On the surface, Under the Banner of Heaven just looks like another prestige limited series on the more harrowing end of the true-crime spectrum. However, executive producer and writer Dustin Lance Black would want you to know that the series is more honestly a tribute to Brenda Wright Lafferty, who was murdered alongside her 15-month-old daughter Erica, by fundamentalist Mormons outside of Salt Lake City in 1984.
When making a tribute to someone, the most important part is getting it right. That task is not only made more complicated by the circumstances and the people surrounding Brenda and Erica's deaths — the Lafferty family, referred to in the premiere episode as "Utah Kennedys" — but the story's connection to a church that, for a long time, has hidden a troublesome history not only from outsiders, but also its own parishioners. Themes of misogyny and the idea of "put your questions on the shelf" are at the core of the series, and when it came to deciding what aspects of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to call into question, Black referred back to the woman he's trying to honor in the first place and asked the questions he believed she would want asked.
"I'm using Brenda Lafferty as my guide, and these are the things that were troubling to her. Coming from a more progressive Mormon home in Kimberly, Idaho to this other conservative Mormon home in Salt Lake City, she's going to start asking questions about how women are treated differently in this more conservative-turned-fundamentalist version of Mormonism," Black, who grew up a devout Mormon raised by a single mother, explained to TV Guide. "She's raising her daughter. She's going to be asking questions about how am I treated, but also how will my child be treated, not just in this life but in eternity if these things are true? She's asking questions about the misogyny that seems to be built into this faith of a family who seems to be stepping further and further towards fundamentalism and closer and closer to one of the most harmful, misogynistic versions of faith that America has ever given birth to."
To play the woman at the center of the story, actress Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People) had access to the real Brenda's letters to her older sister in addition to Black's researched scripts. The connection to the real woman she was portraying helped Edgar-Jones get a better sense of who Brenda was before she was murdered and how she saw the world and the family that would ultimately be responsible for her and her daughter's tragic end.
"When I read her letters, I got such a sense of what a wicked sense of humor she had. She was an incredibly enigmatic person," Edgar-Jones revealed. "Playing the strength, particularly with Brenda, that was something I really wanted to represent. Brenda as a character is really our lens into the Lafferty family and that very patriarchal dynamic. We really see her see the other women and how repressed they are, especially as the story goes on and their husbands start to descend into the more fundamentalist aspects of the religion. It was showing how intelligent she was and how much she gifted the other women agency — that was something I really wanted to portray."
Though Brenda and her relationship to the Lafferty family are at the center of the story and inspired by true events, not all of Under the Banner of Heaven is out of historical record or Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book of the same title. The audience is led through what happened to this young woman and her child by fictionalized Mormon detective Jeb Pyre, played by Andrew Garfield. Pyre is a devout member of LDS who begins to spiral when the truth of this case starts to undermine the faith in which he's grown up. Throughout the seven episodes, Pyre has to juggle his core beliefs with his duty as a detective to find justice for Brenda and her baby.
"That's the whole tension of the character," Garfield told TV Guide. "It's like, 'What do I prioritize? Do I prioritize my own personal needs, which is to hold on to my sanity, hold on to my wife, my religion, my kids, or is there something bigger that I need to do — which is to honor the memory of Brenda and Erica, and in doing so, pursue the truth of the history of my religion in order to understand and meet this horrendous, violent murder? Is the truth more important than my personal needs?' That's the crux."
Of course, Garfield is no stranger to playing religious characters. He spent a year studying under Jesuit priests for his starring role in Martin Scorsese's 2016 film Silence. In the same year, he earned his first Academy Award nomination for playing Desmond Doss, a WWII medic who saved 75 men at the Battle of Okinawa despite never carrying a weapon, as it conflicted with his Christian beliefs, in Hacksaw Ridge. Even though Pyre isn't based on a real person for the Under the Banner of Heaven adaptation, Garfield wanted the performance to feel authentic, so he hit the ground and went on a research trip to Utah to figure out the bones of the character.
"I got to spend a lot of time with multiple versions of what it is to be a Mormon in LDS," he said. "I got to speak to ex-Mormons, LGBTQ Mormons, feminist ex-Mormons, current Mormons, bishops in the Mormon faith, and detectives who had the same kind of crisis of faith working on a case that was inspired by Mormon fundamentalism. [There was] an unpicking of their own religion while simultaneously trying to hold on to their families and their own psychological makeup and structure. It was a really interesting deep dive."
