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Eternal Bonds: An Advance Review of Season Four of HBO's "Big Love"

Those of us who watch HBO's gripping drama series Big Love know that it's a series of contrasts: between light and darkness, love and hate, tolerance and injustice. The never-ending push and pull of these elements is what drives the series, which remains one of the most intelligent and emotionally resonant series on television today. (My only complaint: that more of you aren't watching it.)

Season Four of Big Love, which begins this Sunday evening, picks up the threads that were left dangling at the end of the series' outstanding third season, which I rank as one of the very best complete seasons of television ever. Taut, provocative, and gut-wrenching, Season Three of Big Love pushed the Henrickson clan past their breaking point, throwing them on a series of soul-searching exercises as varied as a family road trip, excommunication, a new wife, and the unearthing of some long-buried secrets. (Not to mention storylines involving murder, kidnapping, cult leaders, assumed identity, and adultery.)

One might wonder just how series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer could outdo themselves then after such a truly remarkable season. Any fears (and believe me, they were minor, if they existed at all) were quickly allayed after watching the breathtaking first two episodes of Season Four of Big Love (entitled "Free at Last" and "The Greater Good").

What did I think of the first two episodes of Season Four of Big Love? Let's discuss. (Beware: there are minor spoilers lurking ahead.)

The opening installments of Big Love's latest season find the Henricksons once more under attack from numerous directions, not least of which is internal. The wounds from some of last season's betrayals--most notably the deception perpetrated by Nicki (Chloe Sevigny)--still sting, especially for Bill (Bill Paxton), who once more is trying to keep his flock together in the face of overwhelming obstacles. (There's an especially powerful scene for Nicki at the end of the second episode that points not only to the depth of her faith but the heartbreaking explicitness of her belief system.)

But while the Henricksons have always attempted to remain a united front, there are larger cracks growing in their unity. Decisions made by Bill in the first few episodes will have longstanding repercussions for every single member of the clan, each of whom is tested in new and unique ways this season. The family's casino business, a major focal point for Season Three, forces Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) into a new and uncomfortable position within the family while Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) grapples with the first blush of success as her own business begins to take off. As for Nicki, she must deal with consequences of her taking Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson) away from her ex-husband JJ (Zeljko Ivanek) and off of the compound.

As for Ivanek's JJ, look for a seriously creepy reveal about Nicki's former husband in the season's second episode. It's a quick character-defining moment that has me squeamishly thinking about it weeks later. And keep your eyes peeled for an appearance by Mad Men's Melinda Page Hamilton as one of JJ's wives, who shares a certain similarity with Barb. (A minor hint: there's a dinner scene that ranks up there with the series' most off-putting moments.) And Cara Lynn might not be quite as innocent as she appears as she might just share a certain trait with her birth mother.

Elsewhere, the consequences of Joey's actions in the season finale are dealt with pretty quickly but not in the way that you might expect. However, there is a concrete resolution to the matter of the mortality of prophet Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) in the opening episode, one that proves to be quite surprising... and cold-blooded. There is no shortage of madness at Juniper Creek; look for some truly shocking moves from both Alby (Matt Ross) and Adaleen (Mary Kay Place) as a power struggle begins anew at the compound, one that's potentially fraught with complications after the placement of Dale (Ben Koldyke), a state-appointed trustee to the UEB board.

Additionally, the dangling plot thread about Lois (Grace Zabriski) inquiring about a bird from the deliciously loopy Wanda (Melora Walters) is dealt with head-on as Lois launches yet another get-rich-quick scheme and crosses paths with her dangerous husband Frank (Bruce Dern), who might not be all that pleased to see her after she attempted to kill him last season. (Ice cream, anyone?)

I was thrilled that the producers opted to bring back Tina Majorino's Heather Tuttle this season after her falling-out with Amanda Seyfried's Sarah last year. Look for some major drama involving Sarah and her boyfriend Scott (Aaron Paul) as Sarah makes a series of decisions that will spell out the direction she's heading in for the rest of the season. (That's all I'll say on the subject.)

The season seems to be setting itself up as a battle between the personal and the political, the domestic and the public, and the illicit and the divine. Caught in the center: the Henricksons, who must take sides, hold onto their true selves, and find something to bind them together in the face of unstoppable change. There's a sense that the family is playing with fire in more ways than one and likely none of them will walk away unscathed.

Ultimately, the first two episodes of Season Four of Big Love point towards a forceful and riveting season ahead as the various members of the Henrickson family are tested by new challenges as each attempts to find their place in a shifting world. Even as your heart breaks for the various Henrickson family members, their imminent freefall makes for captivating television that's at once unique and universal. Hold on, indeed.

Season Four of Big Love premieres Sunday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Hadley said…
Wow. Great review! So happy to hear that this season is starting out as strong as the last. Season 3 was so brilliant that I was worried they wouldn't be able to do anything comparable. Looks like I have no reason to worry at all. Whew!

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