A Special Relationship
Well, you are absolutely right to cotton on to Barb and track her through this season. All signs point to her being the linchpin of whatever is to come in the finale and her journey to self-discovery is definitely the heart and soul of the show right now. Now that we are here, five episodes from the final goodbye, it seems that really, maybe she has always been the heart and the soul. Nicki may have been hysterical and overwrought when she dragged Barb to the Senate floor to force her to tell Bill that she believes she holds the Priesthood, but she was not mistaken that this little doctrinal point and all that it represents about the dynamic of that “special relationship” between Barb and Bill might be the making or breaking of the family as we know it. So let’s cut to the chase and talk about divorce.
We’ve had lots of moments throughout the last few seasons where the flimsy nature of legal marriage is compared to the eternal weight of spiritual marriage – Nicki’s bombastic tirade against Sarah and Scott’s non-Mormon wedding, Margene’s insistence that her marriage to Goran was “only a piece of paper” – but tonight we also got to see just how much a piece of paper can stand in for, and make possible, the strange entanglements between two people. At the heart of the issue is not really who is legally married to who, but the fact that Barb’s legal marriage to Bill has always represented and enabled their “special relationship.” The scene when Nicki confronts her about this and Barb retaliates with “You bet we have a special relationship. I’ve earned it” felt like one of those truths you’ve known all along but never let yourself see in the light of day. We all know that the Principle demands that Bill love all his wives equally and that the wives think of themselves as equal to each other and married to each other. But as Barb admits to the other wives once and for all, and as we’ve all probably felt throughout the seasons, there is something irreplaceable about that first marriage, especially since there was a good long chunk of time when neither Bill nor Barb imagined someone else joining their holy vows. This was dramatized for us in season one, when Bill and Barb have an affair that they have to cut short for the sake of the family. Really from that point on, we should have seen the rest of this coming. What was crystallized for me last night was that Barb has never really thought of plural marriage as her marriage. She has gone along with it, and even tried to embrace it in order to survive, as an outgrowth of her very particular marriage to Bill.
Barb seemed to be realizing the extent to which this was true as well last night. She has only ever survived in this new marriage because she has not really thought of it as her marriage. She has clung to her special relationship with Bill as the core of her identity and it is that relationship which is most up for grabs. Her decision to go ahead with the legal divorce to allow Bill and Nicki to marry in order to adopt Cara Lynn was her letting go of this special relationship. There has been a lot of chatter on various blogs this morning about what exactly the divorce means. Is it the beginning of the end of of a real divorce – Barb leaving the family? Or is it the beginning of her living and acting like the Priesthood holder she knows herself to be – putting the good of the family over her special affections and emotions? I think for Barb right now it is the latter, but that it is also a step toward the former, though I still don’t know how much she knows that.
I am sure not everyone is as fascinated by the doctrinal questions Barb is raising, but I am loving the Priesthood-holder of all believers story. When Bill asks Barb how she got the Priesthood – who laid hands on her, since it has to be passed down through the male line – she responds that it has always been within her, it is her eternal truth. This is a fantastic theological conundrum because Mormonism privileges personal, intense revelation and conviction more than almost any other branch of Christianity. Joseph Smith himself founded the entire religion on the basis of intense personal revelation and the Mormon church, both LDS and non-LDS, believe in continuing revelation (in fact, that is how the LDS church first said goodbye to plural marriage, which was a new revelation given to Joseph Smith – they claimed an even newer revelation that said no more plural marriage, at least for the time being). But there is no airtight theological reason why a new revelation couldn’t come that says the Priesthood is in all people, regardless of sex, and no longer conferred through the laying on of hands. Barb is living out the core conviction of her faith even as she destablizes it. What I also love about Barb’s journey is how intensely inside her own lives experience it is. As a non-Mormon, I keep wanting to shout at the screen – just join the Presbyterians, Barb! That is, there are lots of other branches of Christianity who hold exactly what Barb is saying. What is so truthful about her journey is that just switching churches isn’t an option. Maybe one day she will find herself no longer a Mormon. But the point is that she is Mormon through and through. If she is going to express her faith it is going to be in those terms; she can’t just pick up another set of doctrines and practices willy-nilly. For anyone who has been deeply steeped in any one tradition, you will know how true this is. It doesn’t mean change isn’t possible, but it does mean that how one changes is circumscribed by where one is come from. It is going to be fascinating to watch and see what is next.
If there is any clear sign to me that the family cannot hold it is the constant, increased, vitriolic anger they are directing at one another. They have always been capable of saying mean and painful things, but is it just me, or is that all they are doing? I can’t think of a good conversation the wives have had recently that isn’t full of insults, backstabbing, angry denunciations. It used to be that these were a big deal – the center of the whole episode’s drama – but now they shoot insults at each other and then rush to whatever crisis is on deck. Isn’t this what it feels like when something is so fundamentally wrong it can’t stay the same? There is not even the energy or time to actually try and deal with what is happening. You let it all slide because you can’t imagine muster the energy to stop the tide, until you all end up washed out to sea. Or is this too dramatic? Can you see them patching things up and getting on with a new life?
