We live in an age where there are few good reasons to be religious, honestly. Science has answered nearly all of the practical questions religion used to answer for people, and people have built community structures that fulfill most of the functions the church used to fill in the lives of those who needed a connection not just to the great beyond but to each other. It’s easy to find arguments that humankind is evolving past religion, is moving to a point where it will no longer be necessary, and while I highly doubt we’ll ever come to a point where people just abruptly give up on religion wholesale, it does feel like the church plays less and less central a role in the lives of many Americans (and polling bears this out).
But if there’s one thing religion is still good for, it’s continuity, a sense that there is a foundation, a history, a connection, a tradition that you are a part of and that you will become a part of. The people who worship at a church are frail and fallible; the church itself is nearly eternal, stretching off into the past and then on into the future. We stand on the ground laid out by those who came before us, and in the church, that feeling is sacrosanct, a part of the religious experience. If you go to a Catholic church, the mass is not celebrated in exactly the same was as it was 1500 years ago, but it’s evolved remarkably little since then, compared to what other institutions still exist from that time. It’s easy to scoff when the church says it has a gateway to eternity, especially if you’re a non-believer, but in a way, the very act of taking part in worship is something eternal and mysterious.
At its best in its first three seasons, Big Love understood that for all of the things Bill did that should have driven his wives from him, the community of worshippers he had built up around himself was what kept them coming back. In those first three years, Big Love understood both the pitfalls and the allure of a fundamentalist creed, where the self was sacrificed in favor of the larger body, but you always knew you had a place in that body. Think, for instance, of the baptism of Margene way back in season one or the scene in “Come, Ye Saints” where the characters try to make a home for Margene’s mom in the afterlife, a home she will come to share with them, via a post-death ritual. If I had to pinpoint something specific that’s been lost in the final two seasons, something specific that made them feel emptier than the first three (and I continue to think season five had moments of near magnificence), it would be the loss of that wonder, that awe, that sense of belonging. Used to be when a character like Barb or Margene contemplated leaving the family, you could understand how much that loss would mark them, would leave them aching. In the last two seasons, it just seemed like they were idiots not to go.
The series finale of Big Love abruptly re-engages with these questions in a way that’s occasionally satisfying, often erratic, and ultimately moving, even if it doesn’t suggest the show ever figured out a way to wrestle with many of the thorny ethical dilemmas it set up for itself in a real way. Don’t get me wrong: The sight of Bill bleeding out on a suburban street, his three wives hovered over him, Barb giving him the blessing he needs to move on into the eternal, to become a part of that great continuity, makes for an intensely moving moment—even if you don’t particularly care for Bill!—simply because of the strength of the actors involved and so on and so forth. But it’s also kind of a copout, a weird way to turn Bill into a combination of Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ, and Harvey Milk (thanks, guy in comments!), all without ever really dealing with the enigma that sat at the show’s center for so long. Bill has a moment of clarity here—when he sees the generations of Mormons preceding him in his vision and realizes that, yes, Barb should have the priesthood—but it’s not exactly the man coming to terms with everything he was, both good and bad.
For as much as we rag on Bill in these articles and comments every week, he IS good at some things. He genuinely did seem to want to clean up the state of polygamy and reform places like Juniper Creek. He did really love his wives—all three (and occasionally four) of them—and he wasn’t a bad father, not really, particularly to his two teenagers, whom he tried to steer with a little grace and understanding. On the other hand, he was also a selfish, petty man, casually destroying people around him without seeming to realize he was doing it and changing what he believed to suit whatever his will was at the time. If the plural marriage he built worked, it was less because of his work and more because his three wives made it work, pulling together to perform the tough tasks of a family figuring out how it’s going to make the wheels that keep things going hum right along. (My wife said, after the episode was over, that the show was always at its best when it focused on the central idea of a love story between the three wives, and I don’t think she’s far off.)
“When Men And Mountains Meet” is a mostly satisfactory ending to a flawed season of a flawed series. What holds it back, really, is the fact that the bad stuff is so, so bad, without a real sense of how it will play on TV. For the first 45 minutes of the episode, I genuinely thought the writers were going to pull off a nicely muted conclusion to the series, an episode where the family didn’t splinter apart, not really, but did show how it would perhaps eventually do so, with Margie pursuing her volunteer work and Barb following her own pursuits and pulling away from the family—especially if Bill was in prison. For a show that has been so, so over-the-top so often, I was surprised at how quiet it was, how understated. (That scene where Bill and Margie talk about her trip and what’s unstated is just how much this marriage has robbed her of her most vital years was a remarkable piece of writing without telling the audience what to think.) I was even fine with that scene where Bill introduces an amendment to legalize polygamy because it was so clearly a task he could never accomplish, even with his remarkable history of pulling things off that should clearly fail. It was a Frank Capra moment, sure, but one where the hero was doomed to failure, and that made it work, somehow.
