Bill Henrickson is uniquely terrible at figuring out that his actions are going to have consequences other than everyone telling him how great he is. How did he get like this? Big Love has never given us enough of a sense of just where his irritating sense of self-assurance came from, but if you dig around enough in the back story, it sort of makes sense. Before the series began, pretty much everything the guy touched turned to gold. His stores were wild successes, he managed to convince three incredibly attractive women to marry him, and he somehow emerged from teenage runaway from a polygamist compound to become one of Utah’s most prominent and powerful men. It’s easy to see where he might get a big head after something like that, but over the course of the series, the universe has shit on him so thoroughly and so often that it’s hard to see just how he keeps the faith that he’s God’s special chosen one, especially after he outed his family. The last few weeks have been, to borrow a term from the Major, a real “stinkeroo,” and things show no sign of getting less stinky.
After a season premiere that was pretty good but not as good as this show is capable of, it was a relief to see that “A Seat At The Table,” despite being slightly too overstuffed, was a reminder of just how good Big Love can be when it’s being good. Pretty much everything you’d ever want for a successful Big Love episode was here. Trenchant examinations of the three Henrickson wives and just how much their choices (and their husband) have hurt them! Bill getting crazy ideas in his head and then having the universe show him in graphic detail just how stupid those ideas are! Alby fucking everything up with a smile and a song! Squabbling between wives! Lois! After last season, it’s a relief to see just how much the show has pared down its mission and its ensemble (do YOU miss Bill’s brother and his wives?), but this episode reminded us of just how huge this show can be, even with a cast that’s been cut down by a third.
Bill’s big plan is fairly nebulous. He wants to get all of the state’s assorted polygamist sects into the same room with a handful of lawmakers and social service providers (including a friendly Catholic nun) to ensure that the people on the compounds are brought into the modern age. Kids will be given an education, and polygamists will have access to the same sorts of social services as everybody else. Bill managing to get everybody into the room requires a certain amount of master politicking (seriously, this guy can be good at this stuff when he wants to), but he doesn’t terribly anticipate what might happen when he gets a whole bunch of people with minor doctrinal differences into a room together. The minor differences, of course, are always the ones that cause the biggest arguments, and Alby’s able to set the room off into a massive argument just by uttering a handful of words, questioning the legitimacy of one of the groups. It’s a huge embarrassment for Bill, and it allows his counterpart in the state House to feel emboldened enough to introduce legislation that would make polygamy an impeachable offense and return it to felony status.
Bill seems blindsided by this. Well, of course he does. Bill always seems blindsided by everything. But this, in particular, seems to confuse him. When he invited the representative (her name is Midge) over to his house for supper, Midge was all, “You have a nice family!” so he thought they might find common ground. He even lent out one of his son’s to the campaign Midge’s mother (the aforementioned Major) is holding against pornography, up to and including, uh, aerobics classes at gyms, classes that might allow impressionable young men to catch glimpses of lovely women in leotards. All the Major wants are blinds on the windows, the better to protect young minds! Is that too much to ask?!
Actually, another thing “A Seat At The Table” was good at was reminding us that even though the Henricksons and the other polygamists on Big Love are out of the mainstream, the mainstream they wish to become a part of would still be out of the mainstream just about everywhere else in the country. A culture that looks down on drinking wine, dancing, and letting women take more of an initiative in their spiritual development? That would be pretty far out of the mainstream even in some of your redder red states. Big Love has always had a meticulously researched sense of Utah as a place that is in the United States, but not really of the United States, a nice parallel to the way the show’s fundamentalist characters are to be in the world but not of it.
Big Love has always used its characters to discuss the conflicts that arise whenever people come into contact with creeds that ask them to subsume themselves in the name of pursuing a form of righteousness. It’s been particularly good at examining this question via the assorted teenagers of the Henrickson household (primarily the long-gone Sarah, who eventually realized she couldn’t live like this anymore) and Bill’s three wives. Tonight, all three wives and Cara Lynn found themselves in positions where their actions and concerns would bring them directly into conflict with Bill and the covenant he preaches.
