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Keys to the Kingdom: Disintegration and Realignment on the Season Finale of "Big Love"

I'm still in awe thinking about last night's breathtaking season finale of HBO's Big Love.

Over the course of the ten episodes that comprised Big Love's intense and gripping third season, we saw the Henrickson clan go from being a complicated but stable family unit to literally disintegrating before our eyes... and possibly coming back together again, if last night's superlative episode ("Sacrament") points to a new direction for the series.

It's hard to believe that Season Three of Big Love was only ten episodes, the series' shortest season so far, as it was so packed with tension, drama, emotional beats, and enough neck-snapping plot twists to give you emotional whiplash. Showrunners on network series that are working with 22 episodes a season take note of executive producers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, who managed to squeeze in more plot and story in those ten fantastic installments than many showrunners are able to fit into the traditional twenty-plus.

And just when I wondered how Olsen and Scheffer would be able to top themselves following this amazing season, they effortlessly set up a new direction for the series, one that's likely to be rife with the sort of tense and gripping plots that have become hallmarks for this intelligent and provocative series.

Nicki. Just when I thought that Nicki had perhaps permanently severed her bonds with Bill and her sister wives, she managed to rebuild those bridges and redefine herself over the course of a single episode. In other series, this might have been slightly unbelievable but the strength and grace of Chloe Sevigny's performance and the subtle writing here render her transformation completely credible. Nicki finally accepts responsibility for her own actions, coming clean to Barb about why she's really on the compound (it has nothing to do, as she claimed, with Joey and Wanda) and about the existence of her daughter, Cara Lynn (Cassi Thompson), and forcing herself to connect with Cara Lynn and accept that she did abandon her all those years before.

But before you can say "heartfelt moment," Nicki flees the compound with Cara Lynn, rather than let her undergo the same fate she did as a teenager and be sealed to an older man she didn't love, and brings her to the Henrickson houses. And together, they take the sacrament of Bill's new church. It was a gorgeous moment of redemption for Nicki (especially as it did coming on the heels of her not-quite-joking conversation with Alby about how best to murder their parents) and points toward the possibility of a renewal of affection between her and her family. The way that Barb quietly took her hand and led Nicki toward the others was a beautifully understated expression of solidarity and forgiveness. While Barb has painted Nicki as the reason behind her ex-communication from the LDS church due to her "invasion" of her marriage to Bill, it's a sign that Barb and Nicki might be able to move forward together.

As for Nicki, the conversation she had with Cara Lynn might have been the most affecting scene she's had on the series to date as she learns that Cara's father J.J. (Zeljko Ivanek, here playing a truly terrifying serpent of a man) wants to place the girl in the Joy Book and has pulled her out of school. Seeing history repeat itself all over again, Nicki urges her to tell her parents that she wants to go back to school and then, in an effort to undo the past, takes her from that very life. Does it explain why Nicki didn't want to become pregnant? Possibly, as she herself went through a traumatic experience as a teenager, forcibly married to an older man and impregnated, who then flees her marriage and her baby. Is Nicki terrified of having a daughter now that she's borne Bill two sons? Was she in a state of denial about what had happened to her?

Barb. Poor Barb, following her ex-communication, suffers a slight breakdown and becomes obsessed with the notion of expanding their family, even suggesting to Bill that they rent the womb of an Indian surrogate and implant her with Bill's sperm in order to add a child to their family... as Nicki is in "open rebellion" about her desire to not reproduce. For Barb, a child is something to cling to. Given that she can't bear children of her own and has been ex-communicated, it's an effort to find something to desperately hold onto. Fortunately, her prayers are literally answered as Nicki does expand their family for them, bringing Cara Lynn into their midst and adding another soul to their eternal family.

