SPOILER ALERT! This story reveals key plot details of Big Love's series finale. Don't read any further if you haven't watched yet.
At the end of Big Love, Bill Henrickson got his wish: His trio of wives remained a cohesive and loving family unit despite attacks on several fronts.
Unfortunately, it was without Bill (Bill Paxton), who was shot and killed — martyred, you might say — by a disgruntled neighbor. In a final epilogue, set 11 months after Bill's death at the christening of his first grandchild, we learned that Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is now leading Bill's flourishing church, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) has softened ever so slightly and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) has followed her bliss into international philanthropy. (And if you looked closely, you might even have noticed wedding rings on Ben and Heather's fingers.)
TVGuide.com spoke to series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, who are already hard at work on new pitches for HBO, about the decision to kill Bill, what really happened in that church on Easter Sunday and which sister-wife they say would start dating again first.
Did you always know how the series would end?
Olsen: No, not until the beginning of this season. Once we made the decision to wrap it up this year, we asked ourselves: What is the most enduring testament to this character that a lot of people love, a lot of people hate, what can we do for him? It wasn't terribly significant that he had two HomePlus stores or a casino. The best thing that could be said of this kid who grew up on a polygamist compound and struggled all his life with that legacy was the creation of a marriage and a family that would endure. What's the best test of that? It endured on the other side of your passing, of your death.
Scheffer: When you start a series, you have a general idea of where you want it to end. The specific idea of Bill dying wasn't there, but we decided to end it because we thought we were at the end of these characters' arcs.
Bill Paxton has spoken about his initial difficulty with accepting his character's fate. Did you ever consider a "Bill lives" ending? Or a "Bill goes to jail" ending?
Scheffer: We definitely considered "Bill lives." But we wanted our hero to win, and going to jail felt like a drag, and success in business or overcoming some small odds didn't really feel like a success. I think we felt like this was the proper ending; this death was not a loss, in a way, it was a triumph. It was a martyr's death, it kept the family together, it was a visionary's death, so ultimately once we had it, we felt pretty solid about it.
Olsen: We didn't want him to be a Martin Luther King figure or an Abraham Lincoln figure, more just a guy who's struggled and come pretty damn close to achieving the mountaintop. He's led his family through the fire. I think that's the impetus that we were looking at, not so much that he's a martyr.
What exactly were we witnessing in Bill's church on Easter Sunday?
Scheffer: This was perhaps the first real moment of grace that Bill has had over the course of the series.
Olsen: In Mormon-speak, it's called a revelation. Mormon theology allows for that, and it's often used for abusive purposes and it's manipulated, but every once in a while, I think it's probably real, and that's certainly what we intended here. It's the emotional opening-up of this character, the rendering of Bill at a different level. It is the receipt of grace. [His sermon] is about family, and he has a vision of that.
Why didn't Barb go through with her baptism? She seemed so determined to.
Olsen: It was emotional-based reason. When she said, "I can't do this. I'm not Barbara Dutton; I'm Barbara Henrickson," she wasn't saying, "I'm Mrs. Bill Henrickson." She was saying, "I'm married to two other women and I have seven, eight, nine other children, and that means the world to me." That doesn't mean she's not going to progress on her journey. It doesn't mean she was going to capitulate. It just means this wasn't the choice for her.
Cara Lynn seemed to be a mirror for Nicki — what did she learn from her daughter? How did the experience change her?
Olsen: Her relationship with Cara Lynn was twofold: It was protection — she was damned if she let anything happen to Cara Lynn that happened to her — and it was also projection — Nikki put all of her issues on to that girl. What Nikki got from that was a type of freedom, in a horribly painful way. When she said those horrible things to Cara Lynn, that was Nikki talking about Nikki. She was saying, "I'm unlovable, I'm a manipulator, I've been on birth control," and she realized that. That was Nikki's day of reckoning. When Nikki goes up to Cara Lynn at the end and tells her that she knows what love is, that's Nikki opening up.
