Big Love: "Certain Poor Shepherds"
B+

Big Love: "Certain Poor Shepherds"

Most episodes of Big Love have a fairly predictable format. There’s a chaotic first half, where it seems like the show is flying off the rails and you become convinced you don’t actually like the show, followed by a much smoother second half, where the dominoes set up in that first half get knocked over, often in satisfying ways. The worst episodes of Big Love feel like all first half. The best feel like all second half. (I’m essentially alone in thinking this, but my favorite season of the show has always been the second, not the third, because it has the time needed to blend the soapier plotting with the more intimately observed character moments and not rush those moments as much as later seasons could.) “Certain Poor Shepherds” definitely has a chaotic first half, where it seems like the show has temporarily taken leave of its sanity, but once the second half rolls around, the dominoes fall in such a satisfying fashion that it’s easy enough to forget all of the misgivings and just go with some of the more implausible stuff.

But first, guns!

It’s kind of a weird episode for Bill Henrickson tonight. He becomes a felon without even trying. He defends Lura from her estranged husband and comes off rather good in doing so. He seems to be building toward asking Barb to take more of an active role in their church but then doesn’t whatsoever (making the earlier scene where he promises her she’ll like some of the changes to the service feel like a deliberate mislead by the writers, rather than something any of the characters would do). He forces the family to go through with a ridiculous living Nativity and a couples skate (with all three wives), the better for everybody to gawk. And he proves himself to be, perhaps worst of all, the worst Christmas present buyer ever, purchasing all three wives guns for Christmas. (And you know what they say. If you buy the polygamist’s three wives a gun in the third episode of a 10-episode season, one of those guns will go off by episode 10.)

The big turn here is that Margie reveals that she was but 16 when Bill married her, lying about her age to say she was 18 so she could be a part of the family. The characters all, predictably, treat this as Margie’s fault, and that’s not to say it’s not. She should have been honest about this at some point, and I do find it rather bizarre that she didn’t think to mention it in the run-up to Bill’s election, knowing how damaging that knowledge could be if it went public. (This is especially odd if the writers knew this twist from the beginning, and they do have fairly detailed character backgrounds on all of these people. When Margie was trying to get Bill to back off of his plans, wouldn’t she have dropped this knowledge, no matter how ashamed it made her?) At the same time, it doesn’t reflect terribly well on Bill either. Margie’s been such an entrenched part of the show since it began and Ginnifer Goodwin has always been an actress so obviously in her late 20s and early 30s that it’s easy to forget that the show has always played her as someone barely out of high school, someone who’d likely be just finishing up college in another life. And that makes it easy to ignore that even IF Margie had been 18 when Bill married her, that still would have been incredibly disturbing. The closest we’ve come to real acknowledgement of this has been the episodes where Ben expressed his feelings for her, and those get swept under the rock awfully quickly.

Don’t get me wrong. All of the scenes dealing with the fallout from Margie’s revelation (which comes around the 40 minute mark of an hour-long episode, no less) are terrific. The show has always been at its best when it portrays the ways that Bill becomes just like Roman or Alby without seeming to try, simply because leading this kind of a life, believing in this kind of patriarchy, lends itself so well to things like casting out young, male heirs who may threaten the family dynamic or roping in young, gullible women to fill in the roles of third, fourth, or fifth wife. (Notice how Ana, older, smarter, more worldly, split right away, as soon as she realized how complicated all of this was and how regressive Bill could be.) The characters criticize Margie for lying, but it’s a forest for the trees thing. The show is smart enough to take a step back and see that, yeah, Bill shouldn’t have been dating a teenager, for God’s sake. I used to wonder if the show wasn’t building toward a scenario where Bill became the new head of Juniper Creek, retaking the throne his father was forced out of. Now, it seems increasingly likely that he’ll create Juniper Creek in the suburbs, often without trying, just because that’s what happens. 

Bill’s a weird character, maybe the hardest character to stomach at the center of a drama of this quality on TV right now. He’s meant to be charismatic, I think, but Bill Paxton doesn’t play him especially charismatically. His down-home, folksy charm gets him most everything he wants, sure, and I buy that he’s often so blind to how the world perceives him that he doesn’t grasp that, say, playing Joseph opposite a Mary played by his second wife’s teenage daughter from another marriage might look a little suspicious. But he’s so sure of his course, so certain that what he’s doing is right, even when the world (or God, I suppose he’d say) keeps dishing out punishment to him. He can do something legitimately heroic, like punch Alby in the face when he’s trying to reclaim his wife via force, and it still feels kind of like someone constantly trying to burnish his self-made image as God’s chosen one, rather than like something he’s genuinely doing to help out a person in need. When he drags all three of his wives out onto the ice for couples skate (in a moment that should have lasted at least 30 seconds more but got gobbled up by that chaotic first half), it’s as if he still just doesn’t get that everybody in town thinks of his family as a bunch of freaks, at best, and horrible people at worst. It’d be one thing if he thought the best defense was a good offense; Bill Henrickson seems to know ONLY offense.

