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The opening credits for the first episode of HBO’s Big Love stick with me as some of the most hauntingly beautiful and disturbing moments seen on television.
Starting with a shot of Bill Paxton’s lead, Bill Henrickson, bathed in rays of warm light and staring up at the heavens like he’s a prophet (or at least believes he is one), it pulls back to show that he’s on a frozen pond. A woman dressed in conservative mom/high school history teacher chic—whom we’ll later learn is Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb—skates to him lovingly, if a little stiffly. Next comes Chloë Sevigny’s Nicki, dressed in Laura Ingalls Wilder cosplay, who gazes at him adoringly as he dips her. Then there’s Ginnifer Goodwin’s Margene. Looking just a few years out of child bride territory with her hair clipped at the sides, she rests her head on his broad chest as he spins her like they’re at a daddy-daughter dance. The four lock hands and glide in a circle as the camera closes in on their wedding bands. They’re a marital unit of peace and tranquility—or maybe not? Because the ice is cracking and throwing them in separate directions.
The Beach Boys’ harmonic “God Only Knows” plays during all of this, causing Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s tranquil lyrics to read as trepidation.
Big Love was an awards darling that aired from March 2006 to March 2011, during HBO’s Golden Age of prestige programming (it premiered on the same night as the sixth season of the premium cabler’s more-or-less nominative series, The Sopranos). It helped launch the career of writers like Melanie Marnich, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and Dustin Lance Black, and cast actors like Aaron Paul, Mireille Enos, and Amanda Seyfried as their careers exploded.
It was also a story of marriage and relationships that, in many ways, was no different than most stories about these topics (money, kids, crazy in-laws, work-life balance, etc., etc.). Bill, the self-made face of a Home Depot-like Utah hardware empire, has built three houses in a cul-de-sac. They seem perfectly normal from the outside, but connect in the back to make one united compound; a different take on the Brady Bunch melting pot family. That the show was also set around the illegal lifestyle of polygamy was a tongue-in-cheek we’re-not-so-different-you-and-I nod (the show was created by married couple Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer; members of one historically ostracized group writing about another one).
But the more sinister, Warren Jeffs-esq world that the mainstream public mostly associate with polygamy is hanging out just out of the Henricksons’ sweet suburban utopia. Bill and Nicki grew up in the nearby extremist compound known as Juniper Creek. Harry Dean Stanton’s Roman Grant, who is the father to Sevigny’s Nicki and many others, has deemed himself to be the Prophet of that world, one where under-aged brides are as common as shady backroom deals.
The first episode does a lot of work setting up all of this. On the surface, Bill is bursting with confidence: his store’s about to franchise, he’s able to keep up with all the odd errands that the kids and wives need done on his way home from work (dry cleaning? Check. Son made a sports team? Hurrah!) and—best of all—there’s no one else in the neighborhood to know his family’s little secret. Bill even feels confident breaking their cardinal rule that he is only seen leaving from Barb’s front door in the morning.
But this wide smile is a veneer. He’s having impotency issues and is hiding a Viagra prescription. His father-in-law, Roman, feels he’s entitled to some of the earnings that Bill’s about to get with the new store and brings along his Number One Son, Nicki’s brother Alby (Matt Ross, he of the tribe of Actors with Punchable Faces), to threaten Bill. Oh, and back at the compound, Bill’s fiery mom Lois (Grace Zabriskie in all her magnitude) may be trying to poison his dad (Bruce Dern’s unkempt and abusive Frank).
Bill’s wives and family are also hiding their own struggles. Perhaps out of loneliness, Nicki embraces the modern American pastime of consumerism now that she’s free from the compound life. As a result, she is in stacks of credit card debt. Barb is a cancer survivor who is resentful that she had to have a hysterectomy and can’t have more children. She’s also still unsure of how this relatively new (to her) lifestyle works, and where and how she should intervene with her husband’s other marriages. Margene is an overwhelmed mother of two young boys who feels like she’s nothing more than a de facto babysitter, kept out of the larger family conversations because she doesn’t know all the particulars and backstories yet. Seyfried’s character, Barb and Bill’s teen-aged Sarah, doesn’t know what to say when a new friend at her after-school job (Tina Majorino’s Heather) prods at how involved her family is with the Mormon church.
Each one of these storylines is about a character who will lose it if he or she takes on one more thing. They are deeply relatable to many people who have spent the year attempting to figure out work, school, and general life while avoiding catching a potentially fatal virus.
Through the course of the show, the family sees more stresses that would put a wet blanket on even the happiest of unions. Politics enters the pictures, as do many, many more babies. Inappropriate relationships form, some older family members start to break down. The Henricksons get neighbors (played by Carlos Jacott and Audrey Wasilewski) and tensions mount with them over the years. There’s also an amazing road-trip episode in the third season when lots of stuff goes down as Bill attempts to take his family on a pilgrimage to a shrine of Joseph Smith.
And that’s not even counting the more bizarre, soap opera-y storylines. Enos actually plays two characters: Kathy Marquart, the intended second wife of Bill’s brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) and her identical twin. There are murders, cover-ups, conspiracies, another wife, and emotional manipulations. Everyone is vying for supremacy, and late in the series Bill is involved in an all-out war with the compound.
Ultimately, things don’t end well for Bill on Big Love. But you know which characteres do excel at the end of the series? His wives. Over time, they all come into their own in beautiful ways, finding purpose or relationships or contentment they had dreamed of but couldn’t achieve before.
These women aren’t dark and twisted anti-heroines acting out grudges. They’re not caped crusaders with special powers. They’re just suburban housewives finding ways to persevere in a man’s world that tells them their roles don’t matter. And that is the perhaps surprising legacy of a show about fundamentalists set in a conservative society: There’s still hope, the possibility of freedom, and the satisfaction of charting your own course.
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Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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