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The Road to Perdition: Acts of Vengeance and Forgiveness on "Big Love"

"I'm not that person that you think I'm becoming." - Bill

This week's stunning episode of Big Love ("Blood Atonement"), written by Julia Cho and directed by David Petrarca, featuring not only one of the most shocking moments so far on the series to date but also offered an exploration of the characters' innermost psyches by focusing on their past mistakes.

Both Bill and Joey have been beset by feelings of vengeance, but both carried them out in different ways. Bill has long attempted to escape the squalid filth and treachery of the Juniper Creek compound but far too often finds himself dragged right back in. He never chose to leave in the first place; that decision was made for him by Roman Grant and his father Frank Harlow and that moment has haunted him for the rest of his life. Joey, meanwhile, murdered Roman as an act of revenge for the death of Kathy Marquart and his quest for payback extends to the twisted Hollis Greene as well, even if it means placing his entire family at risk.

In other words: we can't escape our pasts, no matter how hard we try. Bill might have been pushed off the compound as a teenager but it's in his blood and he's connected to it via an invisible thread. Once flicked, he can't help but be drawn back into its clutches. But, as Bill discovers this week, we do have the power to forgive, to keep the past where it belongs--behind us--and not let it define us in perpetuity.

This week's episode was absolutely riveting and emotionally resonant as each of the characters made discoveries that challenged both their sense of self as well as the world around them. It also featured one of the very best Lois Henrickson scenes in existence (kudos to Grace Zabriski) and explored the nature of sacrifice, forgiveness, and family.

Bill and Joey. We can choose to forgive or we can choose to avenge. Sadly, each of the Henrickson brothers takes a different path this week, a choice that results in, yes, the freedom of the imprisoned bird smugglers in Mexico and the dismemberment of one Hollis Greene, but also in the scales being dropped from Bill's eyes: he sees truly now just what his expulsion did to his family and how the sickness of the compound has infected even his brother.

Secrets seem to be the Henrickson clan's stock in trade. Far too often one or more of them is going off on a little side mission, a scheme, that they keep from the others. I understand why Bill would want to keep Ben's kidnapping from his wives, given everything that has happened, the stresses of the campaign and the casino, and the sting of his own complicity in what happened. After all, if there hadn't been a misunderstanding between him and Ben in the first place, Ben wouldn't be in danger now. His rescue mission is an effort to shield Barb, Nicki, and Margene from the truth of what is going on in Mexico (he fakes a meeting with a lumber supplier in Seattle) but things are not quite as simple or as easy as Bill imagined.

For one, the situation in Mexico is already perilous. The drug war has resulted in frequent kidnappings, roadside hostilities are the norm, and the Greenes are walled up and have gathered quite the arsenal of weapons. The Mexican authorities can't risk going in guns blazing and yet Bill can't sit there and do nothing. It is, no pun intended, a Mexican standoff, made all the more dangerous by Joey's quest for revenge for Kathy's death. It's a path that places all of them in serious jeopardy as Joey's quest seems rooted in a self-destructive impulse that is at opposition with Bill's rescue efforts.

Bill is finally able to forgive Frank for what had been done to him all of those years earlier. Frank's confession to Lois--that Roman ordered him to expel Bill from the compound--offers a very different portrait of Frank than we've seen thus far; while he's still guilty, his sin wasn't greed or jealousy but allegedly cowardice, being unable to stand up to Roman Grant and being afraid of having everything taken away from him. Is it an excuse to dump your fifteen-year-old son on the side of the road? Hell no. But it does explain just what happened and why a little more, offering us a deeper picture of the Henricksons at the time and how the incident scarred everyone involved, from Bill to Lois, Joey, and poor, doomed Maggie. Bill could have left Frank to rot in that cell, to be punished by the Greenes, but he chose the path of forgiveness, choosing instead to rescue everyone. ("No one gets left behind this time.")

It's a moment of real progress and character development for Bill, especially after his speech about the "cesspool" of the compound to Joey. They may have been warped by their experiences, by what they've lived through, but there still exists in all of us the ability to change, to cast off our old patterns, and to offer a chance at redemption. But it's a path that's denied to Joey, who is more focused on making Hollis pay for what happened to Kathy than in freeing his family. His actions have irrevocably corrupted him; his soul has been broken by Roman's murder and his quest will only push him further into darkness.

But for Bill, there's a chance not to only make amends with Frank but also with Ben. In the moment of reunion between them, there is no animosity, no recriminations, only the unbreakable bond between a father and son, each realizing the love that the other has. Likewise, the scene at the episode's very end, in which the wives gather on the porch to welcome Ben home may have been silent but it was overflowing with unspoken emotion and a palpable sense of relief.

