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Big Love: "Exorcism"

One of the things I always like about Big Love, even when it’s awful, as it often was tonight, is its sense of history, of a deep and not completely understood past that informs everything that happens on screen. When the show began, it was more or less about the conflicts between the Henrickson family and the Grant family. Now that it’s got just one episode left, it’s still about that. And while we’ve seen that conflict evolve and change over the years, we still don’t completely understand its depths. We know the broad outlines of it, and we’ve seen the Henricksons and Grants clash over the years, but like so much on this show, the conflict is an iceberg, where we see just the tip of what’s happening, with the bulk of the pain and misery between the two families hid away beneath the water. Things we’ve never fully understood or heard about inform everything that happens on Big Love, and that’s one of the things that occasionally makes the show feel more momentous than it actually is.

There are plenty of good moments and storylines in “Exorcism,” but the good half is balanced out by a half that feels sort of like a long, slow exhale, all of the air going out of the show for no particular reason, as though the series ramped up the tension in episode eight, then abruptly realized it had TWO more episodes to fill, not just the one. I’m glad the show appears to have mostly wrapped up the Juniper Creek storyline in time for the series finale (and those shots of the bulldozers tearing down the Creek were among the episode’s better moments), since I think that would detract from the family at the show’s center, but almost all of “Exorcism” felt like a build-up to a payoff that didn’t come. First, Adaleen and Alby came upon Bill and Barb in the Juniper Creek Dairy, and there was a tense standoff… that ended with Adaleen in custody and Alby escaping. Then Alby invaded the state capitol building, with Margie in harm’s way… and Bill shot him. It’s like the show is trying to set us up for an unquestionably happy ending or something.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the show having a happy ending, at least on the surface. I could buy Bill escaping prosecution and settling down on his Henrickson compound with his three wives, the show leaving us with the sense that they’ll be together forever. The problem is that too often in this episode, the unambiguously good Bill Henrickson, as opposed to the Bill Henrickson who’s just a couple of steps better than Albert Grant and his father, showed up, and the show seemed to think of this as a good thing. There were lots of strange, strange, poorly judged moments in the episode, like when Bill came home to find that Margene had taught the kids “Blowin’ In The Wind” and they were going to sing it for him. In a season that’s been pretty smart about showing just how much Bill and his mindless clinging to his doctrine has hurt everyone around him, from friends to family, a happy ending would have to allow for some of that darkness to creep around the edges. The worst moments in “Exorcism” didn’t do that.

Surprisingly, the best thing about the episode was the Cara Lynn storyline, something that felt like a non-starter for most of the season but abruptly came to life last week. I’ve enjoyed the ways the show has made explicit the fact that Bill and company don’t really have a leg to stand on when they tell Cara Lynn and Greg that they can’t be together, and I’ve also loved the ways this revelation has played havoc with Nicki’s sense of herself and her memories of a time when she was a girl who was forced into the arms of another man. Granted, the show fell back on a defense I’m wary it’s starting to take seriously: It was different when Bill and Margie did this, just because. Earlier in the season, the show had more nuance about this issue, rightly arguing that even if Margie had been 18, Bill’s pursuit of her would still have been creepy. But it feels as if this is being swept under the rug just a bit, as though the writers want to get to an ending where the whole family is together and don’t know how to reconcile that with the giant bomb that’s been thrown into the middle of the marriage.

On the other hand, I liked what happened with Nicki in regards to this storyline. I loved the notion that she was going to send Cara Lynn to boarding school and hope that no one else noticed. And I loved that weird, creepy scene where she watched over a sleeping Cara Lynn and then told her everything that was wrong with her but might as well have been criticizing herself. There’s always been a split in Nicki, a split between the fact that a lot of what was done to her was unconscionable and clearly not her fault and the fact that she’s not a very good person. But it’s really come to the forefront in this storyline, and for all of the ways this could have gone wrong, Chloe Sevigny kept things straight and true, making sure that Nicki was unlikable but still completely understandable. Sevigny was the best thing about the often tremendous third season, so it’s nice to see her get a storyline this strong in the series’ closing hours.