Under the Banner of Heaven takes place during three primary time periods. There are flashbacks, revealed through police interrogations and interviews, of the time leading up to the murders, and the audience follows Pyre in the days immediately after Brenda and Erica's bodies are discovered. The third part of the story takes place in the 1830s and follows the early days of Joseph Smith founding the Church of Latter-day Saints. While the church has become more transparent over the past decade, it's still not a faith that welcomes scrutiny. Under the Banner of Heaven, like Krakauer's book, examines Mormon history, specifically related to Smith and his relationship to his wife Emma, and their contrasting views on polygamy.
"When I was a kid, there was no acknowledgment that polygamy ever existed. In fact, it was a lot of denials. Today, you can go to Temple Square, and there's a plaque in front of Brigham Young's home that acknowledges he had multiple wives. The church's narrative is changing. So I don't know that the church is the most dependable place to go for the most accurate version of history," Black said.
Instead, the Academy Award-winning writer turned to history books and records to construct the series' narrative around Smith and the early years of the Mormon faith.
"I worked very hard to make sure I had multiple sources corroborating the information we present, or to clarify that this is someone in the story's conjecture. Some of it we do have to guess because some of the history still doesn't make sense," Black added. "We don't have firsthand sources to corroborate what our guesses and assumptions are. ... It's a religion that asks its members not to dig into the history or look too closely. We've got a lot of blank spots."
The conjecture and the most controversial questions about Smith and how the founding of the church led certain men in the Lafferty family to fundamentalism are brought up by Allen Lafferty (Billy Howie) in the series. Allen is Brenda's husband and an ex-Latter-day Saint who left the church after he saw what it was doing to Brenda and would eventually do to his daughter if he didn't get them out.
"It would have been very difficult for a mainstream Mormon to access that information. Much of it has been removed from major libraries in the Salt Lake Valley. It would have to be someone who stepped out of the church for a reason and had a reason to look into the early beliefs and fundamental beliefs," Black divulged. "Of course, that would be someone like Allen, who had every reason to be concerned about what he was hearing from his brothers, which probably didn't add up because his brothers had become fundamentalist — it probably didn't match up well with what he was hearing in a mainstream church. He would have had the curiosity and the concern to do the research. Having taken at least one or two steps out of the Mormon faith — and, let me tell you, it takes more than one or two to get completely out — he would have been armed with that information."
As the series progresses, Black draws a connection between Emma and Brenda, showing how both of them were women who weren't afraid to question the rule of man even when it was inconvenient. Showcasing that bravery was of utmost importance for Tyner Rushing, who plays Emma.
"If these women could have more of a voice in leadership positions in their religion, how different [could] it be? I think about that with Emma: She had the integrity and the bravery that I wanted to show with her," Rushing explained. "We would all be in a better place as a society if women had more say along the line in the past."
"I realized watching the first episode the extent of whenever these women try to be their full selves and express any autonomous ideas, or just have a conversation, there's a repression of it — a way of controlling or trying to stop it from happening," added Chloe Pirrie, who plays Brenda's sister-in-law Matilda. As Brenda gets more ingratiated within the Lafferty family, the more troubling things become but there are red flags from the first moment she meets them.
"It's almost subconscious in this family. It's so normal for that and the first thing [Brenda] is told when she enters is, 'Less is more when it comes to talking.' It's the first thing Brenda hears from her husband as she's about to meet his family," Pirrie continued. "It's such a symbolic moment because, ultimately, she suffers because she just wants to talk her mind. That's a really powerful thing that carried us through."
While Black expects scrutiny even from the more open Church of Latter-day Saints of today, he remains steadfast in his mission to tell this harrowing story to do right by Brenda and her baby daughter, even if might ruffle a few of his former church's feathers.
"She was incredibly courageous, and in her courage, she dared to ask these questions when she knew she wasn't supposed to. She dared to ask these questions of men in leadership of the Church, when she knew given the patriarchal structure that would be considered out of line," Black said. "I am doing my best to service her courage and her curiosity. I am asking these questions because I think she would have and would be asking even more fervently today."
The first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven are now available on FX on Hulu, with new episodes premiering weekly on Thursdays.