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Age of Consent: Patriarchy and Polygamy on Big Love

"It's all been such a waste." - Lois

Throughout its run, Big Love has sought to shine a light on the abuses of the polygamist lifestyle and belief system that the Henricksons adhere to, offering a spectrum of fundamentalism through which to see the center at its core. For all of the abuses at Juniper Creek, the old ways embraced by Roman Grant and his false prophet son Albert, they seem infinitely more sane than, say, the Greenes or Bud Mayberry.

This prism has been useful in the past because it clearly establishes that the Henricksons don't walk the fine line that many other believers of the Principle do. In their vision of this religion, there is the semblance of free will: there are no forcible sealings, no teenage brides, no breaking of laws or inverting the beauty of the divine Principle.

But that's not quite the case as we learned last week. Bill Henrickson, as we know, did take an underage bride in Margene, attempting to rationalize and sanctify that most stereotypical of male middle-aged faults: he slept with the babysitter. Bill invited a 16-year-old Margene into their family, sleeping with her before their marriage and to this day denying that he had any knowledge of her youth, something that even steadfast supporter Don can't quite wrap his head around.

This week's superlative episode of Big Love ("The Oath"), written by Melanie Marnich and directed by Omar Madha, investigates not only the fallout from Margene's confession and its affect on Bill and the sister-wives, but also offers a moving portrait of the stifled role of women in the polygamist system, and just how parallel stories can repeat themselves right under our noses.

It's been intimated throughout the series' run that Margene is more like a Henrickson daughter than one of the mothers. Her attraction to Ben (which makes all the more sense now, given the closeness of their ages), her immature behavior, her naivete and open-eyed spirit all make sense when you realize that she was a girl of 16 when she married Bill and not an adult. This fact is even more disturbing when Margene attempts to justify her behavior and her outward lie towards Bill and the others, saying that she would have done anything to be adopted, to have gotten out of her life with Ginger in that trailer park.

But that's just it, Margie darling, you weren't adopted. You got married.

It's the use of that word, "adopted," that cuts like a knife. In giving herself to Bill, Margene walked away with a family, ingratiating herself with Barb, who was herself chafing against the demands of plural marriage and with her relationship to second wife Nicki. If Barb suspected Margene's age (I don't really think she did, to be honest), she couched it in terms of personal desire: she needed someone to side with, someone to make her happy, and someone to share the burden with, to turn her marriage from a tug-of-war into a more level playing field. But their trinity of sister-wives is not holy, as Bill defied some of the fundamental legal beliefs that he's trying to uphold with his Safety Net program.

Interestingly, the writers have chosen just this moment, following the revelations of both Margene's age and Nicki's own troubled history with underage marriage (seen last season), to bring back the series' first child bride, Rhonda Volmer.

Rhonda, of course, was betrothed to "Old Roman," but her alleged innocence was a mask for some truly horrific behavior. Cast out of Juniper Creek, she claims to have been destroyed by Roman, reduced to living on the streets and "dancing at special parties" (cough), before ending up with Verlan (Friday Night Lights's Kevin Rankin) and settling down. She's turned her back on the Principle and is now a mother... but that doesn't mean that she doesn't have a con or two up her sleeves. (More on that in a bit.)

Rhonda's experience is not unlike Bill's: driven out of his home, forced to fend for himself, turning to a life of prostitution just to survive. But Bill's story is the rarity; far too often we're seeing how women pay the price of polygamy, how their freedoms and (in some cases) civil or human rights are violated in the name of Heavenly Father.

Rhonda had no choice in the matter of being promised to Roman, just as Nicki had no say over being forcibly sealed to JJ. We see first-hand just how this lifestyle has affected Rhonda and Nicki, Barb and Lois, Adaleen and countless others. But does that make Bill just as complicit in upholding the status quo as JJ and Roman? He did suspect that Margene wasn't as old as she claimed to be? Was he blinded by lust and passion that he had to have her, as Don maintains? How is that any different than Roman and Rhonda, really? Could that be why he can't quite make eye contact with his youngest wife?

Lust, it seems, corrupts everyone. The truth behind Lois' dementia attests to this more than anything. While several causes are discussed in last week's episode, the truth is far more damning than a B12 deficiency. The indestructible Lois--who was denied her birthright by Roman Grant, abused by her husband, and forced to let her daughter be sealed and then watch her kill herself--is undone by Frank's libido, her dementia the result of a venereal disease that Frank infected her with it. The price of polygamy, it seems, it the loss of Lois' mind, of countless women's freedom and dignity.

And then there's Cara Lynn, the literal consequence of the patriarchal rule of the polygamist sect, the offspring of Nicki and her much older husband JJ, a girl with everything going for her who nonetheless serves to remind her mother how much of a cautionary tale her own life became. Just what interest does the much older Greg Ivey have in Cara Lynn? Is it just a teacher-student relationship? Or are we seeing the first sparks of attraction between the two?

While Greg offers Cara Lynn an outlet for her sorrow, giving her his phone number in case she needs to talk and telling her about the death of his brother when he was a teenager, there's something more at play here, something untoward that manifests itself when Cara Lynn spies him with his parents at the mall. Greg's shiftiness here, the fact that he's been talking her up to his parents, seem to point towards something shadowy and uncouth, a parallel experience that connects him in those seconds to Bill Henrickson, Roman Grant, and even Frank Harlow. Towards, perhaps, a lust towards innocence and virginity of girlhood.

It's an eye-opening possibility. While other series have dealt with inappropriate relationships between teachers and students (it's become, in recent years, something of a go-to trope), there are implications here that are greater than just Greg and Cara Lynn, but towards a system that operates in a vicious cycle, that rewards male lust and the masculine gaze, and which enslaves its women in a pattern where they serve to fulfill that desire on a regular basis, becoming wives, brood mares, nurses, child brides. It's a system that's predicated on the superiority of its men, its priesthood-holders, and the subjugation of the female.

