After a season where even the best episodes can be charitably described as “hit and miss,” “The Noose Tightens” is one of the four or five best episodes of Big Love ever produced. If the final two episodes are as good as this one, the series is going to head out making a strong claim to its final season having problems, yes, but nicely saving the show and maybe even its ultimate legacy. Granted, this is a show that could completely let us down at a moment’s notice, but for now, I’m pleased. Very pleased. Or, as my wife put it immediately after the episode was over, this episode felt like the characters the writers have been building for five seasons are finally being fully realized. They’ve all been backed into a corner, and they’re reacting in ways that feel both completely true to the characters as established and somehow new and original. It feels like we’ve been building to this since day one, like this was all inevitable.
Granted, how you feel about all of this probably will have something to do with how you feel about the show’s reveal of Margie’s true age. It’s been a controversial prospect for some Big Love fans, who take it as a retcon too far, a development arrived at entirely to artificially goose already heightened drama. I don’t feel that way at all, and I’d hope most of those fans don’t feel that way either after this episode. Margie’s true age is a plot device, yes, something designed to put everything Bill and his wives have worked for under the microscope, but it’s also become a good way to complicate everything else about the season. In particular, when Cara Lynn asks for her mother to grant her desire to marry Gary (and how shudder-worthy to hear her say his name in that way), how can Nicki say no, given the family she’s a part of? And how can Margene think that what she and Bill did was somehow different? Young girls falling for older men is an inevitable consequence here, and the Henricksons are lying to themselves if they don’t think so.
Toss in the increasing wild card nature of Alby, and you’ve got an episode that was Big Love at its best. Plots twisted. Dialogue would be casually hilarious, then heart-rending. Characters got pushed to their breaking points, then somehow kept from breaking (unless they did, into millions of pieces). The episode somehow used nearly everybody in the ensemble just about perfectly, right down to poor Ben, who increasingly looks like he’s suffering from a combo of serious depression and some sort of drug withdrawal (and all of this happened because he had a thing for Heather…). And no matter your opinion on whether Bill Henrickson deserves to fry in Hell for what he’s done or isn’t all that bad, there was a moment or two to vindicate you here. Things are slippery, in a moral sense, headed into the final two episodes, but the show is careful to make clear at all times that this is a bed that Bill (and Barb) have made for themselves, Bill by being unable to curb his desires and Barb by being unable to stand up for herself. It’s gut-wrenching television, particularly if you care about these characters.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Big Love is that it doesn’t believe Bill is the sole person at fault here. It believes he’s the person who’s the MOST at fault, but not a one of his wives is innocent. (Well, Margie might be, and the show at this point seems to think she’s the one person who has even half a chance of escaping this family/cult with her soul intact, thereby slipping nicely into the role Sarah filled in the show’s previous four seasons.) Nicki is someone who’s always twisted and manipulated events to suit her own desires, yes, but we gave her the benefit of the doubt because of how she was raised. “Noose” suggests that it’s not just that, that Nicki might have been this kind of person if she had been raised in the suburbs by two parents with no other siblings. There’s a naked hunger for control in her that needed sating in some way, and when she spends much of the episode saying—with little to no basis—that no one has her best interests at heart, it’s amazing how unsympathetic the show can make her when it spent so much of its running time explaining how she came to be who she is. And then there’s Barb, whose spinelessness is now seen by the series as her ultimate flaw, the thing that will drag her into hell. Margie’s flaw has always been her innocence, her ignorance, but with both the lead investigator and Goji guy opening her eyes to what has happened to her, can she stay ignorant for long?
Of course, you could read her disassociation from Goji as a sign of her ultimate choice to stand with Bill, Barb, and Nicki, the choice that will doom her in the end. The other characters have all faced these choices at many times throughout the course of the show, but rarely has Margie been asked to take a hard look at her life (and the few times she has, it’s always been in the context of being tempted by another guy). But now, she’s seen all of the evidence of the lies she’s been told and the lies she told herself. She can’t say that Bill and she were in love if she’s going to be upset at how Gary’s taking advantage of Cara Lynn. She can’t claim that she has friends other than Pam. And she can’t claim that she’s lived up to her full potential. But she’s young. She’s still got time to get out.
While there are scenes in tonight’s episode that seem placed there to remind us that Bill, on some level, believes he’s doing a good thing and he IS the victim of a witch-hunt (no matter how justified), the show has seemingly gone whole-hog with the notion of rubbing our faces in the fact that part of what made the show so initially popular—the fact that it played out almost as a fantastical version of what polygamy could be like—was all based on a bed of lies the characters told each other and then told us. The show was always canny enough to suggest that it knew this wasn’t exactly the case (one of the things that was most lost in the problematic season four), but it was also often lighthearted and funny, a vision of a world where a man got to be married to three beautiful women who loved him (for whatever reason) and where the women were practically best friends, a supportive safety net that kept any one of them from wholly falling apart. It was the best possible vision of a kind of relationship that practical notions suggest shouldn’t work. And now the show’s jerking the rug out from underneath us. Granted, it’s been doing this for a while now, but now it’s pressing these buttons harder than it ever has before. The practical notions were always right. There’s just no way this could work, not with this sort of setup.
