There are good ways to build suspense, and then there are… not good ways to build suspense. This season on Big Love, we’ve seen both. We’ve seen the show awkwardly shoehorning in dialogue that’s meant to explain stuff that probably would have been better dramatized. “Oh, hey, teacher, remember when you kissed me last week?” “Gee, it’s too bad that Alby bought the Home Plus building from our landlord. Now we’re really in trouble!” In both cases, the show could have probably benefited from a more direct approach, either showing that kiss on screen or providing some sort of foreshadowing for Alby’s move beyond just having Alby talk a lot about how evil his grand master plan would be. It’s also notable that in both cases, the situations involved felt like piling on, like the show was adding on even more stuff to a narrative that was already top-heavy with plot points.
But there’s also, as mentioned, a good way to build suspense, to give the sense that things are coming that can’t be driven back. Throughout this episode, we see tiny snippets of scenes of the authorities getting ready to move against Bill for one reason or another. They’re visiting the Senate leader. They’re carefully looking over footage of Margene’s pro-polygamy rally (sponsored, unbelievably, by Goji Juice, the only corporation that aligns itself with potentially image-killing causes because its leader is sweet on a girl). They’re tipping off Heather’s dad, so he can call Heather and let her know to get the hell out of the wedding reception she’s at, before the hammer falls. And, in this case, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Margie’s speech at the rally tipped someone within the church off, and they went digging through state records and found her birth certificate. One of the many bombs planted early in the season has gone off, and somebody somewhere knows Bill is guilty of statutory rape.
Now, honestly, I’m not sure why Barb gets hauled off instead of Bill in this case. Maybe the group doesn’t have enough proof. Maybe all of Margie’s kids were born after she was enough past 18 to not have to worry about age of consent laws. (I honestly don’t remember the timeline on this, but it strikes me as unlikely.) But Bill’s in big trouble. He’s broken the law, in a way that plays in to all of the worst views society has of polygamy (and we in the audience have of him), and he stands to face hefty punishment of one form or another. Via incredibly convoluted means, Big Love has managed to boil the series down to its two most basic conflicts, heading into its final three episodes ever. It’s now almost exclusively a show about how people who are supposed to be in the world but not of the world are able to still live in the world and a show about the old ways of polygamy (as represented by Alby and Juniper Creek) coming into conflict with the new ways (as represented by Bill).
Oh, also, it’s about a teenager sleeping with her teacher. This plotline continues to be supremely uninvolving, but at least tonight it took on that extra layer of being even more creepy. Most of the time, when TV does a plot about teenagers having sex with their teachers, it becomes some sort of forbidden romance storyline, or, at the very least, a story about a young boy coming of age in bittersweet fashion. But since the two actors here have almost no chemistry, it’s almost as if Big Love is trying to do something about the creepiness of an older man coming onto a teenage girl, to its credit. In its own way, it’s trying to show us the start of the Bill and Margie courtship and how strange that must have looked to outside observers. Why did everybody look the other way? Well, Barb’s already told us, and Nicki’s pretty naïve, all things considered, but what’s great about this is that when Margie looks at how Cara Lynn is around her teacher at the reception, she KNOWS. It’s a great, disquieting moment, just before the bottom drops out.
“Til Death Do Us Part” has problems—what episode this season hasn’t?—but I appreciate the way it continues to streamline the plot, to bring everything back down to those two basic ideas. Around the episode’s midpoint, Barb tells Bill that she’s gone ahead and gotten a minister’s license from the online Universal Life Church, so she can be the one to perform the wedding ceremony for Bill and Nicki when the time comes. She outlines the benefits of this position—chief among them the fact that it will be much easier to keep the whole marriage issue a secret if the wedding is carried out at home and not in public—but Bill’s against it. Why? Well, he understands that his marriage to Nicki is just going to be an “on-paper” marriage, one designed to bring certain legal benefits to Nicki and Cara Lynn, but he refuses to abide by the idea of an on-paper church. That, to him, is a step too far.
These are the questions Big Love, a series steeped in lies and misdirection for most of its run, has always grappled with. What is “real,” when it comes to things like marriage or family or religion? Do you need the full authority and backing of a major organization to have a real church? Or can it just be as simple as one person sharing a moment with what they believe to be God? Is Barb any less holy for splitting off from Bill’s church over something she believes to be divinely true than Bill was when he split off from the mainline LDS church or the Juniper Creek gang over something he believed to be divinely true? And is a marriage more than just something that’s there on paper, a legal partnership designed to bring benefit to both partners? Can you be married without that paper? At its best, Big Love brings these questions to the forefront, yes, but it also suggests that the answers are as uneasy to grab hold of as any other concrete answers. Barb opens the episode clipping coupons, instead of going to church. Can’t that be a form of worship? (Probably not, but the show would likely argue that following one’s own calling, even if it leads into the wilderness, takes precedent above all else.)
