In the first season of Big Love, as a Viagra-enhanced Bill Henrickson struggled to play husband to three wives in private, while playing perfect one-wife family man/big box hardware store entrepreneur in public, the overarching question or conflict was "How does this family do it?" In the show's second season, as first wife Barb questioned her commitment to "the principle," as Bill embarked on an un-consummated affair with a possible fourth wife, and as everyone feared exposure, the big question became more, "Why do they do it?" Now, as the show begins its third season, the question that's been hanging in the air since the very first episode has been moved to the forefront, "Isn't this whole polygamy thing really fucked up?"
True, the strangeness, the otherness of polygamy has been Big Love's driving force since the beginning. One of the reasons that the show holds such dramatic weight is that it allows us to peek over the fence(s) of a practicing polygamist family, and watch as they try to assimilate into the culture at large. But as Season Three begins, the dark side of polygamy casts a shadow over any sun-bleached suburban vision of "the principle" that the Hendricksons might have created. Roman Grant, the weathered yet oily prophet of the Juniper Creek compound, as well as Nicki's father, and Bill's first business investor, is behind bars and the subject of a very public rape investigation. Bill's father has taken a new, very young bride—the twin sister of his son Joey's new wife, Cathy—and he's banished one of his younger teenage sons from the compound, a boy named Frankie, largely out of jealousy. Alby has taken over as prophet of Juniper Creek, a fact that, along with his "proclivities," has made his own mother attempt to have him killed. Bill has been dating Ana, the Serbian waitress, behind his wives' backs for some time now, even though he admits that he doesn't think she has "the temperament to live the principle." And the LDS ward just issued the new map of the Hendricksons' neighborhood, and only three houses on it look different: Barb & Bill's and Margene's houses are at threat level yellow: inactive; but Nicki's house is threat level grey, an ominous shade which apparently translates to "probable polygamist."
"Block Party" opens with a frantic morning scene of suburban domesticity, pural marriage-style, that also serves as a break-neck game of catch-up for these characters that we haven't seen in a year and a half: Margene has had her baby, a girl named Nell, and is enjoying more of a power position in the family as the Mrs. face of Weber gaming; Nicki has taken a temp job in the county attorney's office, ostensibly as a way to pay off her credit card (and Bingo) debts, but actually to help her mother Adaleen intimidate the witnesses against Roman; Bill is helping Ana with a little plumbing problem (no, really, he fixes her sink), and he's trying to strike a deal with an Indian tribe to build a Mormon-friendly ("no smoking, no drinking, kid-friendly") casino on their land; And Barb finds out that her cancer may have returned.
It's Barb's cancer scare that prompts her to seek out Ana, and offer to formally date her, a proposition that, surprise surprise, Ana isn't too excited by. But it also sheds light on one aspect of the Hendricksons' life that is often alluded to, but never really discussed: the particulars of their religious beliefs. As Barb explains it to Ana, they believe that the larger a family they have together in the afterlife, the better they'll serve their God. For Barb, that afterlife is seemingly closer than ever, so it's important for her to get to know who she might be eventually spending eternity with now. Barb gives Bill an ultimatum: three days to either formally date Ana as a possible fourth wife, or break up with her.
There was a moment in tonight's episode where a tv news report describes how Roman Grant tried to get around the Mann act (transporting women over state lines for "immoral purposes"). Apparently, Grant would drive girls to the state line and have them get out of the car. The girls would then walk across the state line themselves, and directly into a life of polygamy, giving the illusion at least that crossing that line was their choice.
It's a fitting image for this season of Big Love, which seems poised to dig deeper than ever into the characters' choices, or lack thereof. Barb, Nicki, and Margene each crossed that line into plural marriage, but their motivations for doing so couldn't have been more different. Barb clearly feels that the choice to bring Nicki into her marriage with Bill was made for her, both by Bill and by circumstance—she was on her deathbed. When she got well, Barb decided to go along with it, even through Bill's relationship with Margene, which she feels was sprung on her ("the babysitter hit me," she reminds Bill). Now, with Ana, she sees the opportunity to exert some measure of control over her rapidly expanding family, and so she takes it.
Bill eventually chooses to break up with Ana, but not until after he breaks his no-sex-before-fourth-wedding-ring vow. Despite what his business partner Don thinks, Bill was incapable of "taming" Ana with talk of being "seated together for all eternity" and the wishes of "our heavenly father." Instead, it was Margene's visit to Ana, and her relentlessly optimistic, religion-lite—despite the presence of the Book Of Mormon—approach that swayed Ana. And so, after Bill almost outed his family as polygamists to the whole neighborhood, after Nicki literally shouted from the rooftop that she was the daughter of an infamous polygamist, Ana turns up at the block party, ready to date the whole family. This can only turn out well
--So, where did Teeny get the Playpen?
-- Bill, bouncing the new baby, to Nicki: "Who's gonna give us another piggy? Are you gonna give us another piggy?" Another glimpse of the dark side of polygamy: constant pregnancy.
--"Friday is cake day." It's so strange to see Nicki in an office. How long before she flirts with Ray Henry in order to get more files for Adaleen?
--Margene's "Numa" moment at the business meeting = hilarious
--Lois's twitchy exasperation at being ignored by Bill = also hilarious. How long before she launches a get-rich-quick scheme involving exotic birds?
--"She's sassy, father. Tell her how sassy she is." Alby's #1 wife is as creepy as he is.
--"But Bill's the hot dog man." Nothing stings like taking a man's hot dog cart away from him right before the block party.