And that’s because on some level, polygamy—in a partriarchal religion—will always boil down to one man who wants more, who always craves things he can’t have and then figures out a way to get them. Bill may be a friendlier face to slap on this practice, but he’s functionally no different from Roman. Indeed, the show seems to almost think the preferable version of this is Alby, who’s at least straightforward about what he wants, outside of his homosexual desires. He comes out and says what he wants, and then he goes and does it or goes and takes it. The other characters view this as reprehensible, but there’s also a grudging respect for it. Tonight, Alby decides to kill Bill, requesting Verlen do it, but Verlen finally snaps and tells Nicki what he’s been asked to do, leading to a scene that the entirety of the Nicki and Alby relationship—over the course of the whole show—has been building to. She mocks his sexuality. He locks her in a closet. She says she doesn’t want to die when he has a gun to her head in the middle of nowhere. He shoots Verlen instead. The relationship between these two, the bond over the way their parents damaged them, has always been surprisingly tender (coming as it does between two very dangerous people), and this scene played like the final note of that storyline.
But it’s not. How can it be? We’ve got two episodes to go, and this one only ends with Nicki reappearing in Barb’s house as Bill talks with Barb and Margie about how he’s likely going to face 20 years in prison, and this after he agreed to resign his Senate seat if the church would just ask the authorities to drop their pursuit. But the world doesn’t work like that. What Bill did is something that should be punished. Should Barb get dragged down with him? Hard to say that the “procurer” charge makes a lot of sense, but you can see why the authorities push it all the same. They need to separate the unit that’s stood as the iron-clad center of the series to have a prayer of getting what they want. And that means prying off either Barb or Margie and finding their way to the center to weaken it and remove it entirely. The continued attempts to tie Bill to the UEB by both the authorities and the show itself—notice how Bill tells Alby that ALBY sure doesn’t have a vision—suggest that everything begins and ends in the same place: Juniper Creek.
For God’s sake, look at that final shot. Bill has just finished explaining the legal situation to his wives when they all react in shock. Nicki has reappeared, a ghost of the woman she was, hair frazzled, dressed in an awful outfit again, looking like she’s gone to hell and back (she has) and reapparated in the living room. Juniper Creek has never been my favorite element of the show, but it’s almost always worked as a thing the characters can’t escape, the more and more they try to run from it. And here it is, intruding upon their huge concerns, either the last villain they all need to run from or the last evil they need to reach out and accept. If the show has asked us to go with it as it downplays some of the unsavory aspects of this story during its run, then Bill has asked his wives to do the same, to overlook the fact that he is not a good man and deceive themselves otherwise. And now the bottom drops out. This is a cult. You can’t escape the past or even outrun it. This is not a good man, and he’s taking everybody else down with him.
- I have no idea if any of the above makes any sense. This feels, to me, like an episode that crystallizes a lot of what the show has been up to over the years, a critical chapter in the closing passages of a long, meandering book that reveals what was up from the first. But it encompasses so much of the show’s history and so many of the show’s big moments that it’s impossible to write about it without feeling scattered, I’m afraid. My apologies if it’s less lucid than usual.
- So: Are the Henricksons a cult? I’m inclined to think so, as much as we’ve enjoyed seeing them all interact as a charming family over the years, but I’m willing to be proved wrong. It DOES seem pretty crazy that a cult could conceivably exist in the suburbs. I’ll grant you that.
- Least favorite scene: Bill’s Senate colleague drops by to let him know he thinks that Bill got a bum deal. We’re already agonizing through this, show. You don’t need to remind us.
- Favorite scene: Margie tells Cara Lynn and Gary what’s what and does so forcefully. I’ve always argued this show has misused the winning Ginnifer Goodwin, and this moment more than proves it. Emmys all around!
- I’m amazed at how well Douglas Smith is playing Ben seemingly coming apart at a sub-atomic level. The show really lost the thread of who he was in seasons three and four, and it’s struggled to find something to do with him this season at times, but he was dead-on tonight, asked to bear the weight of many burdens bigger than a man so young should be asked to carry. It’s the best work he’s done on the show since the arc where he struggled with his desire for his girlfriend in season two. (The moment when he eventually succumbed to that desire remains one of my favorites in the series.)
- Tina Majorino is also doing some very good work in a role that mostly seems to have been brought back into the show as a plot convenience. She lets you feel the weight Heather feels at all of this happening, no matter how convenient it is that she’s the common link in this chain.
- Nicki’s inability to see what’s right in front of her regarding Cara Lynn and Gary is just tragic enough to compensate for what a heinous person she’s become this season, even as she’s gotten everything she wanted.
- It strikes me that the great arc of the series’ use of tragic flaws and characters being undone by things they’ve always been or always known is very well done and very classically constructed. I hesitate to call it “Shakespearean,” since that gives it a weight the series hasn’t really earned (really, only The Shield and The Sopranos earned the use of that word), but I’m impressed by how well these characters seeded the ground for their own undoing. I don’t think it’s good planning on the writers part, so much as it is understanding the characters and knowing how to pull a bunch of disparate events together.
- All right everybody. How’s this all going to play out? I kind of think it will be fairly obvious by the end of next week’s episode, so let’s place our bets now. I’m sticking to my “Barb and Margie out, Bill heading up Juniper Creek” theory. Person who’s closest to accurate gets… nothing! But you can be pleased you outsmarted me and hold it over me for all time.
- "It is time for that insolent suburban shopkeeper to go!" "Go where?" "To his grave."
- "... And two thousand dollars."
- "Just where have you two goodtime gals been?"
- "We have certainly established that you do have a roving eye when you get lonely in your marriage."
- "You and your daughter are whores, and your husband is a whoremaster."