Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks marriages with more than one wife are a great idea: hers has two, and no husbands.
Our reviews of Big Love: The Complete First Season (published October 25th, 2006), Big Love: The Complete Second Season (published January 2nd, 2008), Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 19th, 2011), and Big Love: The Complete Fifth Season (published December 6th, 2011) are also available.
"Everyone has something to hide."
Opening Statement Everyone does indeed have something to hide in this third season of HBO's impeccably cast polygamy drama Big Love. The problem is that there are a couple of dozen characters, many of them have more than one something to hide, and all this secrecy and betrayal is crammed into a 10-episode season. Appropriately for a show about four spouses and eight kids, there is never a dull moment in this set; but as when you encounter a household with four spouses and eight kids, you might start to wonder how much is too much…
Facts of the Case
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Three.
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's looking to add to both his personal and business holdings: a potential fourth wife, Ana, another child with second wife Nicki (Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry), and a new partnership to run a casino for Mormons. He's also hoping that his on-again, off-again nemesis Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, Wild at Heart)—"the prophet" of Bill's former sect, Juniper Creek—is sent to prison. But Nicki is conspiring against him there, working at the D.A.'s office and smuggling their information on the case to Roman, her father.
Bill's parents and brother still live on Roman's terms at Juniper Creek, where plenty of drama is simmering. His mother Lois (Grace Zabriskie, Twin Peaks) gets exasperated enough to try to kill his father, Frank (Bruce Dern, Coming Home), before Frank kills her. And his brother Joey (Shawn Doyle, The Majestic) is still courting a potential second wife, Kathy (Mireille Enos, Falling Objects), as well as protecting her while she prepares to testify against Roman.
Things are no calmer at Bill's home(s), where first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct) struggles with a possible cancer relapse as well as continuing tensions with her disapproving mother and sister. Third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, Mona Lisa Smile) suffers a death in her family and chafes at being the one stuck at home with the kids every day. Oldest daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia!) finds herself accidentally pregnant.
Big Love: The Complete Third Season provides all 10 episodes, spread across four discs (with bonus features on disc one):
• "Block Party"
• "Prom Queen"
• "On Trial"
• "For Better or Worse"
• "Come, Ye Saints"
• "Fight or Flight"
• "Rough Edges"
• "Outer Darkness
From the start, Big Love has been a series with a strong core story that too often gets buried under a bunch of extra layers of plot, and Season Three is no exception. At that strong core, it's a great family drama with a phenomenal main cast. Here, the writers do a nice job of balancing common marital challenges (faithfulness, honesty, maintaining a good sex life, parenting) with the fascinating problems and advantages of marriages with more than two spouses (extra jealousy, a sense of community, divvying up money and chores, complex deceptions and alliances).
The theme of faithfulness shows off these strengths especially well in Season Three. Many people can relate to Nicki's situation of having a crush at work and letting it go a little too far, but Big Love spins a more complex polygamy-specific web with this theme: Bill betrays his three wives by having premarital sex with Ana while they're dating, Ana calls Bill on his hypocrisy when he blows up after seeing her kiss another man, and Margene has to deal with romantic advances from Barb's son Ben, who is actually not much younger than her.
In addition to these marital storylines, Big Love also shines in its complex and earnest treatment of religion. While that's not a theme I'm naturally drawn to, I've been continuously impressed by the series' even-handed exploration of the faith, goodness, hypocrisy, and greed that can all accompany religious institutions. As much as some of its content might offend hardcore believers, it remains one of the few quality shows on television to delve into religion earnestly.
Big Love's other major strength is its consistently excellent cast, especially the four spouses. Though I often find his character deeply unlikable, Paxton plays the Henricksons' patriarch ably, especially in his willingness to admit that unlikeability and leave Bill open to our criticisms. He also understands that Bill is a person who always believes utterly in his own good intentions, even if we in the audience fault his choices. Asked to play panic mode pretty often in this crisis-laden season, he makes the most of Bill's quieter moments: his demoralization at the destination point of the family's road trip, or his rare bit of active, compassionate parenting to Sarah after her miscarriage.
