Coming back on television after a disastrous season is always tough, but it’s particularly tough when you’re a once-acclaimed drama with only one last shot at upholding your reputation. Big Love was legitimately one of the best dramas of the last decade, its first three seasons an amazing exploration of the various intersections in America between the mainstream and assorted subcultures, using a group of polygamists as a stand-in for everything from fundamentalist Christians to gays struggling for marriage rights. The third season, the one year the show received an Emmy nomination for best drama series, was only 10 episodes, but the producers crammed 12 episodes worth of storylines into that season, making it feel like a headlong rush toward the conclusion. The finale was a bit of a mess, but everything on the way there (especially series highpoint “Come Ye Saints”) was great.
Then, of course, came season four, when the show tried to cram what felt like 20-some episodes worth of story into just nine hours of TV time. The finale was often hilariously patched together with ADR work, and it tried to close off everything from a misbegotten casino subplot (that at one point had burgeoning film star Amanda Seyfried constantly looking just off-set to see if she could get out of her contract sooner than she’d been told, while she cared for some baby she’d just sorta found one day on the reservation) to the supervillain machinations of Zeljko Ivanek’s J.J., a character apparently based on a real person but one who nonetheless couldn’t help but feel like a direct ripoff of Dr. Doom. The season hinged on the idea that Bill was going to run for state senate, the better to expose his family and his unusual living arrangements to the world with pride, and if you could never get on board with that plot, the entire season pretty much fell apart, outside of a few nice storylines here and there.
And yet the last moments of the season finale were stunning, as haunting as anything the series had ever come up with. After seemingly everyone (including special guest star Sissy Spacek) wandering through to tell Bill that his idea was terrible, he went ahead with it anyway, in yet another example of the man’s stunning inability to hear anything other than the constant thrum of his own brain. He outed the family, to the stunned silence of those who had just elected him, and as they stood together, hand-in-hand-in-hand-in-hand, it felt like just what the show needed to rock it from its complacency. Finally, the show would HAVE to focus more on the Henrickson family and how Bill’s choices have so often made his wives’ miserable, no matter how much they love him. It would be forced to focus on the character stuff it’s always done so well, instead of the soapy plotting that so often threatened to sink it (and eventually did). Add on to that the news that this is to be the final season, and there was a good sense that Big Love could right its course.
Does it? Not yet, but the season premiere is a good step in the right direction. For one thing, “Winter” is a surprisingly slow-moving episode, for the show. It’s not Mad Men slow or anything like that, but it’s not constantly cutting away to Juniper Creek. (There are a couple of visits there, but they’re mostly to continue setting up Alby as the real parallel to Bill on the show, and to, sadly, revive the storyline that has Adaleen carrying J.J.’s hellspawn baby thing, instead of just letting everyone pretend it doesn’t exist.) The focus of the episode, as the focus of the season must be, is in rubbing the faces of the Henricksons, particularly Bill, in just what their choices have wrought to people who didn’t deserve any of this grief. Bill has to watch as his wives and children have their lives upended and destroyed by others who are suspicious of what he stubbornly stands for. And when his oldest friend, Don, calls him on it, he’s finally forced to admit all of the shit he’s put everybody through, in a moment that’s bracing, one that the series has been building toward since it began.
On the other hand, the show is always afraid of making Bill too unlikable (something that is to its detriment), so the end of the episode features a bunch of secret polygamists coming over to Bill’s compound to hash some things out, after they think everybody else will have left Bill’s open house (in reality, the only other guest was Don). The scene where Bill and Nicki go over so she can apologize to the kid she antagonized until he tried to escape and ran straight into a pole, knocking out his tooth, and it turns out he’s actually from a polygamist family and that’s why he was picking on Nicki’s son is basically the premium cable version of the storyline where Kurt’s bully turned out to be secretly gay on Glee. And, yeah, while it’s cool that all of these people now have somewhere to turn (and the show doesn’t try to make it seem like Utah is crawling with secret polygamists, just a handful of families, many of whom drive in from out of district), it still speaks to one of the central problems the show will have in its final season.
Specifically, the show has always been able to have it both ways on polygamy, particularly when it pertains to the wives in the Henrickson family. Polygamy is both a way for people to build an even better support system for themselves when they need one AND, at least as practiced by Bill, something that almost totally stifles the emotional and personal development of the women who get involved in these situations and shuts off the teenagers in that world from the rest of the culture. The series has been deft about this all along, and many of its best episodes have been about characters—Ben or Sarah or Nicki, especially—realizing that the way they were raised just might end up being WRONG. But now, it needs to figure out a way to come down on one side or another about both polygamy and Bill, and it’s not clear that it particularly wants to. (Though, honestly, if the show made an argument along the lines of, “Sometimes, plural marriage can work for people, so long as everybody’s an equal partner, but Bill practices a form of terrible patriarchy,” I could sort of see that working, and it seemed to be heading in that direction last season.) The moment with Don is such a powerful moment that it hurts things just a little bit to have the other polygamists drop by, particularly when the snow (the avalanche from the episode’s beginning) softly begins to fall.
The episode opens with both Bill and his family and Alby (by himself) out in the Utah desert. Bill has come to escape from the hounding he’s receiving from the press. Alby is out on what seems to be a kind of pilgrimage. But in a show this obsessed with Biblical metaphors and ideas, this can’t be wholly incidental. The desert is the place you go when you need to be purified or when you need to be tested in the Bible. It’s the place to go when you have to be ready for what’s to come. And while both Bill and Alby are clearly on their way toward some sort of perilous journey, the show itself is as well. Is the desert visit a way of saying, “We know we kinda fucked up, but we’re ready to atone and move on?” “Winter,” at least, seems to suggest that the producers at least want to take a few steps in the right direction.
- Amelie’s no longer covering the show, since she’s off being awesome on The Office. That means you get me, and while that probably seems like a sore disappointment, I assure you I’ve been covering the show (and particularly its intersections with fundamentalist culture) for the last few seasons. I covered seasons two and three at The House Next Door and season four at Hitfix.com, if you want to check my credentials.
- It was nice to have the casino dispatched with in a few lines of exposition, but I have no idea why we need to play out this strange J.J. plotline.
- Sign the producers are serious about paring down the show, at least somewhat: Look at how few people are listed in the regular cast in the opening credits now.
- Margene’s reaction to the outing struck me as the most realistic. She loses EVERYthing, and while I like seeing Barb wander off into what everybody else finds to be drunkenness, I thought Margene’s howls of fury in the wilderness were very moving.
- This show can get nicely apocalyptic when it wants to, and I loved the shots of the winter wind howling around the decorations for the Henrickson open house.
- There are plenty of cool guest stars turning up this season, but the one that gets the most play in this episode is Gregory Itzin (formerly evil President Logan) as Bill’s new state senate boss.
- While I largely buy Bill as a character most of the time, I do find it a bit bizarre that he would be so surprised by this angry reaction. He had to have had at least SOME idea when he got chewed out so much in last year’s finale.
- And, as you guys know, I can go on about television from time to time. This is one of those shows I can go on about. More? Or less? (Reports to the contrary, I CAN be concise, but I think this show is deserving of meatier write-ups.)
- "Your head is like a big rusty knob!"