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A Yellow House: Unquiet Souls on "Big Love"

"There's no law against crazy." - Bill

Do we become our parents in the end? Regardless of the rights and wrongs of our forebears' actions, are our fates sealed from the moment we're born? Are we forced not to follow our own paths, but rather to fall into old patterns determined by those who have come before us?

These are questions brilliantly unearthed and examined in the latest episode of HBO's Big Love ("The Mighty and Strong"), written by Melanie Marnich and directed by Dan Attias.

Throughout its four seasons so far, the drama series--created by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer--has done an incredible job at painting the struggles between multiple generations of believers, setting in motion an exploration of family destiny and a personal journey. Last night's episode brought these conflicts to the fore, exploring the relationship between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and offering a shocking reveal at the episode's end that might point to the blindness of men when it comes to their pasts.

With the halfway point of the season already in sight, this week's episode of Big Love ramped up the tension and offered us a series of brutal revelations, many of which centered on the deeply conflicted Bill Henrickson. Belief is a dangerous thing, especially when it is accompanied by blind faith and an inability to see the consequences of one's actions.

Bill believes himself to be on a righteous path, one ordained by Heavenly Father, that has compelled him to run for political office. But he's stumbled into a moral quagmire, one that enables him to take a decidedly wrong ends-justify-the-means approach to his campaign... and his life. His decision to send Nicki on a recon mission at his opponent's campaign headquarters flies in the face of reason, considering that Bill was meant to keep Nicki on the straight and narrow. Why is his use of Nicki's skills here any worse or better than Roman drafting his manipulative daughter into going undercover at the D.A.'s office during his trial? While it's not illegal, it's just as morally reprehensible. Yet Bill does so without any compunction.

Likewise, he's only more than willing to throw poor Don Embry to the wolves. Don who has stood by his side for years, endured Bill's egocentricity with little more than a sigh, and done everything that his "partner" has asked of him, all while his own personal life has fallen apart around him. That Bill would ask his long-suffering friend to "take the bullet" and out himself as a polygamist is just too much. That Don would willingly go along with this, to endure the hostile glare of the polygamist-loathing media, and still show up at Bill's announcement, is the sign of a true friend. If only Bill would ever return the favor...

But it was Bill's behavior at the episode's end that truly shocked me to the core. Having been sent away by his own father Frank as a teenager, Bill does the very same thing to his own son, effectively banishing him once he learns that Ben's feelings for Margene are reciprocated. It's this falling into old, familiar patterns that made Bill suddenly seem as weak as Frank. That his actions--and his decision not to stop Ben from leaving--should come so soon on the heels of Lois introducing him at the rally and his words about how the man he is today is due to her influence alone is all the more ironic. Has Bill truly not learned from his past? Is he becoming Frank before our eyes, a tyrannical priesthood-holder whose will is ultimate among his wives and children? Is he so weak and jealous that he fears a wife being taken away from him by his teenage son?

It was interesting to me that Bill only perceived Ben as a threat after Margene tearfully admitted that it was she who kissed Ben and not the other way around. Bill could handle his teenage son having a crush on his youngest wife and learning, thanks to Teenie, that he had given her a love letter on their trip to Cumorah, but the moment it became clear that those feelings were reciprocated by Margene, the danger signs began to flash before his eyes.

I was proud, however, that Margene came clean about her feelings for Ben to Bill. The old Margene would have let Ben take the blame for the "blooper" at the television station in order to keep the peace at home. But Margene is transforming before our eyes too, becoming a strong woman who refuses to keep her feelings bottled up or lie about her own past. (Perhaps to a fault, her on-air confession about her parents may not have gone over well with "shiny things" purchasing viewers.) Her tearful display of honesty to Bill ("I kissed him. And I meant it.") spoke volumes about her inner conflict as much as when she subconsciously looked at Ben's stomach as he stretched to retrieve the hot cocoa mix for her earlier. She can't help the way that she feels. Despite striving for perfection, she is imperfect and has deep feelings for Ben that she can't control.

Sending Ben away might remove temptation for now but it won't fix anything in the long-term and it's only further sending Bill down a dark path towards the ideology of Frank. I was surprised that Frank turned up at Bill's announcement but he's quickly dispatched by Bill's glowing remarks about Lois, a surprise about-face considering his issues with his mother. But Bill's whole candidacy would seem to be based on a false foundation of traditional family unity, a lie that will corrupt his campaign from the beginning.

