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The Stone Bench: The Special Relationship on Big Love

It's fitting in a way that the resolution to Barb and Bill's current problems--or, at least specifically, the question of Cara Lynn's protection--should occur at the spot where their relationship truly began: at the stone bench where Bill proposed to Barb all of those years ago.

On this week's episode of Big Love ("The Special Relationship"), written by Patricia Breen and directed by David Petrarca, we witnessed what might just be the end of Bill and Barb's marriage, or at least the legal, paper version of it. While Bill reassures Barb that they would still be sealed for eternity, the sting of his suggestion is evident: in order to safeguard Cara Lynn's future, Bill would have to marry Nicki. Which means legally divorcing Barb.

Let's be honest: Bill has always had a special relationship with his first wife and rightly so. Of all of his wives, Barb was the one with whom he has spent not only the most time, but also spent as man and (single) wife. They were a couple for nearly twenty years before the consideration of plural marriage was put on the table. When Barbara joined Bill in marriage, there wasn't any talk of polygamy or of sister-wives. She believed she was joining him solely and completely.

While Nicki would often refer to Barb as "Boss Lady" (remember those days?) with a more than a hint of malice, there was truth to her words. Barb was the first wife and first wives do have a bigger piece of their husbands' hearts. So the fact that both Bill and Barb are considering divorce, even in secular terms, speaks of how strained their relationship was become of late and perhaps how much Barb is chafing against the constraints of the lifestyle they lead.

I've been thinking a lot about causality as it relates to Big Love recently. The family's current situation, their decision to enter into plural marriage, and the fact that Bill has three wives all stems from the fact that Barb contracted cancer in the first place. In looking at where the Henricksons have gone, it's hard not to look back at that singular moment as the turning point for their lives. Without the cancer, Nicki Grant wouldn't have been in their home and without the Faustian bargain Bill struck for Nicki nursing Barb back to health, the Principle may not have entered their lives.

Every moment of our lives is dictated in some way by the infinite number of steps that led us there, from a youthful proposal to the sickbed, from the consideration of divorce to the adoption of a child. We're the totality of our experiences, the sum of every decision, every moment lived, every coincidence, every fateful step. Barb and Bill are reminded that the Principle allowed them to welcome a number of righteous warriors for Heavenly Father into their family, but also perhaps that everything that has happened to them can be traced back to the inherent unfairness of life.

The same holds true with the Principle being lived in the wilderness rather than in plain view. The progress that Bill Henrickson has made is juxtaposed with the abuses of polygamy and the unwillingness of the LDS church to be associated with an element of religion that they turned their backs on long ago. When Roman Grant grabbed the prophethood of Juniper Creek, wresting it from the hands of its rightful holders (the Henricksons), he set in motion a chain of events that brings us to the present day, a time where Bill is under siege from every direction--fellow polygamist sects, the state senate, the LDS church, his employees, etc.--even as he attempts to reform the system.

But missions of reformation are never easy, particularly when religion (and religious intolerance) enter the equation. Questions about the sanctity of marriage, while not outwardly mentioned on the show, hover over the debate about the legitimacy of marital plurality. The parallels to such measures as California's Proposition 8 and the ongoing debate about gay marriage can't be overlooked here. Just as the polygamist lifestyle is being attacked via discussions of re-criminalization and "witch hunts," the writers are deftly using this as an opportunity to look at other aspects of society's unease with redefining marriage.

But putting aside and social messages embedded within the series, this week's episode sought to depict just how far everyone is willing to go in pursuit of their personal causes, whether that be the continued existence of their family (Verlan), acts of vengeance (Alby), or the morality of protecting those who are being abused (Bill). But political gain often comes with a personal cost, as Bill will likely learn.

Albert Grant has made it his mission to tear down everything that Bill has built, targeting not only his Safety Net initiative (which he blames for allowing Lura to escape) but employing Verlan to murder Don Embry. In one of the episode's most shocking sequences, Verlan attempts to bludgeon (and then drown) Don in his tent on an ice lake while Don's sons (including Gary) are standing at their car. Verlan's eerie silence, the dead-set look in his eyes, speak volumes about the lengths he's willing to go in pursuit of the money that Alby dangles in front of him, money that he needs in order to pay off some long-standing Las Vegas gambling debts. (And then there's the matter of that manslaughter charge.)

Verlan's desperation plays right into Alby's plans for revenge. I also can't help but notice the scene where they first meet where Verlan seems to be offering himself up to Alby sexually. To his chagrin, he learns later that, even after "completing" his assignment, Albert doesn't let him leave, instead calling him an "Alby-ite" and ordering a room set up for him. (Uh-oh.) Whether Verlan was doing it for Rhonda (who tells him to take whatever Albert offers him), his child, or his debts, he proved that he was willing to do whatever was necessary.

