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Mr. Henrickson Goes to Washington: The Politics of Relationships on "Big Love"

At its core, HBO's family drama Big Love has been about the often complex and always complicated interpersonal relationships that we encounter in our lives: the bonds between family, spouses, lovers, the pangs of unrequited love, the enmity between rivals. In other words: the series is a microcosm through which we can explore our own relationships, a rubric for understanding the Gordian knot of love and hate between ourselves and others and, often, the conflicting natures within our very being.

This week's episode of Big Love ("Strange Bedfellows"), written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and directed by Adam Davidson, found the Henricksons separated in more ways than one. While Bill headed to Washington D.C. with Nicki and Cara Lynn, Barb and Sarah's efforts to spend some time together resulted in a car accident involving a young woman on the reservation and Margene gave into temptation, a subconscious action that will likely have lasting repercussions for several of the characters.

It was this fateful moment between Margene and Ben as well as parallel storylines involving Alby and his secret lover Dale (the newly appointed state trustee on the UEB board), Barb and Sarah, and Nicki and Cara Lynn that gave the episode its emotional resonance. Is it sinful to be imperfect or is it the greater sin to give into your imperfect nature? In other words: can we help who we are or are we doomed to give into our impulses?

It's these impulses that offered a strong throughline to the season's third episode, one that was split among the political powerhouse of Washington, in the Henrickson's suburban home, on the Native American reservation, and in the backwater of Juniper Creek as several secrets spilled out, actions were taken that can't be undone, and the twin vipers of Alby and JJ made their opening move.

Bill. I'm glad to see that Bill attempted to reconcile his relationship with Nicki but his plans for rekindling their relationship were derailed by Nicki, who brought Cara-Lynn along for the weekend. I had almost written off Bill and Nicki's marriage as irreparably damaged but Bill seems to be making an effort to get things back on track, even if he doesn't quite realize just how unhappy Nicki is. Her betrayals last season, both with Ray Henry and with her efforts not to get pregnant, speak to larger issues within their marriage that can't be solved with a weekend getaway to D.C. or some sexy bottomless lingerie.

For a man with three wives, Bill still isn't the the most knowledgeable guy when it comes to women. In addition to misreading Nicki's signals, he botches an important liaison when he meets Marilyn (the fantastic Sissy Spacek, here a strawberry blonde spitfire), a key Washington lobbyist who holds the keys to accessing an endorsement from a prominent Utah Congressman. Mistaking her for an assistant, Bill berates Marilyn for making him wait in the lobby and then blows an opportunity to get a ticket to a fundraiser where Congressman Paley (Perry King) would be. Marilyn isn't one to be charmed by Bill's aw-shucks attitude nor his slightly chauvinistic view of women in the workplace... and she manages to block his access to the Congressman at several turns. But it's not Bill who manages to undo his actions.

Nicki. We've long known that Nicki has a manipulative streak that can't be controlled but in this episode she actually applies those traits to something positive: namely, winning over Marilyn and convincing her that she needs to help Bill. While Nicki believes that she's won the lobbyist over by talking up Bill's strengths, it's really the mention of the Indian gaming casino that sparks Marilyn's attention. Still, Bill wouldn't have gotten to the Congressman if it hadn't been for Nicki's interference...

But while she saves the day here with a Hail Mary, Nicki isn't exactly known for her judgment, such as her decision to bring a concealed weapon with her to Washington "for protection." (She truly is her father's daughter.) As soon as Nicki pulled out that firearm, which she checked separately on the plane, I knew that it would come back to haunt her. I just never expected that it would be Cara Lynn who would (metaphorically) pull that trigger.

It's their estranged relationship that provides one of the best illustration of what I was discussing earlier. Nicki's main character trait is her manipulative nature; she can't help who she is but she can choose whether or not to give into her nature... or to use her powers for good, as she does with Marilyn. But Cara Lynn has inherited her mother's nature: she's devilishly manipulative. Despite her agreement with Nicki, Cara Lynn doesn't tell JJ that Nicki and Bill are taking her Washington because she knew he wouldn't agree to it; rather, she lets Bill and Nicki receive the irate wrath of her father rather than stand up to him herself. (That wrath includes a surprise and rather menacing visit at Margene's house.)

