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New Beginnings and Old Ghosts: All is Well on the Season Premiere of HBO's "Big Love"

Some baggage can't be left behind.

It was a particularly harsh lesson for the Henrickson clan to grasp in last night's sensational season premiere of Big Love ("Free at Last"), written by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Daniel Attias, which also featured a new opening title sequence and a new theme song ("Home" by Engineers).

As the fourth season opens, the polygamist family is closer than ever to achieving its dreams of financial security in the form of the casino deal that Bill brokered with the Blackfoot tribe. But the opening hour isn't just about the corporate but also the celestial, as Bill presides over a new storefront church, paying off the ending of Season Three in which he received a testimony to call together his own congregation.

However, even as the family looks towards a brighter future, their first steps towards claiming control of their own destiny are overshadowed by reminders of the past they've left behind, the seething power struggle about to erupt at the Juniper Creek compound, and cracks forming in their own solidarity.

You had a chance to read my advance review of the first two episodes of Season Four of Big Love but, now that the season premiere has aired, we can discuss the episode in specifics. (Note: while I've seen the first two episodes, I'll keep my thoughts restricted solely to discussing "Free at Last.")

After the intensity of last season, the premiere episode offered an opportunity for the audience to catch its breath a bit while it caught up with the Henricksons. Additionally, the slight jump ahead in time--six weeks--gave the writers just enough time to keep the status quo fresh enough while moving along some notable subplots such as the construction of the casino and Cara Lynn's new status in the Henrickson home(s). The sting of Nicki's betrayal last season continues to cast a pall over the communal environment, despite her admission of her wrongdoing... and the reveal that much of her behavior could be attributed to her underage marriage to JJ (Zeljko Ivanek) and her birthing of a daughter. (Her marriage, one might recall, was subsequently unsealed.)

Likewise, the blossoming of Margene into an independent and outspoken woman in her own right has continued apace as well. Given her success on a home shopping network, she's having to juggle the demands of her own career as well as that of Bill's, while also at least giving the illusion of lending a hand at home. Her handling of Barb--goading her into realizing that her problems at the casino stem not from anti-Mormonism or misogyny but from their dislike of her--end up producing an unexpected realization from Barb as well. Despite Margene making leaps towards fulfilling her potential, Barb feels rudderless, lost, drifting in the darkness.

But Barb isn't the only one finding herself in the darkness. Even with Bill's efforts to create a beacon of light for his family, some members of his flock are slipping further away. Sarah continues to pull away from her parents' chosen path; despite attending a service at Bill's new church, Sarah makes it clear that she and Scott will not be sealed there, regardless of Barb's not-so-gentle coaxing. The eternal question that the series poses is how a family--whether traditional or non-traditional--stays together or falls apart when faced by adversity. Sarah's tenuous connection to her family could weaken even further as the season goes on...

Bill and Nicki's relationship is fractured, possibly forever; they've yet to reconnect (emotionally or sexually) since the events of Season Three. Not that Nicki has adjusted her abrasive ways; she's just as argumentative and confrontational as ever but there are moments of clarity, such as her breakdown in the car ("fry sauce" not withstanding), which reveals a loosening of Nicki. (It's gently assisted by a looseness of her look as well, with her hair flowing and less severe and her clothes slightly more contemporary.) Still, Nicki's handling of her daughter Cara Lynn amounts to little more than kidnapping, especially given the fact that it takes JJ trespassing on the Henricksons' property to make her admit that she's been avoiding him and a discussion about Cara Lynn's future. As for Cara Lynn, she might just be her mother's daughter; the ease with which she tells JJ that she doesn't like living there was staggering. Just who is she lying to? And for what purpose? And is she serious about leaving the Henricksons when JJ goes back to Kansas?

I thought that Olsen and Scheffer did a remarkable job at keeping the plot moving while not revealing the fate of Roman Grant right off the bat. Despite the fact that we clearly saw Joey Henrickson smother Roman Grant to death in the third season finale, Roman is a slippery fellow; he's survived assassination attempts, a kangaroo court, and a tumble down the courthouse stairs in the last two seasons. But let's just mention the elephant in the room: Roman Grant is dead. There's no amount of manipulation, guitar-strumming, or cheese that can resurrect the former prophet of Juniper Creek.

Adaleen used the confusion about Roman's "disappearance" to keep the lid on his passing, stashing him in the walk-in freezer amid the bacon. (Naturally, it's Adaleen who has been depositing money into a bank account in Nicki's name, looking for yet another escape route in case of danger.) That Adaleen allowed Nicki to walk into the freezer and come face to face with her father's frozen corpse doesn't exactly make her a likely candidate for mother of the year, despite her intense desire to make Nicki a BLT sandwich. Desperate? You bet. Misguided? Hell yes.

Alby, ever the opportunist, used Roman's death as yet another way to get back at Bill and he and Lura deposit the corpse at the casino tent site. Not that Alby doesn't have enough to deal with already, considering that his one-time park hook-up ended being Dale (Ben Koldyke), the state-appointed trustee on the UEB board. The look of sheer horror as Alby realizes that he's been caught out--and Dale's own look of shock--was palpably played by Matt Ross. It's echoed subtly but provocatively when Bill thinks he's deflected Alby's attack on him by returning Roman's corpse to the compound... only to be handed undeniable proof of his involvement in a conspiracy in the form of Roman's hat.

It's a reminder that the past will always catch up to you, whether that be Alby coming face to face with Dale or Bill getting handed Roman's signature white cowboy hat. The effect is that of a scarlet letter, branding them both with a sense of shame that's keenly felt.

As to what the future will bring, that remains to be seen. Self-determination appears to be a major overarching theme of the season, with the family attempting to seize control of their own destiny (it's a theme that's subtly explored via their relationship with the Native American Blackfoot tribe). Whether Bill will be able to find the societal freedom for his family that he so desperately desires, along with advancing their own political status, seems like a compelling story that will unfold over the course of the next eight episodes. Let's just hope that the Henricksons can find the escape velocity to get past all of their baggage.

Next week on Big Love ("The Greater Good"), Bill contemplates running for the Utah State Senate; Sarah and Scott decide to forgo a wedding in Bill's church; Margene confronts Nicki about her feelings for Ray Henry.


Walker said…
I was so worried that this season wouldn't...just couldn't be as good as season three which was one of the most brilliant seasons of television ever. But last night's season opener was fantastic! Looks like I had nothing to worry about after all.
Lizzy D said…
Frozen Roman! Ack! Who knew he could be even creepier dead?
ewench said…
It was a great opener and as usual so much was fit into the episode but in a mostly satisfying way. Ding dong, Roman is dead but we have the ominous promise of delicious conflict with the creepy JJ.

I really hope the wives don’t end up becoming caricatures of themselves though – we had “neurotic Barb”, “conniving, secretive Nicki” and “pulled together yet frazzled Margie”, but their portrayal was just a bit too, too... something.

It seems in spite of her terrible transgressions from last season Nicki is still pulling her same whiny, do whatever she wants without telling anyone, crap. I was surprised she wasn’t more truly contrite and well, nicer, I think it shows she is not really sorry about much.

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