Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Last Bit of Love

Rare is the HBO program that is given its proper amount of due.. They are either showered with praise and award nominations despite their lack of quality, are hailed quickly, and then ignored for the majority of its run, or are truly awful, yet linger on forever. Yet, in its own quiet way, Big Love is the prototype of an HBO drama, perhaps the networks most well performed and produced show since Deadwood.

Despite the fact that at its center is one of the more humble protagonists, Bill Hendrickson, played by the closest thing to an everyman HBO has produced, Big Love has been all about the women. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin --- three superb actresses who never got the Hollywood stardom they deserved, are each in their own way as pitch perfect as, respectively, the affectionate Barb, the prickly and repressed Nikki, and the overly emotional Margie. Amanda Seyfried's Sarah, Bill's oldest child and the series breakout star, the one desperately wanting to escape entangling web that this polygamist life is hurting. Grace Zabriskie, Bill's mother, Lois wizened and seemed nearly ancient, whose criminal manipulations and fights with husband Frank, have become legendary. And Eileen, played by Mary Kay Place, initially seen as the power behind Juniper Creek, where the true horrors seemed to be, but who has begun to fall apart as her power has diminished.

Most times, I have managed to find myself attracted to HBO dramas, because of the strength of the writing or the power of the setting, but my relationship with Big Love has been more uncertain than it was with The Wire or Deadwood, and part of this may be due to my inability to agree with the problem. I have less of a problem with the setting of a polygamous family and its challenges, even though I find some of their ideas barbarous. But ever since the middle of Season 2, I have begun to feel that Bill has been, willfully or not, leading his family down a dangerous path.

\It started when he convinced his family, against their better wishes, to buy into a slot machine company, in order to protect their income. This was the first time the plural marriage seemed like less of a democracy than it had been. Then he became romantically attached to Ana, a Russian waitress. First, he lied about being married, then he lied to his family about this relationship. Ana became a piece of contention in Season 2, Barb didn't want another wife, Nikki and Margene did-- but not for the same reasons.. The signs of alarm were particularly deep for Barb, who learned her eldest wanted to become a polygamist.

In season 3, when a health scare came for Barb, she gave in and allowed the family to date Ana, which didn't make Ana happy. She eventually agreed to become the fourth Mrs. Hendrickson, but the conflict over grew so fast and developed such hostility that the marriage was over within a week. The cracks in the family started getting more visible, especially with Sarah and got worse when Bill seemed to find proof that plural marriage was part of Mormon doctrine. His beliefs led to estrangement from the rest of Barb's family, and her eventual excommunication. Bill's reaction was to form his own church. My first thoughts were This is how cults are formed.

In Season 4, Bill elected to run for the State Senate, with the idea of revealing his family's secret when he won. He did so, almost completely against the wishes of Barb and Margene, and had no problem being as ruthless as any politician, sacrificing his oldest friend and business partner, nearly severing his relationship with Ben, and nearly getting destroyed by a Washington lobbyist (Sissy Spacek, at the top of her game) Near the middle of the season, Ana remerged, pregnant with Bill's child, starting a new mess. This situation may have led to a final break between Bill and Barb, who tried to destroy Bill's campaign. Bill finally admitted that he saw that there was a darkness in him, and that only by coming into the light could he save himself -- once again, showing how self-centered

All through these seasons, I have been watching this show with growing dismay, feeling that some point, the writers have got to find a way to deal with the consequences of Bill's actions. Well, Sunday night, we got a first glance at what they might be, and they're worse than even Barb could imagine.

Bill and his family left home for a week hoping to escape the news cycle and the attention of the press. He clearly thought that might be the worst of it, showing a naiveté I wouldn't have thought. But Home Plus, the foundation of Bill's business, is falling apart, with people quitting in droves, and those who stay, very unhappy. His constituents are literally spitting in his face. And his hope for a future in politics is probably doomed from the start. In two short scenes, the new Speaker of the Utah legislature (played, as always, with considerable smarm, by Gregory Itzin tells Bill that his career in politics is likely to be both short and messy. And when Charles Logan tells you that your career in politics is in trouble, he knows from whence he speaks.

Things are going into meltdown for each of Bill's wives. Barb is going through the biggest emotional crisis, as she has begun to start drinking heavily. Margene, who in Season 4 came closer to financial independence than she ever had in her life, was terminated from her position under a morals clause. Nikki alone seems to be adjusting, but her overreaction to a little boy who attacks her son, is a sign she's not nearly as sanguine as she appears. She's also looking even more concerned about the health of her daughter.

Bill Hendrickson is, fundamentally, a good man. But he has misjudged the world if he thinks that they are ready for polygamy. He has placed a target on his families back, and it's probably going to explode even more than he and his family did near the end of the season premiere. The end may finally be coming (God knows there will be confrontations in the days to come) but it can only make a glorious noise before it does.

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