But from there, the episode took a hard left turn into awfulville, with a quick succession of scenes. First of all, Bill discovered that his speech on the state Senate floor had led to such a sensation among the many closet polygamists that they all drove many miles to attend his church on Easter Sunday. It was another moment of Bill Henrickson, righteous man, and that’s the portrayal of the character—devoid of nuance or intrigue—that most drives me nuts. There might have been a way to make this work, sure, but then THAT was followed up by the scene where Barb is about to be baptized in her new church and abruptly realizes—IN THE BAPTISMAL TUB—that she can’t do this, that she needs to be at her husband’s church. Again, I can see a way to make Barb coming back to the fold work (the show has certainly done it before), but combined with everything else, it felt like far, far too much, like the show was suddenly validating Bill for everything he stood for, rather than viewing him with any shades of grey whatsoever.
And don’t get me wrong. I was not enjoying the bulk of this sequence, with its Bill glorification and everything pointing toward a sheer, happy ending, but as I watched that weird scene where Bill spoke to his congregation and then saw the generations that preceded him, the people who created this creed he’s standing up for so firmly, some of this started to come together for me all the same. Here is everything Bill has chased all series long. Here is his vision. Here is his calling. Here is his moment when the Principle is not just something he lives but something that rises up and takes hold of him. And it’s ultimately about something as mundane as giving women the priesthood (strange how the crux of the whole series rests on this bit of what ultimately seems like religious esoterica). He sees Emma Smith again, and he knows a path forward.
And then we cut BACK to his ACTUAL followers, not to the glorious tradition and the past but to the world as it is, to the place we actually live in. Big Love has always posited this conflict between reality and the world the faithful wish they lived in, between Paradise and Utah, and it’s never been more explicit than it is here. Bill may dream himself to be a prophet, a man who can lead the people forward to the promised land, but he’s still just a man, and he’s still got to, y’know, LEAD, when the people he’s leading are a dull and dingy lot, not possessed of the power and fortitude his forebears had (or that which he imagines they had). And he’s still a prophet who can’t see that his neighbor is clearly troubled, who goes outside and gets shot without apparently realizing it’s coming at all, a man who has a revelation and promptly dies for it. And from here, the episode moves into its genuinely moving denouement, which saves the episode from its prior excess.
One of the major themes of Big Love has been the quest for clarity, for a single moment when the world makes sense and everything falls into place. Bill has that moment, briefly, but it can’t last. It leads to him giving his wife what she wants most, allowing his church to go forward as a weird hybrid of traditionalism and progressivism (at least in Mormon terms), but it also leads to his death. In true religious parable fashion, having understanding can lead only to death because to have understanding is the province of God, not man. We can grasp the surface of things, but we cannot grasp that which lies beneath it. We cannot grasp the eternal cords that bind us together to the past and those yet to come. Bill’s death is a copout, yes, in that it doesn’t make him examine himself or make the show examine him, but it also keeps perfectly with the show’s religious storytelling.
But moments of clarity abound here. You’ve got Ben, trying to be a good man and naming a star after Heather (a dorky moment that’s also sweet). You’ve got the wives riding in Barb’s new car (one of the best scenes the show has ever done, all music and close-ups, with nary a stray line to mess it up), realizing that this might really be it for all of them. You’ve got Nicki admitting that she doesn’t have an ounce of kindness in her and Barb being OK with that because she loves her. You’ve got a family of polygamists living in a manner that doesn’t seem to include any polygamists after the father dies. (When Barb says Sarah’s father made this happen, it almost seems to be a comment on how no one in the family was able to find true fulfillment without Bill being removed from the picture. Would Margene have pursued charity work without him around? Would Barb have become the head of a church? Would Ben have escaped the shadow?) You’ve got Don—somewhat abruptly—realizing Home Plus is going under. You’ve got Carl realizing (or at least guessing at) the source of his troubles. Clarity doesn’t have to exist between man and God, solely. It can also exist between each of us, in those moments when we realize what it is we really want and what we’re willing to ask for.
It’s fitting, then, that where the show leaves us is with Barb and Sarah, the two characters who’ve struggled the most with what Bill did and how they responded to what he did. (Also, Jesse Pinkman drops by to remind us Breaking Bad is debuting in the summer. Hi, Jesse!) Barb and Sarah spent the whole of the series fighting to leave the only life they knew, only to find themselves sucked back in by the fact that the only life they knew had that sense of history, of continuity and purpose. Sarah ultimately escaped, though she’ll attend her mother’s church from time to time. Barb got dragged back in, but she was ultimately able to find her purpose within the family, even if it took her husband’s death to really get to that point. For all of the mawkishness of the final scene, for all of the babies that look like Bill and the ghosts of Bill sitting just off to the side and the slow-motion Margie hugs, it’s in this moment that the series ultimately suggests that pain is worth it, that all of Bill’s striving and awfulness and self-centeredness may have led to something good in the end, anyway, simply because he was surrounded by people better than himself (namely his wives). And when he goes, they live on, arguably a better, stronger unit than they were with him.