Barb seems to have realized this of late, seems to have divined that she has her own relationship with Heavenly Father, and that her fate and that of her sister-wives (all of them, that is) is tied up in the patriarchal structure that their religion demands. What Barb is suggesting, and which she hints at towards the First Lady, is that she wants reform in her own way, wants to tear down the religious gender politics of polygamy and forge a new path. It could almost to heresy, to suggesting that women can hold the priesthood and guide their families to eternity with as much right as their men.

Barb's newfound convictions arrive at the same time as Margene's spiritual awakening, as she makes connections between Goji Blast sales and the Book of Mormon, being being good and doing good. Her passion, blossoming in her conversation with Pam (who I'm glad has stuck around for as long as she has), becomes the jumping off point for a spirituality in Margene that we haven't seen before, even as she rails against Nicki for drawing parallels between their experiences. "Your abuse is not my abuse," she screams. She doesn't see herself as victimized, but Nicki maintains that a 16-year-old is not able to make those decisions for herself.

Their argument underscores the changes that Barb wants to make in their religion, seeing herself as a reformer as much as Bill does in his own way. But those changes need to start at home, and Barb hasn't even raised the issue with Bill directly, something that Cindy reminds of her in no uncertain terms. But regardless of what happens with Barb and her quest for a female priesthood, we're meant to see that the seeds of change are a good thing and that the abuses of the past can be undone, the circle broken, the pattern ended. It doesn't have to be, as Lois sadly cries, "a waste" at the end.

Bill's dream sequence, after getting run over ("bumped") by Margene in the Senate parking lot, sheds some light on his state of mind now that the truth about Margene has come to light. Lois' home becomes a hotel, which in turn becomes a banquet room where he meets Emma Smith, one of the wives of prophet Joseph Smith, who tells him that the history books were written by liars and that Smith had no underage brides. The fact remains however that death doesn't erase our wrongdoings, just the evidence of it. Whether or not Bill chooses to believe in Smith's transgressions don't undo his own, just as his wrongdoings won't evaporate after he's gone. The cycle continues anew.

Interestingly, Bill creates a composite from Emma Smith and Lois Henrickson, one giving way to the other as the dream continues, the mother of their religion becoming in turn his own mother, each trapped in the web of male domination, one generation after the next. Tragic.

Some other thoughts:

* I was glad to see Rhonda apologize to Heather for "outing" her feelings for Sarah way back when. I still maintain that Heather had feelings for Sarah but that she's either buried them or let go of them altogether. The series has been quite adept at late at tying up these loose ends or paying homage to the small moments from earlier seasons, and this was no exception. Does Rhonda really see the error of her ways or is she looking to push a wedge between Heather and Ben now that she's returned? I'm not entirely sure, but the scene of Heather and Ben kissing passionately should be viewed that whatever thoughts Heather once had towards her best friend are no longer applicable.
* Cara Lynn doesn't exactly jump up and down with excitement when Nicki tells her that Bill wants to legally adopt her. After all, she's just found out that her father is dead and Nicki's already trying to further erase the truth about her previous existence, transforming her into a Henrickson. Despite Bill's desire to make it official, I don't see this process going smoothly.
* Rhonda claims that Cara Lynn's cousin Verlan is the father of her baby, but should we take this at face value? I don't think so. Will be interested to see whether or not the parentage becomes an issue anytime soon. Additionally, as soon as Verlan showed up, I knew that they were after something. Verlan appears to be broke (he gladly accepts the few dollars Cara Lynn offers him) and then he and Rhonda attempt to shake down Alby for $50,000. Curious to see just where this is going.
* Loved the scene where Bill and Barn compared guns. Just perfect.

Lastly, I'm glad that Bill was able to be sworn into the Senate and that, despite his promise to do so, Barn didn't impeach Bill the moment he was sworn in. While that reckoning may still happen, there's a moment of (tempered) triumph as several applaud Bill's swearing into the Utah Senate, after his defiant speech about how their shared religion places those tenets before any legal imperatives. "Persecuting me violates your own scripture," he says. "It makes you all hypocrites and traitors to our history."

Bill may have achieved his goal, brought legitimacy to his polygamist lifestyle by giving them a seat at the table, but he's also painted a bull's eye on himself in the process. After the applause and the cheers of his family, Bill walks the deserted hallways of the Senate by himself. But it's not a moment of triumph, but of paranoia here as he hears someone moving about nearby. Leaving the elevator, he's faced with two paths: one in the light, and the other shrouded in shadows. That Bill chooses the darkened hallway says quite a lot about the choices he's made and perhaps the realization that not all of his actions can be brought into the light.

Next week on Big Love ("The Special Relationship"), Bill makes a deal in the Senate, but finds new obstacles to his livelihood being raised by LDS officials; fed up with interning, Barb considers a dramatic life change that could have far-ranging consequences for the family; a legal obstacle hinders Bill and Nickiʼs efforts to adopt Cara Lynn; Margene preaches the Goji gospel; Rhonda encourages Verlan to do Albyʼs bidding; Lois longs for her old life with Frank; Don takes another hit for Bill.


Unknown said…
watching big love again on box sets. cant believe Bill has passed... :( for real this time!!!
unbelievable how real big love is, when you watch sister wives, and see the very real struggles for power and emotion. some of my favourite bits of big love involve high dead pan comedy ; when Barb and Bill are sneaking around :"you know he won't live his wives for you.".... and then when Bill is angry with Niki for the overspend "i don't feel comfortable in my own homes."

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