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Big Love: "The Oath"

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Big Love

"The Oath"

Season 5, Episode 4

One of my favorite songs by Sufjan Stevens is “Seven Swans,” off the album of the same name. The song is a lilting, haunting melody, where the singer moves through a world as marked by absence as anything else. The lyrics are suggestive, often evocative of some sort of small-scale apocalypse, where the singer’s world has come crashing down around his ears (if the rest of the world hasn’t). And then, abruptly, around the song’s midpoint, the music begins to build in intensity, a crescendo carrying the listener to some new moment, some new thought. Stevens then describes someone who will always be after you, chasing you down if you run, pulling you back if you try to get away. And then he tosses in the kicker: “For he is the Lord,” high-pitched, over a chorus of other ethereal voices, sounding absolutely terrifying. On an album filled with sweet post-modern hymns to Christ and God, “Seven Swans” is a necessary comedown. If you believe in God, sometimes all you want is to be certain He doesn’t exist.

I often feel that way about the characters on Big Love, particularly the ones in “The Oath,” which mixes some sublime moments of often raw power and doubt with, well, with Bill getting applauded by a handful of people in the state Senate chamber after he makes a valiant stand for his right to be sworn in. Also, he wanders through some of the sets HBO had left over from Tony’s elaborate visit to Purgatory in the final season of The Sopranos to talk with Emma Smith about odd, elliptical things, in the way of television dream sequences. It can be hard to stomach all of this talk of Bill as a good man or the true prophet or what have you, until you realize that much of the rest of the episode is devoted to tearing him down. He tries to put the business with Margie’s true age behind him, thanks to Nicki’s forged birth certificate, but it won’t go away. His wives are pissed. And Don reminds him that he couldn’t be warned off of Margie at all; he had to have her. And even if he had no clue that she was 16 (something Don finds sort of unbelievable), he knew she was a non-believer, and that made her unsuitable for marriage anyway.

One of the strongest feelings Big Love can evoke when it’s at its best is that sensation of never being able to escape, of an all-seeing God who is less interested in being a loving and heavenly Father than in constantly watching you, making sure you don’t escape his loving embrace. One of the biggest criticisms skeptics of the show have leveled at it is the idea that these women should have long ago left Bill, that he treats them like shit and their religion is even worse. But what Big Love understands better than almost any other American show that features fundamentalist religion as a major plot point is the idea that you can’t just leave that world. That world becomes your whole cosmos, everything you hold to be true and need to be correct. Any creed worth its salt means that the individual must subsume themselves to the collective, and breaking those bonds, escaping that lifestyle, often requires a level of effort and desire to change oneself personally that most people simply don’t possess. If you’ve ever read books or blogs by ex-fundamentalists, this will become abundantly clear. The hunger for that crystal-clear center, where all of the answers are known and nothing is in doubt, returns again and again. Break away from Bill? Leave behind the principle? You may as well try to run from God Himself.

This week is filled with people trying to run from what they’ve believed and largely failing, but let’s start with this week’s “Hey, remember when they were on the show?” arrival, Rhonda Vollmer. Big Love is already so close to dangerously overstuffed that I’m not sure why it keeps bringing back characters, but I ended up glad to see Rhonda, who’s putting on a good show about having turned a new leaf and being apologetic for the mean things she said back in the day, but is still Rhonda underneath it all. How does she enter the show again? Well, she’s married to one of Cara Lynn’s family members, Verlen, a guy that Cara Lynn’s been talking to (though we’re not sure how, since Nicki would surely put the kibosh on that) for hours on end. Rhonda’s got a baby, and she insists it’s Verlen’s, in the face of Ben’s rather insensitive questions. But she also pushes a few things here and there that probably don’t need to be pushed, bringing up Heather’s possible lesbian proclivities when she sees that she and Ben are getting close or telling Alby in excruciating detail everything that happened to her after she fled, thanks to what his dad did to her. Rhonda hasn’t been able to wholly flee the world she left, but she’s abandoned the principle, and she’s starting to come to terms with who she became in the wake of what Roman did to her.

So we’re seeing the very real consequences of what happened to Rhonda as a result of being a child bride, and then the show tries to figure out just what it was that made Margie pursue the marriage to Bill (and he the marriage to her) on the flip side of that. It’s a canny, queasy bit of storytelling, just the latest in a long line of comparisons between Bill and Roman, the man he wanted to do anything to avoid becoming. (And is the show still setting us up for that? I fail to see a way in which Bill can avoid that bill making polygamy a felony, which could send him fleeing into the wilderness, right back into the arms of Juniper Creek.) Of course it’s different for Bill and Margie, Margie insists! They really loved each other! It had nothing to do with Bill being led around by his crotch (remember: he slept with her before marriage) or Margie frantically looking for a family where she could belong (as she says, she would have done ANYthing to be adopted). It was love! Between a man in his 40s and a teenager. That happens! Even Don, who used to be the one guy who could be taken in by Bill’s bullshit, doesn’t buy that. 