Much of the rest of the episode was of varying quality, including a few scenes most viewers have known were coming since the start of the series but somehow didn’t have the payoff they needed. In particular, I’m thinking of Ben suggesting to Heather and Rhonda that the three of them could all get married without apparently realizing that Heather might find this idea horrifying. (On the other hand, I do like that Rhonda continues to be the one character who remembers Heather’s lesbian tendencies.) It’s been clear for ages that Bill’s teachings really screwed up his kids. Sarah had to run far away to escape him and also married a much older man who just happened to be the first person she slept with. But Ben’s always been more warped. Since he conclusively left the path that might have pulled him away from his father in season two, the show has occasionally struggled to know what to do with him. (I was never a big fan of the Ben-has-a-crush-on-Margene arc, even if it made story sense.) Here, though, we see the ultimate fruit of Bill’s living in the world but not being of it plan: Ben thinks he can have two wives, easy as can be, without really realizing that someone like Heather wouldn’t have been raised to find this an acceptable idea at all. (His dad would tell him you’ve gotta spring the plan on your first wife when she’s at her most vulnerable.) And yet the scene was curiously muted, an inevitability that felt like it was just shunted into the storyline to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

This is to say nothing of the way that the Bill and Barb plotline spun its wheels. For the first eight episodes of the season, these two came to a believable crisis point, then navigated partially past it when the family required them to. But with two episodes to go, the writers fall back on having the two continue to have the same argument they’ve been having all season, only this time they don’t really introduce any new nuances. (I suppose one could argue that Barb’s new church is a big development, but it feels incredibly abrupt, even if last week prepared it for us. We’ve barely been to Barb’s new church, so it might as well not exist for us.) The scene where she and Bill are arguing at Juniper Creek as they look for Lois about the central problem in their marriage—the way that Bill convinced her to take on another wife, then another—was good, but it was sort of the same old thing. Barb needs to decide which side she’s on, and this episode mostly just rehashed the same conflicts over again.

And then, finally, there’s the matter of Bill’s impending criminal prosecution. This was another strong story thread, but the show kept forgetting it existed. When the characters were talking about Bill going to prison for 20 years and Margie and Barb being denied conjugal visits and the future of Home Plus, I was right there with the show. Yes, this was a huge deal, the only thing all of these people would be thinking about. But then the plot would disappear for long stretches of time, as Bill absurdly returned to his state Senator job to clear up various plot-related matters or asked in the cops to help guard his house from the rampaging Alby. Don’t get me wrong: Bill needs to go to work, and he needs to protect his family. But the sheer glut of plotlines in the episode meant that the most important one—the question that the finale will seemingly hinge on—kept getting lost until the show decided it was time to talk about it again.

What we’re seeing in “Exorcism,” I think, is a vintage case of Big Love finale syndrome. The show has always been so overstuffed with plotlines that the finales tend to have moments of terrific television—like last season’s scene where Bill outed the family—surrounded by writers frantically tying off as much stuff as they can. The show’s best two seasons, its second and third, both had terrible finales, and the show seemingly doesn’t know what to do when it needs to bring the many plates it’s spinning to a stop. My hope here is that the show is closing off so much in this episode—and in such clumsy fashion (does ANYone believe Alby would talk his mom into killing Bill like that? The writers even seemed to abandon that idea, just having the characters run into each other via random chance)—that it’s leveling the playing field for next week, creating a scenario where the characters will have a moment to ruminate and reflect on who they are and the journey they’ve taken, a finale that might earn some of the weight this show has always had and close things off on a graceful note, rather than a too frantic note. If that’s the case, then an episode as busy, cluttered, and often bad as “Exorcism” isn’t forgivable, but it’s at least understandable. The question, then, is whether the show is building us up toward that unearned happy ending, a bittersweet ending, or a tragic one.