Let’s start with Margie, whose desire for a family, a place to belong, has always caused her to bury parts of herself as quickly as they surface. Think of how lurchingly her grief over her mother’s death expressed itself or of how quickly she was able to dispose of whatever feelings she might have had for Ben last season (one of the few storylines that worked all the way through). But over the past few seasons, she’s started to realize that she might want more than just being the youngest, prettiest wife. She might want friends. She might want a job. She might want a life outside of her house. But the life she’s chosen doesn’t really provide room for any of that. She can take tentative stabs at all of these things, but she’s always going to be tied down by her family, to a degree, and she’s starting to realize that she may have been too young to really know what she was doing when she became a Henrickson. And now, the outing has led to her losing her job, Ana and Goran are headed for Serbia (which she has no desire to move to, she tells Bill), and she’s miserable. Ginnifer Goodwin has always been the least heralded member of the show’s central quartet, but that’s unfortunate. She’s marvelous at constantly having her heart right there on her sleeve, and this episode might have been her best work in the series to date. She always seems like she’s about to collapse in utter grief, unable to do anything but lie on the floor and cry. But she always, somehow, pulls herself together.
Meanwhile, Barb is trying to reach out to her mother again. Barb’s mother has always been one of the best examples of how the show is able to sketch in truly compelling characters on the very margins of the ensemble. We have a pretty good sense of who she is as a woman, of what she had to do to win the respect she has, and of what she thinks of her daughter, and we see her maybe two or three times per season. Granted, some of this is thanks to Ellen Burstyn playing the role, but she’s also been written consistently as a woman who struggles against a creed that would repress her and her voice for just a little more room to shout. The scenes between Barb and her mom tonight occasionally seem to take on a bit too much in the way of characters speaking in shorthand (Sunstone? Betty Ford? Wha?), but the payoff, where Barb tries to go and talk to her mother, to find some sort of common ground after the blow-up at the panel discussion, is a lovely scene, particularly as it pertains to Barb being more radical in some ways than her mother is willing to be. Women being allowed to be priesthood holders and give blessings? Women taking control of their own spiritual destinies, in what’s still a relentlessly patriarchal religion? That’s a bridge mom’s unwilling to cross.
Finally, there’s Nicki, who’s probably grown the most in this regard over the course of the series. She’s still fundamentally Nicki, but she’s someone who’s been through the wringer in terms of her belief system, finally losing her faith in what her father taught as she realizes how much it damaged her and forming her own belief system. Nicki’s as brittle and unpleasant as ever this season, but she is so in a way that lets you know she’s only that way because she’s trying to figure out some very fundamental things about herself. It’s interesting to watch how the show treats the three wives’ very different attitudes toward Cara Lynn. Nicki tries to get her to buckle down and focus on her studies, that she might make her own destiny, even to the point where she lashes out at her sister wives for encouraging anything different. Margie urges Cara Lynn to escape as fast as she can. And Barb gives her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (something that the episode probably could have made more of, mentioned in passing as it was). All of the women now see Cara Lynn as opportunity, as a way to salvage the future from the mistakes of their pasts, and even Cara Lynn seems slightly unaware of just how much she means to all of them.
“A Seat At The Table” maybe has too much going on. (I continue to be completely uninterested in the story of Adaleen’s late-in-life supervillain pregnancy.) But at its heart, it’s full of the kinds of outsized emotions that this show specializes in at its very best. Even better, at that heart, it’s about the two things the show has always been at its best when it discusses: consequences and the conflict between faith and self. Years ago, Bill Henrickson made a choice to take another wife, and his first wife stood by and let him do so. The rest of the series has been about how those choices have gradually spun out of control. And now, with things at their absolute breaking point, Big Love asks, is there anything left to put back together?
- There’s nothing that can’t be improved by a little more Lois. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Juniper Creek, but Lois is always a lot of fun. Her paranoia about her husband and the fact that she blames Frank for the giant branch that fell through her kitchen window were both vintage Lois.
- There are few better actresses out there at crying than Ginnifer Goodwin. Even when she spends an entire episode seemingly on the verge of tears, something that could be incredibly irritating, she manages to make it feel raw and real throughout.
- My screener had some weird scratches in it, so I missed a couple of small lines of dialogue. To that end, a question: Did Lois ever reveal the big news she had when she turned up in Barb’s house?
- Awesome: Barb comes home after squabbling with Nicki and Margie at Home Plus to find … a bunch of polygamists hanging out in her dining room. A stinky week indeed.
- The Major is one of my new favorite minor characters on this show ever. I hope she comes back!
- We’ve spent very little time with Alby this season, so I have to ask: What’s his game here? What’s he want, ultimately? (Besides more power for Alby, that is.)
- Assuming it wasn't a screener temp track, I thought the score from Anton Sanko was very nicely understated tonight.