Big Love returns with a Haunting Presence
Where to begin?! I am so excited about the return of the Henricksons and the melodrama of Big Love – and the premier did not disappoint. It took us squarely back into the lives of our favorite characters, bringing us up to speed, and advancing new plot lines, while promising some explosive new possibilities for the season: Alby’s illicit woodland encounters with the high powered lawyer in charge of the Juniper Creek trust fund committee; Nicki’s continued machinations and paranoid backlash from her traumatic upbringing; Barb struggling to live life with the promise of eternal outer darkness hanging over her head; Sarah’s looming marriage; and let’s not forget, Roman Grant’s death! But to back up a minute, let’s talk opening credits.
In general, I’m not a huge fan of shows switching opening credits for a new season. There is something ritually attractive about the regularity of the credits framing each new experience. The one show I appreciated diversity on was The Wire – and even there they kept some images throughout, just bringing in new pieces of the widening puzzle with each season. So realizing that that bizarro teaser I posted this weekend is the actual credits, albeit with a slightly more upbeat musical background, took me by surprise. It also signaled that the show’s creators/writers think they are up to something pretty damn new this season, and I am intrigued to see if they can deliver. Of course, there are continuities too – Bill and his wives coming together around the image of hand-holding, only to find that their bonds break. In the original credits, the ice cracks and the family is divided, only to be re-found as Bill pulls each wife through the veils of eternal life to a happily ever-after on their own eternal planet (this is a pretty basic take on traditional Mormon theology of the afterlife). We get the same premise here, but without the promise of eternal perfection. Now the family is floating through outer darkness, unable to reconnect, potentially sundered forever.
What I love about Big Love is the ability to weave the mundane, earthly affairs of a complicated family structure with the seriousness of theological and religious commitments. The potential fracturing of the Henricksons, is, on one level, a story we can all relate to. The polygamous nature of the family only heightens many of the problems all nuclear families face: how to balance individual needs against the family collective, how to cling to each other despite pressures to disintegrate, how to effectively communicate without jealously or rage, how to seek first both financial security and success and familial unity and peace. That the Henricksons also struggle with the theological doubt that their way of life might lead to an eternal kind of fracturing, raises the stakes of their earthly endeavors. And Big Love might be one of the few shows on television that takes the religious beliefs of its characters seriously enough to assume they are actually motivated by them, even if at the same time, we can see all the other concerns, doubts, and petty selfishness that motivate them also.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think these new credits are fantastic – and a great way to set the stage for heart of the drama: how will this family survive as the family they want to be?
Their odds of making it seem to improve radically now that Roman Grant is dead and his dead body has been found and confirmed (not just for the Henricksons, but for all of us. I have to admit, I was waiting for the proof like anyone else). As Bill says so poignantly at the end of the episode: the family has been plagued by the ghost presence of Roman Grant hovering over all their endeavors for so long. Of course, the final image of Bill holding Roman’s old white hat, suggests that this ghost has a bit more haunting to do, and I am interested to know just how much damage Roman can do from the grave.
If we’ve learned anything about the compound, it is that this way of life – secretive, manipulative, patriarchical to an extreme – exacts a toll on its members that leaves them pretty much traumatized for life. Nicki being the case in point: how much therapy would she need to ever really let go of the patterns of jealousy, fear, rage, and abuse that prevent her from embracing her new life? When Adaleen sends her into the cellar for bacon, I was convinced that JJ or Alby or some other thug doing their bidding would be waiting to intimidate or kidnap her. Not that finding her dead father was that much kinder, pyschically speaking, but I realized just how sick this world is, if I am convinced that mothers will so easily sell their children out of fear. Much like the trauma-drama we see repeating, with some level of humor, between Lois and Frank. I loved it when she pulled the gun on him in the car! To watch them play each other in circles of manipulation and one-up-mans-ship was both hilarious and oh so disturbing.
Nicki is not the only wife caught in old patterns. A lot of this season seems to center around Margene’s comment at the wifely weekly check-in: they are not falling apart, she insists, they are just changing. How each of these women will change in response to the new pressures and the threat of potential exposure is the question of the season. I love each of these wives in my own way, but I am especially interested to see if and how Barb will make the transition fully into her new life. By confessing her polygamy and accepting excommunication at the end of the last season, she is in limbo – does she really believe the Principle and the new church of her husband’s leading? We’ve watched Barb struggle to accept or reject the fruits of her actions since the beginning. Can she actually find peace? Do we want her to?
There is so much more to say, but this has gone on ridiculously long. In closing, I will say my favorite line of the episode was probably Barb saying: Mormons don’t eat salmon. Indeed.
I can’t wait for next week, a big plate of crab legs, and another hour of clean family entertainment.