“D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” like every episode of Big Love this season, veers wildly from what seems like it’s going to develop into the best episode of the season to incredibly awful, sometimes within the same scene. But by the end of it, I was filled with an intense desire to see next week’s episode—the first time that’s happened this season—and if nothing else, that has to count for something. This season, I think, is building a cumulative collection of woes to swirl around the head of Bill Henrickson and his three wives, woes that will erode the already shaky foundation the family is built upon, like wind chipping away at sandstone cliffs. That places a lot of weight on the season’s final two or three episodes to be absolutely awesome and redeem everything that came before them, but if that happens, this could turn out to be one of the show’s better seasons and a triumphant return from last season’s lows. If that doesn’t happen, well, then this will just feel like a bunch of wasted melodrama.
The central storyline of the episode revolves around Bill and Barb’s prospective divorce, one that is ostensibly just on paper but seems like it’s going to become very real. As the episode ends, it more or less does. The paperwork isn’t filed just yet, but Barb’s moved out to live with her mother and think through her heresies, leaving Bill alone to hang the sign in the window of the church his first wife will no longer attend, due to their conflicts. The slow dissolution of this marriage has been coming for so long that I’m surprised at how much poignancy the show has found in it, but damned if these final, bitter moments didn’t feel like something fundamental to the show was coming apart. I suppose the series could come up with some bullshit moment where Barb realizes just how much she still loves Bill or something, but that would be truly unfortunate. What happens here feels lasting and permanent, and I hope the show honors its characters by letting this painful process play out.
I accept that a lot of you have trouble with the particulars of this whole idea. The show itself seems to, as it introduces tonight the fact that if Barb ceased being the legal wife, Nicki would be in charge of Bill’s estate in the event of his death. Nicki doesn’t like the idea of signing over her financial control of Bill’s cash to Barb, naturally enough, refusing to sign the pre-nup that Barb and Bill cook up for her. (Legal matters in polygamist families must be such a constant headache.) And, naturally enough, it would be easier if Nicki just abdicated her parental rights over Cara Lynn to Bill and Barb (though God knows how hard it would be to get her to do THAT), letting the two stay married. Similarly, the entire fight that leads to the on-paper divorce becoming a real divorce in the first place is predicated on some bits of Mormon doctrine that must seem pretty strange to anyone who’s not in the church. I know it seems kinda weird to me, and I grew up in fundamentalist churches (though mainline Christian ones) that didn’t want to give women a voice. The show has skillfully made Barb’s struggle to win the priesthood become a larger symbol of her struggle to find a voice within the family, but it’s still pretty hard for those of us not in the church to grasp the importance of.
Part of the problem with this season is that it, naturally enough, follows season four. But season four wasn’t just a bad season of television. The show could have rebounded from that easily enough. Many shows have followed up terrible or subpar seasons with stellar ones. But season four of Big Love was particularly problematic because it exposed, for a lot of people, things that were always weak in the template of the show to begin with. When the show works, the sheer force of its emotions is enough to overcome all manner of faults, but in season four, those core, emotional scenes got lost in the flurry of plot points, leading viewers to realize that the foundation the show was built upon was always built on things that don’t always appeal to the serious TV fan. Big Love revealed itself to be melodramatic, soap operatic, crammed with plot lines, and much too overstuffed.
But it wasn’t like the show just started being that way in season four. It had always been that way, from day one of the show. (The first few episodes of season one are quieter, but the show picks up plots as the season continues.) The earlier seasons just had more room to breathe and, thus, were able to give the ridiculous plots more of an emotional grounding. The show’s best episode, “Come, Ye Saints,” has something like a dozen plots swirling through it, and it only resolves one or two of them. But it builds to such an enormously powerful moment that it doesn’t matter, because the show is taking these ridiculous moments and treating them as if real, human beings are reacting to them. It was a nifty trick, and it was one Big Love forgot how to perform—or ran out of space for—in season four.
A bad TV season that exposes how rotten the foundation of a show is makes it enormously difficult for the show to come back and regain the same level of respect it has from its former fans. (Two other examples, though I’m sure you can think of more: 24, season six, and Gilmore Girls, season six.) I know some of you think I’m being too easy on the show—and maybe I am!—but I can also tell you that if you go back and read my reviews of seasons two and three, I was borderline ecstatic about the show. Now, I think it’s more good than bad, but I’m much more muted in my praise. Many of you who say you once loved the show have turned on it more ferociously, and I don’t blame you.
The reason I think season five could work—and is, indeed, working here and there and working very well in this episode's strongest moments—is because the show has very carefully started focusing on its characters more under the microscope, dealing with their reactions to all of the insanity going on around them. There’s a truly awful scene in tonight’s episode where Bill and Don sit around and talk about all of the problems they have, and if I thought for a second the writers intended for it to be humorous, I’d see it as a bit of wry commentary on the show’s inability to just focus on one thing at a time. But the scene also revealed something else: I knew all of this stuff was going on, and I knew the writers had dropped the ball in a couple of cases, but I didn’t really care. I was invested in the emotional journey of the characters, and that was what mattered. When the show works on that emotional level, it works as well as any drama on TV, even though it looks like surprisingly few of them. And by the end of “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” I was fully swept up by the season’s emotional throughline, enough that I’m willing to forgive the episode’s awful scenes, like the one outlined above.