Fortunately, Verlan's attack isn't successful and Gary is able to save his father's life and get him to the hospital in time. Bill's words are a cold comfort to Don ("Heavenly Father isn't done with you yet!"), though they do demonstrate the divine responsibility Bill places on the events in their lives. If each of them has a purpose, that purpose reaches its climax when their deity decides it's time. Call it fate, call it Heavenly Father, call it Life, but Bill believes that something is guiding them, that his actions and decisions are the result of testimony.

But so too does Barb. She believes with her heart that she is following her essential truth in pursuit of the priesthood. Her quest for religious and divine equality are at loggerheads with the patriarchal nature of their religious tenets, with the order prescribed by Joseph Smith. Bill isn't willing to relinquish the priesthood, nor is he willing to give Barb the blessing that would be required for her to ascend to such a step.

Which brings us to the here and now: to another conversation on that stone bench at the university. The years have changed Bill and Barb and altered their family. Coming full circle to where their marriage began, Barb agrees to a divorce, but I don't think that Cara Lynn's future is all that's on Barb's mind when she relents and agrees to dissolve their union. Throughout the series, Barb has struggled with life amid plural marriage, even leaving for a time back in Season Two. While I still believe that the family will end the series intact at the very conclusion, I can't help but wonder whether this new test will free Barb up to reconsider the choices she's made in life and the events that lead her there. We'll see just what she decides...

Some other thoughts:
* Interesting that Greg Ivey is saving himself for marriage... and that Cara Lynn would inappropriately show up at his house (the location of which was discovered by Google Maps, naturally) and be invited in. While Greg seems to be fighting against temptation, Cara Lynn seems determined to push the boundaries of their relationship. Her line of questioning towards Greg and her slight standoffishness towards Gary this week seem to point towards an interest in her teacher. Given her history, I'm concerned about just where this interest is leading, amid a season that's full of child brides and underage sex.
* Loved Rhonda's bizarro announcement at dinner (which ended with "Thank you.") and the clue she inadvertently dropped about Verlan coming into $50,000. I'm hoping Bill picks up on his when considering just who would have attacked Don as it certainly wasn't a vagrant living in the woods.
* I couldn't believe that Frank drove off without saying anything to Lois. I'm hoping he does learn--from Lois--that his actions lead to her dementia and that he is responsible for what's befallen her. These two have been at war for so long that Frank needs to finally stop being so craven and evil and offer some conciliation towards his wife. Lois' hunger strike, her disinterest in being at the Henricksons' houses, and her insistence that she go home are all breaking my heart. To see this formerly indestructible woman lose all semblance of control is gut-wrenching.
* I wonder what Alby will to do Verlan when he realizes that his contract killer failed to actually, you know, kill Don.
* Margene's "Achilles heel" is bound to come out sooner rather than later. Her pervasive interviews with local press (she's the "sunny face" of polygamy) and her scene with Michael Sainte. She's suddenly on a lot of people's radars, not least of which Sainte's. He's not happy about the sales that Margene is making with people on the compound... and given his prominence in the LDS community, I think that his storyline is just beginning...
* Loved Senator Barn throwing the football to Bill as being symbolic of his support... and that he does (for now, anyway) hold true is efforts to push through the Safety Net legislation. But something tells me that Barn has a few tricks left up his sleeve.

All in all, "The Special Relationship" moved the plot along briskly as things are set up for the series' endgame, while also making homage to the emotional core of Big Love: the rivalries between sister-wives, between questions of sanctity and sacrilege, between family matters and social ones, and between personal desire and the greater good.

Next week on Big Love ("D.I.V.O.R.C.E."), Barb capitulates on Billʼs marital plans, but not on her hopes to attain the priesthood and enlists ex-Mormon feminist Renee Clayton (guest star Judith Ivey), much to her mother Nancyʼs chagrin; Bill faces new impeachment pressure in the senate, and scrambles for new clients in the wake of LDS boycotts of his stores; Nicki chafes at the status quo; Margene eyes a sponsor for her pro-polygamy childrenʼs rally; Cara Lynn puts in extra hours with her tutor, Greg; Alby vows to combat Safety Net with a purification program of his own; Bud Mayberry warns Bill of an imminent threat; Frank and Lois strike a deal; Heather makes a decision that deflates a vulnerable Ben.

Comments

Anonymous said…
As this season ends in a likely trainwreck (and slaughter of innocents) will there be a spin off? Personally, I'd look forward to a tell-it-like-it-is "Statehouse" starring Greg Itzin. Sam

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