First, allow me to apologize, ye fellow non-saints, for the tardiness of this TV Club entry. I'm sure last night, you felt lost, forsaken, and didn't know what to do. Perhaps you were so distraught, you barely even noticed the Mormon spectacular complete with fog, lights, and flying angel going on right behind you—that's how deep your confusion, doubt and melencholy were. Or, maybe you were just pissed you had no place to discuss last night's thoroughly juicy Big Love episode. Either way, I'm sorry. As with all things, blame the Oscars.
In addition to being thoroughly juicy, last night's episode was a great one. In a dense, thorny show like Big Love, where even the subplots have subplots, it was a refreshing change of pace to spend fifty-five minutes almost entirely with the Henricksons—no compound intrigue, no Home Plus, just a short flirtacious phone call from Ray the DA, and only a smidge of Bill's casino business, mostly for comic relief (It's strange to hear someone say "You want Tony Orlando? You can have him!" without a hint of exasperation). What started off as almost a FDLS-version of Vacation—kids playing with dead grandma's ashes! Margie & Ben catching each other naked!—with Bill as Clark Griswold leading his family on a harrowing pilgrimage to his version of Wally World, the Hill Cumorah pageant, gradually became a true test of faith, at least for Barb and Bill. And as the Henricksons wound their sizable caravan across the country from Sandy to New York state, the show expertly traveled from comedy to drama along many different paths.
Not surprisingly for a show that initially sprung to life with Bill's secret Viagra habit, most of the drama in this episode centered on Bill's virility, or lack thereof. It's been a while since we've seen Bill's little blue pills, but last night we saw them again, falling down the drain of a motel sink as Bill panicked. Unaided by Viagra, Bill seems unsure, if not impotent—and not just sexually. Yes, he has to rely on Margie, with her polka dot bikini and her license to be a whore (aka her platinum hair), to get him excited enough to be able to have sex with Nicki (who, in turn, has to rely on thoughts of Ray the DA and his cardigans to get her excited enough to want to have sex with Bill), but on the road and Viagra-free, Bill is weak in other ways as well. He doesn't stand up to the "church scholar" at the jail where Joseph Smith died about the way the church practiced polygamy, and at the casino meeting he was unconfident, like he was waiting for his wives to prop him up—when they didn't, though, he was clearly rattled. (Only rattled men suggest Cher.) Then, when leaving the casino, he doesn't defend his faith when challenged by the angry baptist /guy from Night Court. Granted, it's probably best not to engage with someone who is shouting, "You follow your false prophet and you will live in darkness. Mark my words!" at you and your family. But Bill, though he's a man on a religious pilgrimage, lacks the religious zeal to offer anything besides, "Sir, all I have to say to you is have a nice day."
Clearly, Bill's self-confidence and his faith have been wobbly for a long time, but on the pilgrimage things only get shakier. When he looks through his camera lens at his unwilling, clearly unhappy family, it's as if it's the first time he's really seeing what he's made, and it doesn't look that good. This family portrait is in striking contrast to the one Bill bragged to his mother about of just him and the boys in Episode 2. Doubt and concern flicker across his face. Is he thinking, "What have I done?" Or is he thinking, "How can I make this better?"—because, after all, Bill isn't in the picture, he's the one taking it. But even when he jumps in, no one in the Henrickson clan perks up. Later, his family confirms just how impotent and unimportant he's become, when they forget him at the picnic grounds, and so he has to walk to catch up with them, alone except for his useless, and it must be said totally phallic, time capsule. When he calls Nicki at the hotel, she and Barb don't even look the least bit panicked about having left him behind, which is telling.
But Barb's faith in the principle, and likewise her faith in Bill, is almost constantly being tested. Her cancer scare may have renewed it, but Ana's divorcing the family clearly dealt Barb a blow. And this pilgrimage just piled more of those tests on: first she finds out that Bill has been using Viagra ("I'm pretty sure you didn't need it when it was just us!"); then she thinks that Sarah has been having sex, despite the fact that it's "sacred;" and then Nicki reveals that she's actually the one on birth control, and has been for four years ("If we're on the true path, then why is ths happening, Bill?"). By the end of their journey, after Bill has had his moment crying out for God in the wilderness (well, in the woods by the big Mormon pageant ampitheater), the family couldn't seem more disparate and lost. Then, Sarah has a miscarriage. And the next morning, the news crackles over the cell phones from one part of the caravan to the other. The family gathers around on the side of the road, although this time there is no marker to indicate the grave of the saint who was lost. Barb and Bill hug Sarah, and it appears that the pilgrimage (and, well, the miscarriage) might have finally brought them all together, and repaired their faith in each other. Of course, as with any road trip, the real question is: what will happen when they get home?
--Margene seemed to be the only one whose faith was strengthened on the pilgrimage. When Bill baptized Barb in the name of Ginger, Margene was genuinely moved. Sometimes it pays to have a religion where ghosts can be just waiting for you in a celestial kingdom, instead of hanging around haunting you.
--Don't you want to know what Ben's love note to Margene said? His attraction to her has been brewing for so long, it's so satisfying to see it out in the open—even if it did come about it true broad comedy style.
--Bill: "This is a sacred vessel!"
Margene: "Here's a wet-nap."
Everyone watching: "That's what she said."
--"Has he chased you at night? Has he tried to put you in a trunk?" That's just Wanda!
--Bill Paxton does disgust really well, and he looked really disgusted at Nicki's birth control revelation. True to form, though, Nicki is such an adept liar first she minimizes ("The doctor put me on them for cramps.") then she deflects by bringing up Bill's Viagra.
--Guess Teeny's back from "athletic camp"