God also told Judge Jennifer Malkowski that she should have three wives—and that she should spend all her money on video games and eat as many cookies as she wants.
Our reviews of Big Love: The Complete First Season (published October 25th, 2006), Big Love: The Complete Third Season (published January 18th, 2010), Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 19th, 2011), and Big Love: The Complete Fifth Season (published December 6th, 2011) are also available.
Margene: "You know how they say everyone has a soulmate? Well, so far, I've found three."
***Spoiler Alert!*** I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Two.
Big Love's first season was marketed under the rather feeble premise that having three wives was tougher than we might think. Since that hypothesis could be proven about wives (or husbands) in about five minutes of screen time, it's fortunate and unsurprising that the series is actually quite complex—both emotionally and dramatically. Though Big Love: The Complete Second Season is perhaps a shade too busy and overdone, Big Love remains a compelling series about the gray areas of religion, morality, and family life.
Facts of the Case
Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, Twister) is living the polygamist version of the American dream in Utah, with his own business, a bunch of kids, and three wives in three connecting houses. In this season, he continues to battle with "the prophet" of his former sect, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, Wild at Heart), who runs things at "the compound," Juniper Creek. This time, they fight over the rights to buy Weber Gaming, a company that sells video poker machines.
Meanwhile, Bill's first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct), tries to recover from being "outed" as a polygamist at last season's Mother of the Year award ceremony and thinks about going back to school. Second wife Nicki (Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry) struggles to maintain relationships with her Juniper Creek family while remaining loyal to the Henricksons. Third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, Mona Lisa Smile) manages her pregnancy and continues to act as the general peacekeeper of the family.
But with four total spouses, the family members really add up on this show and there are lots more! Eldest children Ben (Douglas Smith, CSI) and Sarah (Amanda Seyfried, Veronica Mars) both approach their parents' values differently when they try to navigate their own romantic relationships. Bill's brother, Joey (Shawn Doyle, The Majestic), tries to support his unstable wife and thinks about taking on another. And Bill's mother, Lois (Grace Zabriskie, Twin Peaks), gets involved in a money laundering scheme that draws the attention of her no-good husband, Frank (Bruce Dern, Coming Home).
• "The Writing on the Wall"
• "Vision Thing"
• "Dating Game"
• "Kingdom Come"
• "Circle the Wagons"
• "Take Me As I Am"
• "Oh, Pioneers"
Although I've got no problem with non-monogamy, as an atheist and a feminist I approached Big Love with some major apprehensions. After watching the first two seasons, though, I decided that the series takes a pretty even-handed approach to presenting all sides of this type of polygamy—the good, the bad, the spirituality, the hypocrisy, the community of women it creates, and the sexist foundations it rests upon. This balance in tone isn't just a political benefit; it also helps the dramatic structure of the show. Rather than seeing the institution and its practitioners on screen as either monstrous freaks or enlightened saints, we are able to view the Henricksons as flawed people trying to function in a complex arrangement that many of them have doubts about or cannot perfectly maintain. And it is really these flawed people—the interesting characters and the talented actresses and actors who portray them—that make Big Love: The Complete Second Season worth w atching, much more so than the Juniper Creek intrigues and Mormon mafia plot twists.
Relative attitudes toward their arrangement and ability to manage it help define each of the wives and give them all distinct functions on the show. Barb has the most feminist spirit about her, and also the most reservations about their marriage. In the second season, especially, she often plays the role of dissenter among the spouses, as when she strongly questions the morality of getting into the gambling business. When Bill refuses to take her concerns seriously, she chides, "Remember, Bill: there's a patriarch above you. He's called Our Heavenly Father." Even though she leads the wives and is a stabalizing force in the family, she is, in many ways, the wild card among them, always on the verge of pursuing a different life. Tripplehorn, just one of the many exemplary performers in this big fictional family, plays Barb with the perfect combination of strength and weariness, depicting her as a woman who's never quite sure if she should make the best of an imperfect situation, or demand a better one.
Sevigny, also a wonderful casting choice, gets the fun of playing the most villainous wife, Nicki. Always striving to have more power in the family and prone to fits of anger, Nicki is also the wife most accustomed to a polygamous marriage, having grown up in Juniper Creek. She deeply believes in "the principle," but can't help acting as much out of self-interest as out of concern for the whole family. Perhaps her life on the compound also taught her about need for competition among "sister wives." In her more sympathetic moments, though, we realize that Nicki's marriage to Bill has severed her from her family perhaps more traumatically than the other wives because of the continual feuding between the Henricksons and Juniper Creek. We feel for her when she yells at Bill, in a rare display of open insubordination, "I have lost everything that I hold dear to be a member of this family. Why don't you give up something for a change?!?"