Then there’s Barb, who feels adrift this season, both by design and accidentally. Barb’s the one character the show has never lost the thread of, even in the chaos of last season, and its ability to trace the way that she constantly bumps up against the ways that her own personal feelings and ideals come into conflict with what her husband and her religion feed her has been one of its greatest strengths. If the center of the show is about people trying to form meaningful relationships and meaningful goals for themselves in the face of a belief system that stands in the way of doing any of that, then Barb and her two teenage children have been the characters most important to that idea and, thus, the characters most important to the show keeping its head in the midst of the soapy stuff. But this season, I’m not feeling Barb. I’m waiting for that crystallizing moment (those moments Jeanne Tripplehorn plays so well), and moments like that are being tossed into every episode but not really landing. I want to understand what she’s feeling, beyond betrayed and depressed. I want to know more about her struggles to understand if she still loves and needs her husband. But the show and the character are holding me at arm’s length, leaving Margie the de facto most sympathetic character of the season.

Not that that’s a bad thing, though! Margie’s often been the most overlooked wife, as she doesn’t have Barb’s struggles with her creed or Nicki’s struggles to understand who she is in the world to fall back on when the writers are looking for storylines. All she’s been for much of the show’s run is the young wife, the one who turned her back on a more exciting life in favor of a life as a young wife and mother, and while the show has found some good stories to tell within that framework, it’s often struggled to put her front and center. Not this season, though. This season, her sadness and her anger have been right in the middle of everything, and both Goodwin and the writers are delivering, revealing the Margie that’s been quietly festering away at the edges of the show all series long. The scenes where Bill hectors her for her drivers license or birth certificate seem like they might just be another “wacky Margie” plot until she reveals her secret, and it’s amazing how willing everyone is to completely blame her, when she was a scared kid who just wanted the home she’d always hoped for.

And then there’s Juniper Creek. I’m not a huge fan of Juniper Creek as a setting. I like most of the characters who are still alive there, and I found, say, Alby’s struggles with his sexuality very well done. But the plots set at Juniper Creek often have the air of being well-researched but not especially well-written. I believe, absolutely, that there are polygamist compounds that do all of the things various Juniper Creek characters have done over the years (right up to implanting experimental fetuses in post-menopausal women), but the show has rarely made any of this feel poignant and detailed and true in the way that the suburban stuff always has. It’s no coincidence that a character like Lois is at her best when she goes to visit Bill at his house, and while her dementia plotline is a pretty stock one for a character of that age, that doesn’t mean that Grace Zabriskie isn’t making it heartbreaking. On the other hand, all of the stuff about Alby being cold-hearted in the wake of his lover’s death and about how he’s making the compound even worse? I don’t terribly care about that because the compound often feels like an abstraction, like scenes from a spinoff series inserted clumsily into the parent show.

And yet there’s someone like Lura, a character who’s been secluded to the edges of the show all this time, but someone who was hiding some very deep emotions all this time. There are few shows as good as Big Love at these kinds of sudden reveals, at a character stepping up and saying, “Here’s what’s up with me” and that revelation making everything snap immediately into place, and the moment where she takes her kids and escapes Juniper Creek, despite the fact that Alby tells her she’ll be cut off from her parents and siblings in eternity (and you can see she believes it), is one of those clarifying moments. She’s a woman on her own now, a woman who’s fought back against something much, much larger than herself. And isn’t that what this show is about, ultimately? People struggling against forces that extend beyond themselves, that reach toward the eternal and don’t always make sense.

Stray observations:

  • I actually may be underrating this episode a bit because of the chaos of the first half. I was going to give it a B and talked myself into a higher grade while writing it. Let’s see if you guys can talk me into an even higher one.
  • I agree with the general consensus here: You’re looking good, Heather. Now get Ben away from his dad before he sinks completely into polygamist nonsense.
  • Teeny, who’s off with Sarah and Scott for reasons that make sense less the more you think about them, stops in via phone (almost certainly played by a third actress). Will we get to see her this season? How about Sarah? 
  • I have this weird terror in the back of my head that we’re being set up for one of the wives to leave Bill and for Bill to replace that wife with Lura. Am I nuts?
  • Another very nice plot that I didn’t have space for above: Cara Lynn starts to ask questions about what happened to her dad, finally taking matters into her own hands and launching her own investigation, then not liking what she finds (namely, the ruins of a burned trailer). The scene where Nicki tries to tell her that he was a monster and she replies by saying that he taught her how to ride a bike was very well done.
  • It’s always weird to see a Christmas episode in a time other than post-Thanksgiving. It’s particularly weird to see one in January, when we’ve just put away the Christmas trappings. Still, the imagery and elements of the season were used well here, particularly those shots of the brown, empty backyard (which we’ve barely seen this season). Because the series shoots in California, it’s been hard for it to do a winter season, but I’m glad they’re trying now.
  • A theory I’m sort of working on: Bill loves his wives as things he can put on display almost as much as anything else. Notice how many times he’s paraded them out to show how beautiful and “normal” they are this season. There’s a part of him that really enjoys being gawked at.
  • I'm still enjoying Gregory Itzin as Bill's boss. I'm still not sure having him around is strictly necessary.
  • Also, what's the deal with Margie's new business opportunities, much less trying to drag Pam into them? That's another storyline that feels strictly tangential right now.
  • "Stop that Satanic howling!"
  • "I'm officially indigent." "I'm so glad that's working out!"
  • "Guns are practical."
  • "You just ruined Christmas."

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