I get that some of you don’t buy this plot development with Margie. But I’m still loving the fallout from this revelation, the way that little scenes in the family will instantly turn into bitter, vituperative screeds, as Margie’s one revelation has begun to snowball, dragging in all sorts of other buried secrets from the past. Why was Barb so cool with letting Margie into the marriage? Well, she was miserable with Nicki around, all right? And even though she might have suspected, just a tiny little bit, that Margie wasn’t of age, well, what’s the problem, if the teenager your husband’s planning to marry makes you the slightest bit happy and alleviates the depression you’re increasingly able to keep from caving in everything around you? But even if you read this situation in the best possible way, even if you grant Bill and Margie the idea that they were in love and were both adults capable of understanding what that meant, you still come up against something Nicki says: Margie was 16. You can’t know what you want when you’re 16. And she should know all too well, having been J.J.’s teenaged bride.

In short, whatever logical problems might arise from the Margie revelation (and I think they’re few and far between), I like how the show is using it to unbury all sorts of old business, to tie together bits and pieces of storylines from throughout the run of the show into one grand, terrifying design. This is what happens when you build a religion like this, designed to promote the unending sexual satisfaction of men and the unending servitude of women. Even if its inadvertent, younger and younger women get drawn into that web. Barb’s fighting for some sort of voice in her religion because she knows all too well what happens when women are silenced. The monsters of this polygamist world aren’t all like Alby (still strutting around like a supervillain, sadly). Her own husband, much as she loves him, is just as bad.

I do worry I’m overrating this episode just a bit. It’s crammed full of incident, to the point where much of what happens has little time to land and gets pushed back to the weeks to come (when the writers will probably shove it aside in favor of other stuff). Melanie Marnich, who’s responsible for many of the series’ finest hours, including “Come, Ye Saints,” scripted this one, and while she makes a lot of the individual scenes land, there’s a breathless quality to everything that happens that never stops to settle down in the back half, as the show has the last two weeks, even when Margie, uh, runs over Bill with a car. (She just bumped him!) For every scene like the one where Rhonda sows destruction among the teenagers or where Barb quietly seethes at Margie over the dinner table, there are many more filled with strange, goofy business, like the scene where Bill and the Senate leader compare guns in a way that I highly doubt two people would ever, ever do. Plot revelations—like the fact that Lois has herpes—come out of nowhere and are discarded just as quickly, and the episode’s closing passages, while bold, don’t really make a lot of SENSE, particularly that dream sequence, which seems to be Bill’s prophet gift trying to paper over the past (via the religion of lies he talked about earlier) followed by some vague portent for the episodes to come but doesn’t ever earn its weirdness. And I’m still uncertain about the season’s design, which seems to spend plenty of time in every episode castigating Bill, then ends every episode by giving him a “hooray!” moment, where people cheer him (granted, just a few people, but still). 

Or maybe these are people frantically running from what they know is coming, trying to find their own peace of mind before the God they believe in swoops down to take them home, their lives not yet fulfilled. Big Love, like The Sopranos, the series that led-into it for its first season, is about a bunch of people stuck in stasis, and unsure of why that is, because they refuse to examine the very core thing that’s keeping them that way. Or, put another way, when Bill is triumphantly sworn in in the Senate (sort of), he later emerges into the hallways of the Capitol that night to hear the sound of someone in the building with him, moving around in the darkness. While I’m sure this is just the show letting us in on how paranoid Bill must be getting, with all of the threats he’s been receiving, it puts me in mind of that song again. Somewhere, out there, in the darkness, there’s something you can’t escape. And whatever name you put on that, when the time comes, you’ll be struck down with terror.

Stray observations:

  • Cara Lynn’s teacher takes a few steps firmly over the “creepy” line in this week’s episode, even as he’s essentially being a pretty good guy, telling her she can talk to him about the death of her dad any time. Is there any way to read this as anything other than a tired, “teacher in love with student” plot about to happen?
  • After some of you were wondering what happened to Heather’s seeming attraction to Sarah, Rhonda brings it up wholesale. I was glad the show did this, and just as glad that Heather and Ben started making out later on. One of the things I’ve loved about the show is the way that it’s revealed just how in denial the other fundamentalists around the polygamists are, particularly in regards to gay and lesbian issues. Even if Heather’s a lesbian (and she very well might not be), it’s unlikely she’d ever do anything about it, beyond idle imagining. It’s a powerful restatement of the show’s basic theme of people subverting themselves in the face of something they believe to be the one, true, only way.
  • Sarah’s been surprisingly important to every episode this season, and she comes up in Bill’s talk with Emma in his dream. They couldn’t have given Sarah some of this importance in Amanda Seyfried’s last season on the show? (Sarah may be one of the show’s most thematically rich characters, and the series is weaker for not having her around this year.)
  • I was cautiously optimistic about the Lois storyline last week, but it just feels like a time sink this week, a way to give Grace Zabriskie something to do, but yet another way for the writers to show off how much they’ve researched polygamy, without building that into believable character motivations.
  • Margie remains just about the show’s most sympathetic character at this point, what with her juice selling and her attempts to have a little scripture reading at 6 a.m. And still the family piles on her! At least she’s got that awesome T-shirt (if you’ll permit my prurience for a moment).
  • Of the many, many very special guests the season has brought in, Gregory Itzin continues to be the one doing the best job of making his character feel like he fits in the show’s heightened reality, without really being a part of it. He comfortably straddles both our world and the show’s soapier one.
  • And I’m typing this up very late, after a lengthy day of watching other stuff, so if I’ve made any big mistakes, please, please correct me. I thank you in advance.
  • "You owe me $240. And DON'T let anybody hold it up to an infrared."
  • "We may not be Catholics, but we're one up on the Scientologists."
  • "Let me get this straight: I made you so unhappy that I drove you into the arms of Margene?"

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