If Barb does eventually leave the family, do you think Margie will stay? Kind of can’t see that happening, even if she is the sunny face of polygamy?
I didn’t even touch Bill and his new battle with the LDS church. Will he wake the sleeping giant? And what about Alby and his new Albyite? Don’s near brush with death? And Rhonda – poor, deceived, deceiving Rhonda… what good end can come of that? Do you sort of hope Mr. Ivey is gay? I do, cause I sure can’t stand the thought of a cliched older man/younger woman story there too.
Wishing I just lived in Houston,
These past two episodes have been fantastic! I’m so intrigued by all you have to say – I haven’t read the blogs this morning, but I was surprised to learn here from you that there is even a debate over what the divorce means. I took Barb’s statement to mean, unequivocally, that she was divorcing Bill. Period. Not for Cara Lynn’s sake – but for her own. Her statement, “We’ve got to get divorced” was in immediate response to Bill’s “I can’t give you what you’re looking for”. I actually loved that it was all about her burgeoning form of faith, and not about Niki’s ongoing maneuvering of herself into First Wife position. I saw it as a full on out of the marriage move – nothing less.
So I will be intrigued to see which of us is right. As for whether or not Margie would follow – yeah, I’m with you. I just don’t know. Her business ethics form of faith is sort of hilarious (perhaps to me because I run in some circles where that stuff is prevalent!). When the guy at the juice company told Margie she seemed like a very smart woman and she responded that she is – all I could think was, NO YOU’RE NOT! There’s an intelligence there, sure – but it’s buried under such naivete and impulsiveness that I think Margie is lucky in her successes more than she is actually skilled. The telling moment with regards to Margie and Barb, though, was during the fight about priesthood holding – that Margie has “found the faith” but also notes that she can’t see a problem with Barb’s being a priesthood holder shows how fickle she can be in her commitments. Barb holds this faith and changing beliefs out of a deep sense of conviction. Margie seems to hold the two together out of a sense of non-understanding!
In a sense then the three wives represent three stages (stages, but not progressive or regressive stages) of the family’s faith. Barb is still attached to traditional Mormonism. Niki, in joining the family brought in all the crazy that goes with The Principle. And in a strange, even shallow way, Margie points toward the new form of flexible feminist faith that she and Barb might enter together.
Perhaps the most compelling scene for me was the first intern party in the bar – I loved the “Polygamy Porter” sign on the wall, for a start! But I also loved watching Barb answer the questions under her breath. There was something deeply symbolic in that moment, I think – and it came together in the final scene. The return to BU campus marks the moment where Bill began his path to joy. It was his first truly joyful moment, he says – engaging Barb on that bench. But the return to BU for Barb seemed to be a return to where things went wrong. I think as far as the “special relationship” goes, we saw that as compromised when Niki joined. Now I think the true moment where things went wrong was at the initial betrothal. In this episode I saw Barb trying to return to that moment and restart things again. And how poetic to end it where it had all began!
You’ve raised some of the lingering questions of the episode – particularly Don’s near death moment (I actually thought he was dead at first, and it felt fitting that someone so abused by Bill’s power would end up giving his life for him!), and the ever creepy Mr. Ivey (I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s going on there – but I think the casting is genius! That actor’s face is the perfect blend of innocence, youth and, somehow, creepy, creepy, creepiness). What will come of Cara Lynn overhearing the wives discuss how damaged and twisted she is?!
But I’m also struck by some images – why the double return to the electronic photo frame in Niki’s house showing images of family pets? What are they trying to do with Lois’ VD induced dementia? How does that connect to Bill’s dream sequence that paralleled Lois with Emma Smith – and what are we to make of his realization that it’s Emma’s strength he needs, not Joseph’s? I’m also loving the evolution of Barb’s drinking – we moved from water glass to wine glass in this episode – it’s taking a firmer hold for her now. And wow – setting everything in the midst of this snowy cold is making for some stunning images of vulnerability! Each time the wives bundle up to go outside, I can feel the assaults they are receiving from their communities in a bodily way…this feels like a long winter. The ongoing feel of menace hanging in the background came to a point with Don last night – but the constant reference to guns, with Bill and the chief senator even holding each other’s pieces last week, paired with these lingering, dark shots that hang on for an extra second of disarming chill make me feel like Don is a foreshadow of the violence to come, not the violence itself. I’m starting to wonder if this is all going to end in assassination.
Thankful I’m a Modern or a Libber, because I sure do enjoy sipping wine and going to dance halls…