This season is kind to Sevigny, giving Nicki lots of great emotions to play. This time around, she and the writers really figure out how to render her wrongdoing without too many overtones of villainy. She comes off as a somewhat self-interested person torn between loyalties to two sides of her family, but she also gets some chance at redemption with the interesting subplot about her daughter at the end. Sevigny excels at showing us Nicki's fierceness, and also at comedy. She probably generates the most laughs in Big Love through her bluntness and moments of raw selfishness. When Bill wants her to keep having babies, Nicki suggests, "What about Ana?" Bill balks and says, "We don't marry someone to be a brood mare," to which Nicki earnestly respons "Why not?"
Goodwin's Margene also provides a good share of the season's humor, as when she stumbles to select just the right insult and calls Barb a womanizer, or when she sells her car without Bill's permission. He yells at her to explain why she didn't ask him, to which she replies with her usual bubbly cheerfulness: "Because I knew you would say no. I didn't want to have to disobey you and go ahead and do it anyway behind your back." Though Margene's character arc lacks direction in Season Three, Goodwin keeps her a strong focus of our attention through her charming optimism and steady open-heartedness.
While the talented Tripplehorn does all she can with what she's been given, Barb really draws the short straw on storylines this season. Previously the most feminist of the spouses and the most willing to question Bill and his polygamist "principle," she is unfortunately transformed into a wife who's obsessed with having babies, ultra-critical of her daughter's lack of chastity, eager to add another wife to the marriage, and newly fervent about her Mormonism. Her brief cancer scare at the beginning feels like a strained and calculated effort to justify all these changes (for the worse). She does still get a few nice, lighter character moments, as when she casually substitutes "blankity-blank" for swear words, or in this laugh-out-loud exchange with Nicki about birth control pills:
Nicki: "I got addicted, I couldn't stop."
Cast members in smaller roles also impress, especially Seyfried, Stanton, and Enos in the tragic role of Kathy. It looks like this was Stanton's last season, and he's just as good as always playing the manipulative false prophet, Roman Grant. The writers send him off with a great line in the final episode, and one that Bill seems to take to heart: "You have to take authority from God. I took it. I made myself."
What seems to be Big Love's Achilles heel in every season, especially this one, is that it's got a confidence problem. Instead of leaning fully on the strong core elements mentioned above, the writers try to hedge their bets by throwing in a bunch of superfluous drama, intrigue, and action. In this shorter 10-episode season, that practice is especially irritating. Why does the show transform into a police procedural in the final few episodes with a drawn-out kidnapping plot, for example? And do we really need a multi-episode subplot about Lois abducting, torturing, and attempting to kill Frank? Other more interesting subplots get crowded out and simply disappear without much warning, including cousin Frankie, and Ben's declaration of love to Margene.
Luckily, the technical quality of Big Love: The Complete Third Season is less spotty than the narrative quality. Other than some minor traces of compression, the visuals look excellent, showcasing the rich, warm colors of the Henrickson homes and the flatter, dustier palette of Juniper Creek. Sound quality is crisp and audible, mostly confined to dialogue and music with a few atmospheric effects here and there. The music is much better than last season, though, with less of the blunt "something bad is about to happen" accompaniment and a more nuanced score. Sometimes that score does feel a little overwrought and too heavily used, though, as when we hear very tense music underneath a trivial conversation between Bill and his son Wayne about whether Wayne's cowboy should be in their family time capsule.
Special features follow Season Two's pattern of being sparse, but creative. The main extra is "Three Past Midnight," a set of three shorts, at 3-4 minutes each, that serve as prequels to the third season. Set some months before "Block Party," these shorts feature pairs of Big Love's characters chatting in the middle of the night when the family is woken by news of raids on polygamist compounds. Here we get a few nice character moments between Bill and Barb, Nicki and Margene, and Sarah and Ben. The other extra is "Their Stories So Far," which offer a rather fun take on the standard "Previously On" segments meant to prep viewers for the third season—and these were made especially necessary by the long gap between Seasons Two and Three. Here, the four spouses get about two minutes each to introduce viewers to their characters, with the actors doing little monologues supplemented by clips. These are nice for new or forgetful audience members because they give a taste of each character's values and goals rather than just listing all the things that happened to them last season.
In Season Two's closing episode, Barb laments, "We're lost, Bill. We're disintegrating." Having suffered through even more trials and tribulations this year than usual, the Henricksons indeed end the season in a crisis—one that Bill's religious gesture in the closing moments can't hope to fully mend. Though the exceptional performers in Big Love make the show a treat regardless of script quality, I'm hoping that the storylines get a little less busy for the fourth season…maybe with the tagline, "Only a few people have something to hide."
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