There’s one pretty terrible storyline I’m less willing to cut slack, though, and that’s the relationship between Cara Lynn and her teacher. I realize that this is this season’s example of Bill and his wives missing the forest for the trees when it comes to their own families and this season’s example of how a polygamist upbringing damages young women (since Cara Lynn thinks older men know what’s what), but it’s also a storyline that’s been done millions of times before. It’s never fun to see the show retreating into cliché, when it has a setup that’s so resolutely un-clichéd. Furthermore, the connection between the two characters just doesn’t feel all that interesting. It almost seems as if the teacher was only put in here to sleep with Cara Lynn. He’s not a character; he’s a plot point, and that’s a trap that Big Love falls into far too often.
Similarly, the scenes where we meet those plotting against Bill continue to be haphazard and filled with too obvious villains, as though the show has completely given in to its soap opera roots and brought over Tabatha the witch from Passions. (What? I watched Passions in college. Shut up. It was a thing we did.) In particular, that scene on the floor of the Senate, where Bill’s enemies in the state house aligned against him, was incredibly chaotic, to the point where even if the show were utilizing proper political procedure, it felt like it was just making shit up as it went along. And everything with Alby here—even the scene where he and Verlen kissed—was too diabolical by half, making him feel ever more cartoonish.
One plot that didn’t seem like it was going to work but wrapped its way back around to working again was the story of Frank and Lois. The Frank and Lois marriage has long since ceased to be interesting at all, simply because it feels like the same five or six beats played over and over and over. Yes, Frank and Lois have a toxic relationship. Yes, he destroyed her (both figuratively and literally, at this point). Yes, she probably should have tried to escape and didn’t. Lois is so much more interesting as a character on her own—think, again, of that scene where she explains to Sarah about why she cut her hair back in season one for a good example of this—that I don’t get why the show keeps tossing her into these storylines with Frank. And yet tonight’s, presented as a rough parallel to Bill and Barb’s, was a pretty good example of the two working out the troubles in their marriage because Frank, feeling somewhat guilty, wants to take care of Lois in her decline. The scenes on the beach were unexpectedly sweet, and this may be the only show where a character saying they’re not going to kill another is a forthright declaration of love.
Yet if there’s a reason I keep coming back to this as one of the best of the season, it’s the story between Bill and Barb. Sure, it’s been building for a long time. Sure, none of it’s unexpected. But that doesn’t mean the scene where Barb gathers everyone in one last ditch attempt to convince them of the rightfulness of her views on the priesthood and utterly fails to convince anyone (even her mother) doesn’t still sting. It’s harder and harder to feel bad for Bill Henrickson as this show goes along, but that moment where he stands in front of his new church, seeing how well he’s hung that sign, is very sad. Here’s a man who’s finally on the road to getting everything he ever wanted, but now he’s lost the first thing he ever wanted. You give up a little to gain a lot, but you always miss that which was lost.
- Lots of small movements on lots of other plot fronts tonight. In particular, this was one of the better Ben episodes in a while, as he fought to keep his parents together, learned that Heather had another boyfriend who was off on his mission, and went to see Rhonda’s little strip show and kissed her afterwards. Yikes.
- Margie’s obviously got quite a crush on the Goji guy, and it seems he might have just a bit of an infatuation as well, given how he agrees to contribute to a cause he doesn’t believe in just for her.
- I liked Don’s increasing franticness throughout this episode. If Bill were ever able to step back and see all of the people he’s hurt, it’s arguable that outside of his own immediate family, he’s hurt Don the most.
- Forgot to mention this last week, so thanks to some of you for reminding me: That painting of Alby may be the greatest thing ever.
- OK, I thought I had just missed this, but my wife also missed it: Did the show not show the first kiss between Cara Lynn and her teacher? Kind of a gutsy call if it didn’t.
- There’s been some interesting discussion around the show’s rough parallel between Bill’s struggle for polygamist marriage to enter the mainstream and the real-world struggle to make gay marriage legal. The show has always presented this as a sort of sneaky parallel, but it’s become more overt this season (even as the show never forgets that gay people within the fundamentalist Mormon—and mainstream Mormon—lifestyle are forced to hide their desires). In particular, the scene where a neighbor confronts Bill about how he’s right out there in the open, trying to get special rights, is like every conversation a scared anti-gay marriage proponent has had with every pro-gay marriage proponent ever. I’m of two minds about this. It seems fairly obvious to me that the show’s creators aren’t anti-gay marriage. (Indeed, as a committed gay couple, it would be pretty weird if they were.) Yet at the same time, the vision of polygamy shown in Big Love—outside of, briefly, the suggestion last season that there might be a better way to do things, with the relationship between Margie, Ana, and Ana’s husband—is one that just wouldn’t work in the real world. This may be one of those cheeky things the show has hung on to for too long.
- I’ve also noticed that the show’s use of color—long one of its strong points—has been similarly good this year, with the muted tones of the series suggesting that the end is near, as we know it is.
- If you'd like to hear me talking more about the big picture of season five, you can listen to the latest episode of my occasional podcast here.
- "I have absolutely no idea what they're saying."
- "No one's ever tried to kill me before!"
- "I miss you, and we'll probably get pneumonia there."
- "Are you and Renee Clayton being lesbians together?"
- "Right now, I wanna punch you in the face!"