Big Love

If HBO were to do a sequel to Big Love, it would have to be called something like The Three Sister-Wives. Not exactly Chekhov, but I'd probably watch. Barb, Margene and Nicki carrying on without Bill: That's already a home plus.

I had drifted a while ago from the flock of followers of this weird and lately quite preachy series about polygamy and family and faith, but did a marathon catch-up over the last week in time to watch the final chapter, which aimed for transcendence and at times achieved it. The hour-plus finale thankfully shucked much of the grotesque Utah-Mormon-Gothic melodrama (murderously mad prophet Alby was taken care of last week, shot down but not killed when he tried to storm the statehouse with the Henricksons inside) and stressed the themes of an unorthodox family and marriage unit fighting for acceptance and survival in a judgmental and often violently unforgiving world. (If you want to see this as a metaphor for the ongoing fight for gay marriage equality, I won't stop you.)

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Much about this current season either didn't make sense or greatly annoyed me. Top of the list was the predictable political and personal fallout from Bill publicly announcing his family's polygamist status after his election to the state senate. What did he think was going to happen? An open embrace? As others have noted, it would be like President Obama taking the inauguration podium to say his haters were right after all and he wasn't born in America. And then there were hopeless subplots like Margene's naive involvement with a pyramid-scheme sales scam, and newly adopted Cara Lynn's CW/ABC Family-like secret fling with a teacher — which was meant to echo Bill's own romance with third-wife Margene, who (unbeknownst to him) was underage at the time, a scandal that threatened to bring the family down and send Bill to jail.

What resonates most for me about this final hour of Big Love is how it shows the women in Bill's life reaching for a sense of identity that isn't defined by the stubborn, rigid man whose bad decisions have brought them (and the Home Plus business on whose profits they live) down. It also reminds us how much more satisfying the performances of these fascinated women have been (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin) than that of the oddly stilted patriarch (Bill Paxton) they claim to love in a big, messy way.

First wife Barb, now divorced on paper so Bill and Nicki could legally adopt Cara Lynn, is defiantly pursuing a new faith: a reform Mormon church that welcomes women like her into the priesthood, something Bill sees as a betrayal. Nicki, fearing anything that will split the family apart, is all judgey as usual, telling Barb, "It's good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out." And later, upon hearing Margene speak openly of traveling the world to be of humanitarian service, Nicki snipes: "That's about the most selfish thing I've ever heard. How can you not feel guilty?"

Which is why one of my favorite scenes of the episode finds a distraught Nicki confessing to Barb, "I don't have an ounce of the milk of human kindness in me. I'm spiteful, jealous and mean." To which Barb can only say, "I know!" Twice.

The other best scene finds the three wives sharing a rare moment of freedom and happiness, taking a joy ride in Barb's new convertible that she has named Honeybee. "I think In Your Face would be a better name," Nicki grouses from the cramped back seat, but even she begins to enjoy the moment — until the burdens of what awaits them back home begins to sink in. And sure enough, once they come in the front door, Bill lights in to Barb, seeing it as a betrayal that she would trade in the decrepit (but full of family history) station wagon without telling anyone. "You got rid of us. You threw us away without so much as a second thought?" Bill, smarting from the collapse of Home Plus, is clearly seeing this as an extension of her rejection of his patriarchal church. Just a few scenes earlier, he left her bed for Nicki's, telling Barb, "I built this church for you when you were excommunicated. For you. Do you know how much it kills me that you can't find a home in it?"

In Big Love, home is where the heart is, as long as you follow Bill's rules. And while Bill comes off as a dedicated father and tireless husband of three, there's a feeling of relief whenever he's not in the picture. Which is why that scene in the car was so blissful. And which may be why Nicki's epiphany about love ("It scares me, too, because it still always feels dangerous somehow") comes with her troubled daughter and not with her husband.

The episode builds in its own meandering and disjointed way — did we really need the Ben/Heather/Rhonda subplot? — toward an eventful Easter, where Barb decides mid-immersion that being baptized in the new church is not the right move: "If my family's not here, then I'm not here." She hastens to Bill's church, where a large gathering of 480 supportive polygamists have assembled in the wake of his media blitz, which included a last-minute move to put the legalization of polygamy back on the Senate agenda. Bill has a vision mid-sermon of the Mormons of Olde, apparently giving him their blessing in a diorama-like tableau. "I felt a grace descend upon me," he tells son Ben afterward. And then insists to his failed business partner Don: "The only thing that matters: our families, our marriages. Faith comes from that love, not the other way around."

If all of these grand pronouncements from the non-heavenly father Henrickson get you thinking something ominous is about to happen — because the clock is ticking on the final episode, after all — you're right. Out of nowhere, Bill is struck down outside his house, a suburban martyr felled not by one of his mortal foes but by the milquetoast unemployed neighbor Carl, whose wife Pam got caught up in Margene's pyramid scheme against her husband's wishes. "I won't be ridiculed! I will not be a failure!" says the failure to Bill's face. And as we go back inside with the sister-wives, we hear gunshots. They race outside to cradle and comfort their fallen husband, who looks at Barb and asks for a blessing as we fade to white. (This was immediately preceded by an even more heartbreaking moment with Bill's wackadoo parents, as Frank cradles his dementia-addled wife Lois after injecting her with an overdose to put her sad soul at eternal rest.)

Jump 11 months ahead, and we get a very moving coda to show us that life goes on for the Henrickson women and their extended family. Sarah and husband Scott have returned — the first glimpse of Amanda Seyfried and Aaron Paul this season — for the blessing of their first child, a boy named after Bill. (Daughter Teeny remains off camera as usual.) Barb, now in the priesthood at last, has performed the blessing. Margene is about to leave for another three-month humanitarian mission. And Nicki is keeping the home fires burning, testifying how "We're strong. We've been forged. We endure." The three women tearfully hug as we glimpse Bill's ghost at the head of the table. The camera pulls back while a Natalie Maines version of the show's original theme song (the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows") fills the soundtrack and fills our heart with affection for the survivors. 

At least Big Love had an ending. Not every HBO series has been so lucky.

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