Margene. Ginnifer Goodwin's performance in this episode when she stands up to Bill about her business was absolutely exquisite. The strength with which she imbued Margie was at complete opposition to the meek, peace-keeping girl we've known and loved. It pointed to a new-found maturity and purpose and it was absolutely wonderful to see her stand up to Bill, as a mature and fully realized woman. And it completely stunned Bill to see his youngest wife draw a line in the sand. I do think that Margene knows what she's doing and I hope that Season Four picks up with Margene embarking on a successful business venture that is completely her own. In that one scene, the former Henrickson babysitter grew up and became a Boss Lady of her own. It was a dynamic transformation that speaks towards the complexity of her character and the writers' artful development of her character over the past three seasons.

Cara Lynn. While Cara Lynn only appeared in about two scenes in this episode, I have to say that I am already impressed with the young actress Cassi Thompson who plays Nicki's daughter. In just those few on-screen minutes, Thompson has painted Cara Lynn as a young woman with an independent streak who is more like her mother than they realize. (Just look at the ease which with she lied to Malinda about the cake.) While she dreams about being a doctor and vet, it's clear that she has no future other than motherhood and servitude on the compound. However, it's also clear that there's no way in hell that J.J. is going to let his daughter go without a fight...

Sarah. I was surprised that Sarah asked Scott (Aaron Paul) to marry her so suddenly but I am extremely excited to see what new dimension their union will bring to Season Four. While Scott was initially skeptical about embarking on a new life together without a plan for the future, he quickly came around and accepted her proposal. Just what sort of future will these two have? Is Scott cut out for a life of secular monogamy or will his philandering ways lead him to receive a testimony pushing him towards the Principle? Hmmm...

Alby. I loved the scene between Alby and Nicki as they ghoulishly discussed how best to eliminate Roman and Adaleen for good... and Nicki only seemed to half-understand that Alby was being serious. He and his wife Lura (Anne Dudek) are absolutely terrifying together and are two very dangerous partners in crime. (Lura, after all, did grow up in a copper mine so knows first-hand about explosives.) Alby's attempt on his mother's life seemed to balance the scales a bit and points to a possible reconciliation between the two in Season Four. The scene in which he left her a letter bomb in the hallway of her motel--only to have the maid run over the package with her cart--was painfully tense. And, of course, Alby literally got caught in the line of fire, while Adaleen wasn't injured at all.

Ted and Cindy. Yes, Bill and Barb were there for Ted and Cindy during the ordeal of Kim Lee's kidnapping by Hollis Greene but both Ted and Cindy thought that this traumatic experience could erase what they had done to the Henricksons. I'm glad that Barb didn't promise her sister that they could just work together on the casino project and forget the past... and that Bill managed to cut a deal with the LDS church, offering a massive endowment to Brigham Young University (five percent of the casino profits) in order to remove the many impediments that Ted had thrown in the way of the project.

Yet I am also glad that Kim Lee wasn't killed in the end (even that would have been too depressing, even for Big Love) and was safely returned. That all of this should have happened because of a letter--and a fake one, at that, created by Alby--is mind-boggling. That this was a business that Juniper Creek regularly engaged in and was successfully picked up by Alby after Roman's arrest points to a keen manipulation of the system and just how insidious both Roman and Alby truly are.

The Greenes. Once again, Hollis Greene managed to escape into the ether. After making Kim Lee a special pet and wanting to adopt her and bring her to their compound in Mexico, Selma makes a deal with her brother Roman to return the girl... and winds up arrested. I'm glad that Selma didn't come to her senses and realize that what they had done was wrong but rather she became intensely jealous of Kim Lee and acted once again out of self-interest rather than the greater good. I'm extremely nervous that Hollis will return once more next season to try to gain control of the compound now that Alby is in the hospital, his wives have fled, and Roman Grant is dead.