Others have plans for Bill as well. It's not immediately clear just what JJ wants Joey to do but he has Bill's brother under his thumb after he and Malinda photographed Joey and Wanda digging up Roman's body and burning it. Joey shows up at the rally and makes an entrance that plays up his own lost past (football hero) and his own morally fractious present. Will Joey sell out Bill in order to ensure JJ's continued silence? Most likely, yes. He yearns to give Wanda the life she wants and, rather touchingly, her dreams aren't big or lavish. They involve a yellow house, a sanctuary for her and her family away from interference.

But JJ isn't likely to allow that future to come to pass. He has plans for Juniper Creek and for the empire that Roman Grant built. His first request of the newly installed heir to the prophethood Alby is to request placement of Adaleen in his household, a marriage "for time" rather than eternity. Just why he wants Adaleen is a mystery but his twisted nature must find some "perverse" humor in the fact that he will marry the mother of his ex-wife and become, essentially, Nicki's father on earth.

As for Adaleen, her pained keening on the phone to Nicki was diametrically opposed to her out of character Zen-like calm when Nicki learned that she was to be sealed to JJ. Adaleen purports to be on a path of righteous obedience, but that's never been the case with Nicki's mother; she operates out of self-preservation more than anything. Was that why she turned her trailer around and returned to the compound? Did she realize that she couldn't exist on her own outside of Juniper Creek?

(Addendum: Also wanted to say how much I loved the moment where Jodean freed the Mexican parrots while Lois and Frank slept in the back of the car. Her satisfied smirk was the icing on the cake after her efforts at rebellion, payback for being treated like little more than a work mule. Nicely played.)

Alby, meanwhile, went to a whole other level of crazy when he broke into Dale's house in order to give him a present of grape jelly and cook him dinner... only to flee when he found proof of what he believed to be a grievous betrayal. I had wondered if Alby was playing Dale but he seems to have become obsessed with the UEB state-appointed trustee. His return to Dale's house signals perhaps a more honest union between the two but one that's doomed to come crashing down around their heads.

Our futures aren't always set from big actions but sometimes the small ones. I was glad to see that the writers dealt head-on not only with Ben's love letter from the Cumorah trip but also Sarah's miscarriage, turning it into something poignant about false second chances. Sarah's efforts to keep Leila's son after she abandons him (and tells the reservation authorities that Sarah took the baby) isn't so much the result of wanting to care for this child but the consequences of the loss of her and Scott's unborn baby. Unlike her mothers, Sarah has a supportive husband who isn't a dictator in their household; I was happy to see Scott offer Sarah his unwavering support and understanding, no matter what she decided to do.

Could it be then that there is hope for the next generation of Henricksons? Or are they too doomed to follow in their parents' footsteps? I don't think that Ben would have thought that his father--who earlier said that they shared an "open door" policy of trust between them--would have supported his exile from the Henrickson household. Is this breach a potential sign that Ben might have second thoughts about the Principle? Or that he sees his father clearly now, perhaps for the first time?

All in all, a fantastic installment that continues to see Bill sacrifice everyone around him to achieve his ends, even as his family continues to unravel at the seams. With only five episodes of Big Love remaining this season, I dare say that Barb may be right: the sugar is about hit the fan in a very big way.

Next week on Big Love ("Sins of the Father"), Bill tries to win Paley's support for the state Senate nomination; Marilyn makes a pitch to represent the casino's interests in Washington; Frank drops by the casino with Lois and Jodean.


Hayden said…
There have been a lot of shocking moments in Big Love but Bill turning his back on Ben is definitely one that I did not see coming. Bill is headed down a very dark path...
Hastings said…
Ah! I forgot how stressful this show could be! Last night's episode was crazy but fantastic too. Really enjoyed your thoughts and agree that Bill is showing shades of his father (who not only sent him away but also Frankie after he became friendly with one of Frank's wives).

I know some people aren't liking this season as much because Bill is being a jerk but, to me, it keeps it interesting. It would be boring if Bill was always just an "aw shucks" kind of nice guy.
Kyddyl said…
Being a native to Utah and an armchair sociologist, I'm feeling a bit frustrated with this season. Originally I could see someone had really been doing their homework, but now it's getting too sensationalist for my flavor. Utah culture is plenty goofy in real life and no, we're not doomed to follow our parents.

One thing I really appreciate is how the Mormons in Big Love treat Native Americans. They're clueless, to be very polite about it. It's very interesting to see the point addressed.
Dannie said…
I think Ben would be better for her and she should leave Bill for him. I love this show so much.
Sarah said…
I think the writers of Big Love have a grander vision for the Henrickson family. The bottom line of this show has always been that alternative lifestyles can work. Families can stay together even if they're not traditional families.