Margene, who was often portrayed as girlishly naive, seemed an odd choice to pursue a life of service. How did you decide that was her journey?
Olsen: We felt that was baked into her DNA as a character. She married into this family not knowing squat about polygamy and not caring. She just knew that she loved these people, and that was enough for her. She's always been driven by her emotions and her deep, almost bottomless reservoirs of unconditional love. It just seemed that as she grew up a bit, she would learn to see things as she did through Goji. She would be the character that would work with grace when she sees the inequities of the world.
A lot of has been said about the new direction that the show's fourth season took — and little of it was positive. How did your thinking change around that time?
Olsen: We simply wanted to go deeper into our characters. Will and I both feel that we bit off more story than we could service in nine episodes. I don't even think that's an opinion; that's probably something close to a fact. It's kind of easy to dramatize a family that works when you're putting them through small obstacles and conflicts. So we wanted to put them through deeper things, so they'd have to dig in and find the tools to make it work. That's what we wanted to do with the last two years of the show. We don't regret that. We're happy with the overall arc.
I know you already gave us an epilogue. But in your minds, where do you imagine these characters are five years into the future?
Olsen: We debated a long time in the writers' room how far forward to put the epilogue. Five years later, are they still all hanging around like sisters in a sorority that are never going to leave college? It felt a little impractical and improbable.
Scheffer: We didn't imagine fully into their future. We didn't think these women would live like nuns together in the same houses, but that they would always be connected, as deep family, whatever happened in their lives, even if there would be other husbands.
Olsen: We always imagined, say, Margene dating and her first rule would be: If you love me, you'd better love my sister-wives. I think they would have remained tight in the future, but I think they would have spread their wings a bit.
And would there be a place for Ana and Bill's baby?
Olsen: I think some day they'll probably get back in touch with her. To us, though, that's not an unfinished story point. Bill's sacrifice of that child in favor of holding on to Margene, that was the reason for that story. We see that as quite fulfilled.
Is there anything you were not able to address that you wish you had?
Olsen: When you're wrapping up a series, you get really melancholy and nostalgic about all your characters. It was really like that scene in the church. I wish we had Harry Dean Stanton [who played prophet Roman Grant] for five years. I wish we had Kathy Marquart [Mireilles Enos] and Lura Grant [Anne Dudek]. I love all these characters.
Scheffer: I feel like we answered all the themes we wanted to outline. I think the finale really does "land" the series in a way that we're really proud of. It's the characters. We were so ambitious, and we had so many characters and it just kept growing and growing and growing...
Olsen: We never met a character that we didn't introduce and then decide to keep around, which is why it became a heavily populated series. There are certainly stories that never made it into a script that were near and dear to all of us. We had a great episode in mind with the whole family piled into cars to visit Sarah and Scott in Portland. But fundamentally, I feel very happy and satisfied with what we've done.
What do you hope that viewers take away from this series?
Olsen: Really, Will and I got on this ride six years ago to talk about endurance and commitment in a marriage and a family. I hope what this year establishes is that, at the end of the day, a family and marriage can change in very fundamental ways, and that's a good thing. But it's not easy and it can be messy. Will felt like [in the first three seasons] we were dramatizing a family and a marriage that works, but that the tests and trials and tribulations were not so deep. It's easy to broker harmony when you're not asked to sacrifice that much. This year we really wanted to raise the stakes. What Barb wants goes against the fundamental core of this family — their faith, their culture — and at the end of the day, this marriage could change.
Scheffer: It had a lot of ambition. It was about faith, it was about feminism, it was about a lot of things, but ultimately, we were always showing that marriage was something valuable in a culture that often idealizes it in a spiritually unrealistic way or throws it away as a kind of disposable value, and I think we actually accomplished that.
What do you think? Was "Where Men and Mountains Meet" an appropriate send-off for Big Love?