And that brings us back to history and to the ways that faith clashes with those who adhere to it. When Barb talks about changing the Reformed LDS church from the inside, Bill astutely observes that people don’t change churches; churches change people. Everything we’ve seen on the show to this point has suggested this, which is why Barb’s efforts to escape her husband’s church have become one of the central conflicts of the final season. Bill is right when he suggests that if Barb leaves his church, she might eventually leave him. He’s bound himself so firmly to the Principle that it’s more or less become him, especially as he’s able to make it change with whatever shifting winds he feels in that moment. What he misses, though, is the way that the Principle casually destroys the people it touches, even the ones it touches tangentially, the way that it tends to leave hollowed-out husks on the edges of polygamist society. In some cases, this is quite literal—Nicki was never the same after what transpired between her father and J.J. In other cases, you plead with the characters to make better decisions, to walk away—as we do with Barb and, say, Don Embry. And in some cases, there are people whose lives are destroyed by Bill simply by knowing him, as we learn about Carl and Pam in that devastating scene with Margene tonight.

You can’t treat people like bargaining chips without losing some central part of their humanity. You can’t dehumanize women, turning them into breeding stock, without losing some part of your own. Late in the episode, Frank and Lois return to Juniper Creek on some sort of crazy-ass road trip (suggested as Frank’s return to retake the compound, only for the two to enter Roman’s old house and realize how little is left). As the two pick through what’s left of Roman’s legacy, stripping copper wiring from the walls and talking about growing up within the faith, there’s a moment where the viewer realizes that all of these people are fighting over something that’s not even real, a phantom of a prophecy that a man had decades ago that has led them out into the wilderness without hope of coming back. Bill can tear down the physical structures of Juniper Creek, but he can never tear down the things that keep those raised within it in bondage, because those very things have a shackle around his own heart. And as the scavengers descend, pulling apart the last vestiges of what was, it’s easy to realize that none of this had to happen, that all of the misery within this series was avoidable. So long as the show keeps its focus on that idea, it works. When it tries to make Bill the hero, it flails around lifelessly. “Exorcism” fails because it tries to have things both ways. Next week will sink or swim based on how clear-eyed it is about the man at the show’s center, the man who takes everything and turns it to ash.

Stray observations:

  • I’ve enjoyed writing about this show over the years, but I must confess that I’m a little thrilled to be done with it next week. I think there’s a lot to discuss within Big Love, and I think it will withstand future revisits (at least the first three seasons; the worth of seasons four and five rests almost entirely on how well next week ties everything up), but I’m also ready for it to be over. I’ll probably put up a finale discussion post next week right after the episode ends, then my review will be posted later.
  • I found the Frank and Lois plot oddly sweet this week, even if the writers seem to be completely uncertain of what to do with the two at this point. I love the idea that all of these people have longed for Juniper Creek all of these years, and now they’re realizing how little there ever was to it to begin with.
  • I liked the scene where all three wives started crying about car maintenance. It struck some of the smart twists on the standard domestic comedy the show had in its first season.
  • I’ve been on the lookout for defenses of this season from folks outside of the usual suspects, which is why I liked this piece by Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz on the show’s creative rebound.
  • Ginnifer Goodwin has been the season MVP, I think, and the scene where she talks to Pam confirmed it for me. For all of the times she’s asked to tear up or look sad, she sells it every time, and this was a case of her realizing just how little she understood how deep in the shit some people are.
  • Good catch, commenters: Friendly security guard really WAS there to just take a bullet for Bill. (At least, I presume that’s who Alby was firing at.)
  • After all of this time obsessing over the wives’ guns, it’s strange that the two people who use them in this episode are Barb, who strips one from Adaleen, and Bill. We can only hope next week concludes with Margie and Nicki going down in a blaze of glory, killing the many, many random guest characters.
  • Another nice sense of history and foreboding: that very short appearance by Selma Greene.
  • Good God were there a lot of weird musical choices in this episode. Was there a point to that scene where the kids sing around the piano, other than to make everything self-consciously "quirky"?
  • For all of my complaining above, I really did find roughly two-thirds of this episode quite good. It’s just that the other third was frequently so, so terrible. I vacillated between a B- and C+, but went with the higher grade because I could see myself watching it again, particularly if next week is any good. If next week sucks, I may just pretend the series ended with last week’s episode.

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