Likewise, angry that Nicki forced her to wait downstairs in the lobby for so long, Cara Lynn brings up Nicki's abandonment of her as a baby. When Nicki attempts to explain, Cara Lynn storms off, leading to a tantrum in which Cara Lynn tells the security guard that Nicki has a gun. A classic Nicki move, really. Cara Lynn might pretend to be sweet and naive but she has as much of a gift for emotional subterfuge as her mother. It's in her nature, really... and as much as Nicki might want her daughter to turn out differently, they might be doomed to the same fate.

JJ. Understandably furious at learning that his daughter has been flown across the country without his consent, JJ flies off the handle and confronts Margene, who is home with the Henrickson kids and Jodean. His threatening manner and anger recall Alby during Season Two of Big Love, a shadow forcing its way through the cracks in the Henrickson home.

But despite his anger toward Bill and Nicki, JJ has bigger plans that involve Wanda and Joey and he manages to convince them that the authorities are suspicious about Roman's death and intend to exhume his corpse. Knowing that Roman has his DNA under his fingernails, Joey panics and digs up Roman's body himself... while JJ's cancer-stricken wife Malinda watches nearby. (If this whole scheme weren't creepy enough, we learn that it's JJ who is acting as Malinda's physician, performing her blood transfusions and biopsies himself.)

Alby. Alby's twisted relationship with Dale got even more complicated this week as they continued to give into their mutual attraction to one another, both at the compound offices and in a hotel room. Despite his hunger for Dale, Alby maintains that he is not gay but just "likes fooling around." Dale, however, believes that his homosexuality is a test from Heavenly Father and that he must try not to give into his base desires, knowing that same-sex attraction doesn't exist within the celestial kingdom and is only limited to their time on Earth. The sin, he says, isn't being gay, which is in their nature, but in giving into those feelings.

While it's clear that Dale is falling for Alby despite his efforts to remain pure (loved the scene where he asked about his facial scar, the result of his aborted attempt on Adaleen's life last season), I can't help but question Alby's devotion to his lover. The fact that he snapped a photo of them naked in bed together raises some looming issues: Alby can now hold this proof of their relationship over Dale's head if he needs to should the state trustee go against his authority down the line.

However, Dale now has something over Alby as well: he knows that the UEB has spent $100 million of the trust in building a top secret satellite compound in Kansas. It's this compound that JJ alluded to when he urged Nicki to make sure Bill doesn't start poking his nose into Kansas. But just what is going on there? Why is Malinda in such a rush to return. Hmmm...

And then there's the little matter of Roman's spirit hovering over the action, manifested all the more three-dimensionally by Alby, who appears to have absorbed Roman into his subconscious, hearing the hateful sting of his scorn following his night with Dale. As he dresses in his Temple garment, Alby pictures his father sitting in an armchair, watching him, judging him, loathing him. Yes, things just got a hell of a lot more insidious...

Jodean. I was so happy to see Mireille Enos return this season as the sullen Jodean Marquart. Still reeling from her sister Kathy's death, Jodean seems to have nothing to live for and exists firmly under her husband Frank's thumb. But there are signs of a friendship blossoming between her and Margene, one that I hope continues to be explored. The palpable sense of relief and comfort that washed over Jodean when she and Margene embraced spoke volumes about the isolation and loneliness she feels now that her twin is dead. Sad and touching.