Roman. Speaking of which, I'm impressed that the writers killed off Roman Grant. I loved Harry Dean Stanton's nuanced performance of this complex and tyrannical self-made prophet and I'll miss him but I couldn't really imagine what the series would have done with Roman next season had he managed to escape unscathed. (Certainly not another trial for the murder of Kathy Marquart, as we've been down that road once before.) There was only one way that this season would end and it would be with the death of Roman Grant. When that closet door opened as Roman, alone, played his guitar in the big house, I wasn't sure who would be there to send Roman on his way to "salvation." In fact, I wondered if it would be Nicki herself... but I was saddened to see that it was Joey enacting a Biblical vengeance for Kathy's murder. Roman has had a way of wriggling out of every net and Joey ensured that he would pay for murdering his beloved Kathy. That it was man's justice rather than God's, will weigh heavily on Joey in the coming season, I am sure. But there was no way that Joey, unhinged as he was by Kathy's death, wouldn't seek to make Roman pay for what he had done, with no way of knowing that the D.A.'s office was going to indict him the following day. Tragic.

Bill. As for Bill, if the past three seasons have taught him anything, it's that he needs to reclaim the keys to the kingdom and form his own church, one that's separate from the one that turned its back on Barb and from the violent splinter group of Juniper Creek which have turned the Principle into something dark and twisted. The realization that he would do so brought a new sense of purpose (something each of the characters experienced in their own ways this episode) and the simple grace with which he offered his family communion pointed toward the hope of the future.

And that's really what Season Three ended on: the Henricksons once again joined together in a spirit of community and hope, united against the darkness around them, forging a bright beacon of faith against those who would seek to harm them or corrupt their beliefs. While I'm heartbroken that this amazing season of Big Love has drawn to a close, I'm already shivering with excitement to see just what Season Four has in store for the Henrickson clan... and only wish that day could come sooner rather than later.

What did you think of the season finale? What are your predictions for Season Four of Big Love? Were you shocked by Roman's death? Alby's attempt on Adaleen's life? And just what does the future hold for all of them? Discuss.


Not since The Wire has there been a television drama with such an incredibly solid season. From start to finish, season 3 of Big Love has been daring, intelligent, gripping, and overflowing with superb performances, writing, and direction. There wasn't a single episode that felt out of place or that I didn't enjoy! I'm sad that the season is over but I would much rather have 10 perfect episodes than 20 or so mediocre ones. Absolutely.
Anonymous said…
I completely agree--this has been a mesmerizing series. It was actually perfect art-- left you wishing for more, and at the same time,feeling very complete. One silly, nagging question: didn't Margene have two boys and then the baby girl? Throughout this season, the younger kids have been Nikki's two blonde boys, one dark-haired toddler whom Ben is seen holding last night and Nell. (I know Teeny isn't present in the final view, but she has been around at one point or another this season.) Perhaps the writers should keep better track of the Henrickson clan!
Anonymous said…
Jace, thank you for yet another thoughtful review of this excellent series. I think Big Love is one of the most underrated shows on television and I'm so glad that you give it the attention that it deserves! I hope you continue writing about it when it comes back for its next season!
S Broggie said…
There's nothing I can add to your excellent review. I just can't wait for season 4 to see what happens in the power vacuum at the compound. With Alby going to prison, as I'm sure he will be, there are not many options we are aware of. There's Hollis Green, but how long will he be around with Selma's testimony to the DA? That leaves the Henricksons. Will Bill entertain the idea? I believe that because his grandfather who was the prophet and supposedly displaced (murdered) by Roman, he has rights. Or does Bill's dad have rights to the seat? I'm sure he won't stay in Mexico too long once the the word goes out that the compound has no leadership. Although, I think it was Bill's, mother's, father who was the prophet and I'm not sure how that plays. I might be wrong about that (this show is getting to the point where we need a series encyclopedia).
Or will Alby's incredibly evil and motivated wife take Alby's place in his absence and defend his seat? Juicy stuff coming our way in any event.
BTW, the new girl was excellent and is testimony to the amazing casting this show does. All the actors are amazing and convincing which makes this show so engrossing.
Since I live in Ventura County where the majority of the outdoor scenes of the series are filmed, I want to try to get a look at them shooting the new season. If I get any photos, I'll post them somewhere and let you know.
Michelle said…
Had me on the edge of my seat!!!

Great review Jace!!!

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