The series has always been about this struggle between being true to yourself and being true to your God. In some cases, that struggle has warped and twisted people beyond all recognition. If Alby had been raised in an environment where he could understand his homosexuality as something other than a terrifying secret to keep at all costs, he might not have become the bitter, vengeful cartoon villain he’s descended to this season. (His scene with Verlen in this episode was alternately strange, horrifying, and weirdly touching, as it got at some part of Alby he can never wholly bury away, no matter how much he tries.) In some cases, subsuming one’s self into the religious body becomes more important than fighting to figure out what it is that person really wants. Margie, for instance, has been struggling to find a purpose for ages and is now grabbing at straws to hope that purpose is within this new church and within selling the useless Goji juice she’s come to believe so much in. Or take Heather, for instance, who showed at least lesbian leanings earlier in the series but has firmly tamped those down, even as Rhonda remembers them, in favor of hooking up with the brother of the girl she had a crush on. And in some cases, the self keeps knocking, keeps saying, “Hey, some of this stuff doesn’t make sense,” and makes a path out of that world, toward some newer, scarier world that also has more room to grow in. It’s that struggle, between Barb and the creed she’s forced herself to believe in, that has become the spine of the entire series, and this is her greatest test.
One of the biggest problems in understanding Big Love has always been that it’s about this fundamentalist world. Even the non-polygamist characters live within a lifestyle that’s alien to the more upscale, urban, liberal audience that HBO tends to attract. As mentioned, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church, and some of this stuff just baffles me. (I continue to be greatly intrigued by the notion of who can or can’t receive a “revelation,” for instance, since the idea that just about anyone could have some sort of vision into God’s greater plan was taken for granted in the tradition I grew up in.) But once the show is understood as a struggle by every single character to make their own voice heard amidst the din of a religious organization that’s all about keeping individualism in check and enforcing a kind of conformity, it makes much more sense. Once you understand that long ago, Bill just decided to invent a world where God was telling him to do whatever he wanted, his actions and his stubbornness (particularly his unwillingness to back down from a so-called “holy war” with Alby) become much more interesting. And once you understand that Barb just went along with that, it makes all of her inability to move all of these years that much more fascinating. Why is she moving now? And why is it taking so long?
Again, I had some significant problems with “Til Death Do Us Part.” Outside of that final scene where Margie realizes what’s up, the Cara Lynn-teacher plot continues to be a non-starter, and the whole business with Lois and Frank was dramatically inert, outside of that scene where Barb tried to talk Lois into going into a home. Furthermore, where all of the other plots seem to have moved into a position where they’re declaring how they’ll play into the series’ end game, I have virtually no idea why we’re dealing with Goji juice and/or the marital difficulties of Pam and Carl (unless Carl’s meant to be built up as someone dangerous, in which case, really?). But the core of the show—the story of four people trying to figure out if there’s a way to build themselves as individuals AND as a family unit—is as strong as it’s been in ages. I’m not terribly excited to find out how some of this plays out, but I’ve reached a point where I DO want to see what happens to this family again, where I DO want to see if they completely crumble apart or find a way to move forward together. And for all of the circuitous plotting the show has utilized this season, it’s impressive that the show has found a way for it all to come down to this.
- I don’t have screeners for the final three episodes, so these will go up later than usual in the next few weeks. I know you’ll all be heartbroken.
- So, forthwith: Predictions for the final three episodes? I really do think we’re still heading toward Barb and Margie leaving Bill and Bill taking over Juniper Creek. The scene where he tries to take down Alby by going before the board seems like a prelude to this for me. But I thought Barb would be moved out by the start of this episode, so what do I know?
- For a brief moment, before we got to the mention of France, I thought the teacher (who I refuse to figure out the name for) was going to take Nicki and Cara Lynn to Rent. That might have horrified everyone.
- Ben and Rhonda’s hook-up is over before it even began, though I agree with the commenter last week who found it horrifying but oddly correct. How long before Heather finds out this happened?
- Nice shot: Barb sees Bill performing the resealing ceremony with Nicki and Margie from out in the hall. We cut to the inside of the room and see Barb lurking. Captures the family’s whole dynamic this season in a single shot.
- I like how Don is turning into the voice of reason this season. His insistence that Bill should just back down is going to seem particularly smart in a couple of episodes, I think.
- And finally, just how rich IS Bill supposed to be? He seems to have near-infinite savings at this point.