Margene appears to be much more of a blank slate than the other wives, having given up very little to join the family and having few major gripes with her position. Though she appears to be just ditzy and agreeable, she actually often exhibits far more emotional sophistication than Barb, Nicki, or Bill. She is the least jealous and the most truly open to what's best for the family. She is the only one of the wives who really seems to see herself as joined with all three of her spouses in an emotional way, as when she pleads with Barb not to leave, confessing, "I don't know if I can be married to Nicki and Bill if I'm not married to you." Her subplot helping Bill court Ana is one of the sweetest and most emotionally complex of the series. Though she doesn't seem to desire Ana sexually, Margene falls head over heels for her all the same and wants to marry her as much as Bill does. When Bill decides against it and drives away from the diner at the end of "Dating Game," it's Margene's heart we feel breaking, not his.
In fact, there are plenty of Bill scenes in which we don't sympathize with Bill. In the second season, he becomes even less likable than in the first, claiming to take care of his family, but actually putting them in a great deal of danger. There's a fine line in Big Love: The Complete Second Season between being an aggressive protector of your loved ones and being greedy and vengeful. Despite misgivings on all sides, Bill pursues ownership of a gambling business that both Roman Grant and Hollis Green, leader of his own little Mormon mafia, are also after. When Bill is threatened with a literal branding by Green, a guy who talks on and on about "blood vengeance," and still tries to manipulate him to get his hands on Weber Gaming, he crosses that fine line and moves into a realm of immorality and hypocrisy. He also conceals the danger from his wives and tries to convince them to support the business deal without all the information. This exchange with his business partner, Don, is one of the reminders of the misogyny involved in this kind of polygamy and one of the many scenes that make Bill a hard character to like:
Bill: "Marriage is not a democracy."
Another such scene is his confrontation with Ben after learning that his oldest son is no longer a virgin. For a man whose marital path is to continue acquiring younger, more attractive wives and add to the number of women he regularly has sex with, this brand of religious sex-negativity and shaming from him rings even falser than usual. At least one of his children, Sarah, sees through his high-morals act. One of the best scenes of the season happens when they dance together at a wedding and Bill tries to give her dating advice. Without a trace of the usual teenage resentment and anger in her voice, the talented Amanda Seyfried delivers these lines with nothing but the sad resignation that comes from having a parent you don't respect:
Sarah: "Dad, how can you expect me to take you seriously?…Do you realize you have no credibility? There's nothing you can say to me about relationships or life that I will ever, ever listen to."
For me, it's the four parents and the oldest kids that keep this show interesting. But there is an awful lot of screen time devoted to Juniper Creek and the ongoing family feuds there. Many of these plots that seem exciting just kind of fizzle out, including Alby's poisoning case, his threats to the Henrickson family, and Green's promised revenge. Who knows what Season Three will bring, but my main complaint about Season Two is that many of Bill's misdeeds and deceptions seem to wrap up a little too neatly at the end of these twelve episodes.
Picture quality on Big Love: The Complete Second Season is up to typical HBO standards, with a nice, clean rendering of the show's warm tones and lighting, creating a safe, homey feeling—even in unsafe times for the Henricksons. Sound quality is fine, though the series' score is rather underwhelming, often lapsing into corny "danger's lurking" music that could be straight out of one of those alarmist Lifetime original movies. Special features are big on quality and low on quantity on this set. All we get are three extras, each under five minutes, but they take the form of unique "prequels" to the series with high production values, strong writing, and nice performances from the four main cast members. In "Post-Partum" (4 minutes), set five years before Season One, Barb visits Nicki in the hospital after Wayne's birth and reassures her about her role in the family.
"Meet the Baby-Sitter" features a great first meeting between Nicki and Margene, whom Bill brings home to be the baby-sitter. Nicki smells trouble immediately, while Margene promises, "Really, I swear, I just want to be the babysitter!" "Who just wants to be a babysitter?!" Nicki counters. An intimidated Margene helplessly responds, "Me?" Finally, a chaotic home life one year prior to the first season in "Moving Day" leads the wives to ask an indignant Bill for three houses.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even though the wives are usually represented as very different, three-dimensional characters, there are points when the show falls back on that aforementioned feeble premise, briefly turning into more of a sitcom about an unusually beleaguered husband. This shot from "Kingdom Come," of three nagging wives rather than one is one example, as are silly lines like Bill's "Well somebody's gotta bring home the bacon…and the bacon and the bacon!"
With a rich cast of characters embodied by a number of brilliant performers, Big Love excels at exploring the emotional nuances of a complex marriage, even where it sometimes fails in its attempts at action, suspense, and intrigue. This earnest question from Nicki is a perfect example of the way the show hooks viewers with its ability to really delve into such an unfamiliar way of thinking about lifetime (and beyond) partnerships:
"I don't know that a marriage based on love can go the distance…it's just random couplings with no purpose or stick-to-it-iveness. I mean, how will we survive the bad times with just love?"
Not guilty in the eyes of Judge Jennifer Malkowski…not sure about in the eyes of God.
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