To that end, I think:

Bill will find a way to help Don. He has frequently manipulated Don in the past, but has also always made restitution. For example, in this very episode, he ended Don's health benefits to save himself. But then he turned around and offered to pay out of pocket for their health benefits. Maybe Don can work at the casino, or maybe he can find something to do with Margene's business since she needs an accountant anyway and on paper Margene and Don have no relationship to one another and Margene has no relationship to Bill. Losing Don at Home Plus will be hard for Bill too. Don has always been Bill's right hand man and the only sympathetic character to Bill's own position. Who can replace Don in this regard? No one.

Bill using Nicky in a similar manner to Roman is an interesting point. However, to borrow a phrase from Steve Martin in Cheaper By the Dozen 2, Nicky is clearly still "in touch with[her] dark gifts." It's possible to use a dark, though not necessarily illicit power, for the the end of good. And Nicky would see no inner turmoil here. Bill is just pushing back. The other guy has a spy, now he does too.

As regards Ben, I think it's yet to be seen what will come of this story line. I don't think that Bill will throw Ben out on the streets with no aid or continued contact whatsoever. When Bill was 14, he was thrown off the compound not only for being a boy, but for being a naturally charismatic Henrickson. He didn't commit any crime, he simply was.

Frank drove him out of town, dropped him off by the side of the road and gave him no money, no support network, no hope.

Bill will probably have Barb get in touch with her mother or sister and have Benny stay there until he finishes high school and can live at college. Ben could also probably stay with Sarah. This is a very dissimilar situation, since Ben is not an innocent victim or helpless child. He is an 18-year old man that made a semi-successful pass at his step-mother.

Nevertheless, Bill has shown over and over again that in spite of some impulsively bad choices, he is ultimately a good man and stands by his obligations in the long haul. I think he will stand by Don and by Ben because that is what he has always done and it is his essentially character to behave that way.
Andrea said…
Wow! As a descendant of Mormon polygamists with a legendary great grandmother who rocked a scandal by divorcing (she was a legal first wife) my grandfather (A big wig in the Church), to this day we still argue about whether it can be done.

Although, polygamy was once practiced more or less the Henrickson way, this episode demonstrated why it ultimately fell apart couldn't work with a modern society and why it had to be enforced with a dictatorial, iron-fisted and conniving prophet. Which is why if Bill wants to "Control" his own household he has to become what it is he despises.

I also love the very subtle ways they approach the whole double standard of polygamy. Bill was free to pursue his feelings for (even bed before marriage) Ana behind the scenes, but Nicky and Margene are not and feel guilty about THE SAME betrayal Bill committed with Ana. Bill did not come clean with his transgression, he just married her and called it good.
Elizabeth said…
Sarah, I totally disagree with your predictions.

I think that when this series concludes (which I hope is a long time from now) it will end with Bill returning to be the new Prophet of Juniper Creek (Roman 2.0) and Nicki will take what she believes to be her rightful place as Bill's head wife (Her Mom's old role). I'm sad to say, I'll bet Barb's cancer comes back and kills her -- I think she's the strongest impediment Bill has to returning to the compound.
Because they've been teasing the relationship since the first season, I'll bet Margene and Ben will run away together - like to Vegas or something - or better yet, Branson, Missouri: he'll sing and she'll become incredibly successful at something. Maybe they'll run into Rhonda there.
Sarah and Scott are already leaving at the end of this season.
And as for Teenie: the previous actress looked like a real, kind of awkward, girl with really curly hair and shy. This new girl, you can tell, has been designed using the She's All That method of making a dorky girl: curl bits of her hair with a curling iron and give her glasses. Mark my words: by next season, this Teenie will, after getting contacts and a flat iron, be revealed to be a budding supermodel who is joining the cheerleading squad and has a flock of boys chasing after her.
What else? Well, we can already tell that Wayne and Raymond are little compound boys, just in the suburbs.
I hope Wanda and Joey leave the compound and he goes off and teaches high school football somewhere in Kansas.
And Frank and Lois will be totally in love with each other/making each other miserable until the very end.

I'm sorry Sarah, but this show has never been about how alternative lifestyles can work. It's theme is more like: you'll never escape who you are, no matter how hard you struggle. These are your burdens, this is the hand you're dealt. The only happy people on the show are the ones who know who they are and accept it.

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