.
That scene and so much more gives Big Love a surprisingly strong finish as a series. The last three episodes manage to recapture the emotion and genuine excitement the series had early on and lost in its long decline. Alby's homicidal turn was earned through many years of buildup with his character and infuses the later episodes with a real sense of physical danger. Bill's statutory rape case also dishes out just the right kind of drama at this point in the series: a calamitous mess for the Henricksons that feels realistic and makes us sympathize with them. For once, Bill is in hot water that he didn't light the fire under himself (at least not knowingly). That goes a long way toward helping the audience sympathize with him again and puts him more firmly on the road to the redemption that the show's writers wanted for him at its end.
Bill achieves that redemption as much as his character could as "Where Men and Mountains Meet" brings the series to a close. After his Easter Sunday sermon that unites hundreds of closeted polygamists in his church and gives him a epiphany about the primacy of family, a tranquil Bill escapes his impending prison sentence by getting fatally shot. That his attacker is not a Juniper Creek assassin or a rabid anti-polygamy crusader provides a nice touch of irony without feeling random and contrived. We've seen his neighbor, Carl, gradually lose his marbles during the season as unemployment and marital problems exacerbated by the Henricksons drive him to the edge. A neighborly kindness from Bill emasculates Carl enough to push him over it. As one of the creators explains about Carl and the reason he snaps, "It's really hard to be a good Mormon. The faith, the religion, has such exacting standards for human behavior."
Maybe killing Bill off in the final moments seems like an easy way out to some viewers, but I found it to be just the right balance of consequences and redemption. There have been so many people wanting Bill dead for so many years, he's done so many dangerous and unethical things, and he's tangled in such a deep web of trouble that a traditional happy ending for Bill just wouldn't feel right. Instead, he gets a really beautifully executed death scene as Barb, Nicki, and Margene find him bleeding to death in the street. Looking up at his three wives as their faces blur and the sunlight streams from behind them, Bill makes a powerful parting gesture of compassion and connection as he asks Barb for a blessing -- a last act that affirms the status as a priesthood holder that she has claimed and all season, despite his angry rejections. This act of provides a true redemption for a character who has done some very dark and selfish things.
As for the set itself, Big Love: The Complete Fifth Season includes four discs in slim keep cases, with extras spread among them. Sound quality is good, but the image -- as in previous releases -- is surprisingly poor for an HBO production. While a somewhat dingy look is justified by the show's chosen color palette, there is no excuse for the persistent and noticeable compression artifacts that mar the picture.
HBO has not generally included many extras with its Big Love sets, but we get just a bit more with Season Five. The "Inside the Episode" featurettes give creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer 3-5 minutes per episode to comment on that week's themes and scenes. Not everything they say is that illuminating, but there are plenty of fun tidbits mixed in. Olsen, for example, explains that "Certain Poor Shepherds" was inspired by the Nebraska family Christmases that he had Scheffer (his business and life partner) endure each year. They also admit that Bill "in audiences' eyes, took a lot more hits than we intended" in Season Four and that they tried hard to redeem him a bit in the fifth. Disc One includes a recap of Seasons 1-4, and Disc Four offers up a 25-minute reflection on the series, "Big Love: The End of Days." This look back includes interviews with the four lead performers and the two creators, providing fun details about how the show was conceived and cast, as well as segments about each of the main characters.
Like pulling off a genuinely felt deathbed conversion just before the last breath, Big Love -- like its protagonist -- goes out on a note of redemption, almost making us forget all the sins that have come before.
(Just barely) not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 600 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site