Because for all of the ways that we can point to the church as a connection to the past, to the history of the human race, we’ve got another connection that’s with us all of the time. A family is a connection, too, a link between who we are now and who we will become. You contain thousands of years of ancestors within you, leading back to the very dawn of the human race and beyond. And there will be others with bits and pieces of your DNA in the future, even if you don’t have children of your own. What Bill sees as he stands at that pulpit isn’t just the history of his church; it’s the family he hopes will exist eternally. And even if it doesn’t, he lives on, through his children, through his wives, through his friends. He lives on, as does Barb, as does Margie, as does Nicki, as does Don, as does Sarah, as do you. We work, we strive, we hope, we love. And from there, we echo.
- I’m giving this a B+, which is the official grade of, “I liked it, but I dunno…” If we’re breaking it down, I’d give those first 45 minutes an A-, verging on an A. I’d give the stuff with “Bill Henrickson: Real American Hero!” something like a D+. I’d give the final moments of the episode—basically everything from Lois and Frank on—something that would veer wildly between an A and a B-. It was a MESSY episode, but in writing about it, I came to like it much better. It was a marked improvement over last week, at least. (And I know I’m just feeding into everybody’s obsessions with grades with this little paragraph, but why not?) Also, you must factor in the well-known VanDerWerff Series Finale Factor, in that I tend to like series finales a lot—even the really bad ones—because I am a reverse Don Draper and only like the endings of things.
- I’d give the season as a whole a B. The story it told occasionally felt far too chaotic, but when it needed to make an emotional moment stick, it almost always pulled that off. While we’re at it, I’d give the series as a whole a B+. Those first three seasons featured some remarkable television, season four featured some gutsy (if terrible) television, and season five wrapped things up without embarrassing itself.
- And I forgot to talk about Lois and Frank in the write-up proper. They often felt shoehorned in (and if the show was going to shoehorn these two in, I wouldn’t have minded some sort of moment from Bill’s long-lost brother, Joey), but that final scene where Frank cradles his wife’s dying body (at least I don’t THINK he took the injection?) was very moving.
- It would have been nice to have ONE character poke holes in all of the mythology Bill has built up around himself in this episode. Still, Sarah was always the character the show did that with, and she wasn’t around until the very end.
- Though I didn’t think season five was BAD, by any means, the changing of the opening credits sequence is kind of the new ultimate example of a shark jump, huh?
- Those of you who've been predicting Carl in comments for weeks now must feel pretty peachy, huh?
- I thought that was a nice callback to the show’s roots with the Natalie Maines cover of “God Only Knows” playing over the final pullback out of the Henrickson house and up into the sky. (Also, I guess Bill’s death meant everybody started liking Home Plus again or something, since no one had to sell the houses!)
- I will admit that when the women were out in the car, I wondered where the hell the kids were. I guess with Ben or something.
- For all of the sturm und drang surrounding the Cara Lynn and her teacher storyline, it sure got shifted to the back burner tonight. Still, that scene where Bill talked about it with her was one of those scenes where he’s good enough to just shut up and listen. If the show had featured him doing that more often, it might have been easier to buy his periodic shifts into hero mode.
- I’ve always loved Gregory Itzin, but he ended up getting shit-all to do as the Senate leader. Also, why the hell did the show bring in Robert Patrick again?
- James Poniewozik over at Time has been doing a great job defending this season (I anxiously await his write-up tomorrow), and I really loved what he had to say about the show both last week and the week before. Similarly, I liked this piece on how the final season of Big Love reflects the challenges of feminism in the last 40 years that ran at the Atlantic.
- Who’s with me on watching the Henrickson Wives spinoff? C’mon! There’s gotta be someone!
- And with that, I say goodbye to the show I’ve had the longest professional relationship with of any show, having covered it regularly since 2007, at this point. Even though the road hasn’t always been smooth, it’s been a terrific time, and if nothing else, I’ve learned how to write much, much, much, much, much, much longer pieces than I did when I first wrote up the second season premiere. If any of you followed me all the way from the House Next Door to here, it’s been a pleasure, and I hope to catch you again somewhere else. If any of you just started reading me on this show here, eh, you probably read the Community reviews already. It’s always a weird thing to have a show you’re covering (that’s been on for a while) end, and I’m thankful to everyone who’s read any one of these pieces for arguing and making my arguments sharper. It’s been fun. I’ll see you around.
- "It's a… medical ship."