Barb and Sarah. Barb and Sarah's efforts at reconciliation didn't so much as hit a wall as they did a woman... meth trafficker Leila Stilwell (Frozen River's Misty Upham). After Barb's sensitivity seminar crashed and burned (loved that woman's fiery reply to Barb's insistence to tell her how she really felt), the mother and daughter got their own taste of racial sensitivity training. Despite Tommy's insistence to let them handle this issue, both Barb and Sarah return to the reservation to check on Leila and get sucked into the drama without really having an understanding of the underlying issues. Tommy tells Barb that Leila is a mule bringing meth onto the reservation from Canada and that the tribe has a strict policy about meth: houses used to store it are razed and traffickers are banished. That Barb would offer Leila an inroads to the casino is mindboggling to him; they are trying to keep meth as far away from the casino as possible.

But it's too late for Sarah, who feels some personal responsibility for Leila. Besides for giving her money at the clinic, she returns to the reservation and is seen at Leila's house looking after Leila's baby. Considering her own brush with motherhood last season (and her eventual miscarriage), I'm concerned about Sarah's involvement with Leila, especially if there are drugs involved. Sarah is in way over her head but doesn't quite realize it yet...

Margene. She's not the only one in over her head, though. After everyone bailed on showing up to the television station to support Margene's primetime appearance, she's ecstatic to see Ben show up for offer some emotional support... especially after he came to her rescue earlier with JJ. She's so happy in fact that she gives into the seething sexual tension that has existed between them since the start of the series and they share a kiss.

Margene is horrified by what she has done and immediately realizes that she has made a huge mistake, but that mistake is compounded when Ben is identified on television as Margene's husband while Barb watches in shock. This storyline has been four seasons in the making and I'm glad to see that Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer are delving into this plot headfirst. I only wonder just what the fallout will be from this illicit kiss, a move that both surprised and shocked Margene. Has she crossed a line that can't be uncrossed? Will her actions further splinter the already fragile Henrickson clan?

All in all, another fantastic installment of Big Love that doled out some tantalizing tidbits about this season's many mysteries, amped up the tension, and kept the characters questioning their true selves. Next Sunday can't come quickly enough...

Next week on Big Love ("The Mighty and the Strong"), an audit uncovers insurance discrepancies at Home Plus, forcing Bill to take drastic steps to protect his secrets and save his candidacy; J.J. approaches Alby with a potential solution on how to dispose of a “flock cast adrift,” flummoxing Nicki; Sarah gets a taste of motherhood, albeit with someone else’s child; Bill decides that a change of scenery might be best for Ben.


Barrett said…
"For a man with three wives, Bill still isn't the the most knowledgeable guy when it comes to women." Absolutely! It was actually nice to see a woman (Sissy Spacek) put him in his place!
Bella Spruce said…
It was so great seeing Jodean/Mireille Enos. My heart was breaking for her when she hugged Margene and I hope their relationship continues to grow.

Poor Wanda and Joey. They just can't get anything right. Why oh why would they dig up Roman's body?!? No one was investigating his death and they would have been fine but now....

Another great (and stressful!) episode!
Unknown said…
I used to love this show. It deserves to win the emmy for the 2008-2009 television year. But it has jumped the shark this year. it is almost unwatchable. Is there a more irritating lead character on TV today than Bill Hendrickson? Stevigny is still fantastic as Nikki but none of the the other sub-plots have peaked my attention. I'm out.
MeganE said…
John - I couldn't disagree with you more! Season three was brilliant but I think they have done a fantastic job keeping the drama going and I am just as fascinated by the characters as I was during the first season.
ewench said…
John, I agree to some extent – I will say the third episode was a bit better, it definitely held my attention whereas 1 & 2 had me looking at the clock and yawning.

Bill has become somewhat insufferable and I don’t necessarily find myself rooting for him all the time like I once did. He is not handling his family well and the whole idea of him running for the senate seems ludicrous on so many levels. I’ve actually lost empathy for several of the characters including Barb.

I am not giving up yet but definitely am no longer gushing over this show.
TxGowan said…
Why did they bring Teenie back instead of just having her become Big Love's version of Chuck Cunningham? There is really never anything for that character to do.

Instead, they've settled for making her Big Love's version of Becky. (but I doubt the original will come back in a couple of seasons)

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