The Greenes. I dare say that this won't be the last time that the Henricksons cross paths with the Greenes. After all, Selma too chose to forgive (for now) and save Hollis' life rather than punish the Henricksons for their actions. She chooses life over death and destruction. That the act of vengeance would come not from Joey but from Lois was one of the episode's most delicious surprises. As she swung that machete down on Hollis and sliced off his right arm, Lois' single line of dialogue ("no one lays a hand on my son") was absolutely fitting. Bill was willing to sacrifice himself to save his family, to exchange his life for theirs. It's a father's duty and a son's honor, perhaps, an act of contrition designed to balance the scales.

But Lois isn't having that and Hollis laying his hand on Bill's shoulder, acting as his judge, jury, and executioner, was too much for Lois to handle. And she swiftly enacted her own judgment: lowering the blade and getting splattered with the results of her own blood atonement.

The Greenes won't let this go lightly. Hollis, who perceives himself to be the one true prophet, has been perhaps mortally injured by Lois. Does Selma get him to the hospital in time to stave off death? It's unclear, but if I were a betting man I would say that they'll be back...

Margene. My wife actually said to be during the episode's opening credits that it would be insane if Margene offered to marry Ana's fiance Goran... yet that's just the solution that Margene dreams up, allegedly to keep everyone happy: to keep Goran and Ana in the country and, most importantly, keep the baby here. (After all, we learn that the kid is most definitely Bill's, thanks to a paternity test.) But is that really Margene's sole concern? Is she doing this for Barb, Bill, and Nicki? Or is there something else at work here, something less altruistic and more selfish?

It's only fitting that Margene's solution should present itself just as the family is preparing to go public with their polygamist lifestyle... and Barb offers to have a home office set up for Margene in the new house. She's making moves to protect herself. In the event of an avalanche of negative publicity, Margene can distance herself from the family and use her paper marriage to Goran as proof that she's not connected in polygamy to the Henricksons. It's an easy out, a chance to keep the business she's worked so hard to create, but Barb and Nicki see right through this little plot.

However, they are too late to stop Margene from going ahead with marrying Goran. It might be a somewhat practical (if absolutely insane) solution to keep Goran and Ana in the country so that Goran can get his green card and become a doctor and keep the baby around but this is Big Love, so there will be some major complications. That Margene would go ahead with this plot without even consulting Barb and Bill speaks volumes about her desperation. I loved Barb's line about her "cope container" being full when she does learn about Margene's decision. This will end badly.

Barb. It's not just on the homefront where Barb has the wool pulled over her eyes. The situation at the casino has become untenable, with protesters waving guns and planting fake bombs on the premises. Worse, Barb and Tommy's efforts to get evangelical Ron Reed to disavow violence results in nothing less than a standoff. It's clear that they are on their own and that they are facing bigger opponents than they dare thought. In fact, everything that has happened has been set in motion by a cabal of power brokers: Marilyn, Senator Paley, and Reed are all in bed together, as Barb discovers by connecting the dots. But whether this scenario is an act of vengeance on the part of Marilyn or just business as usual remains to be seen.

Loved the scene between Barb and Tommy in which she asks why he came back to the reservation. While he says it was to help his father out after Jerry and Bill got the approval for the casino, there's something else going on, something "personal" that Barb senses, likely something to do with the death of Tommy's wife and kids. Over the past few weeks, I have to say that I've gained an appreciation for Adam Beach's Tommy; he adds a nice new dimension to the series and gives Barb a simpatico soul up at the casino.

Nicki and Adaleen. The week's biggest mystery has got to be that surrounding Adaleen's miraculous pregnancy, a discovery that comes just as Nicki learns that she has secondary infertility and an "unhappy uterus." While I doubted JJ's diagnosis of Adaleen's condition (after all, they've barely been married a week), a home pregnancy test confirmed that Adaleen is in fact with child. But... how? Adaleen isn't exactly young and even she was surprised when she learned about her pregnancy. Plus, the sudden vibrancy and optimism she is experiencing seem to coincide with JJ's miraculous hormone injections. There's got to be a connection between the two.

Worse still, Adaleen advises Nicki to go see JJ's son Roquet, a doctor who is apparently a cutting-edge pregnancy guru able to achieve the impossible. Which worries me to no end. There's something in the hormone compound that Roquet has prescribed for both Adaleen and Nicki, something that is tricking Adaleen's body into a false positive. But why? And for what end? And is this connected to why JJ had to leave Kansas so suddenly? What could possibly be gaining by tricking Adaleen into thinking she's pregnant? Hmmm...

The scarier possibility is that Adaleen is pregnant and was impregnated unknowingly with someone else's egg and that she is effectively a brood mare carrying someone else's child. But whose? And just what does Wanda know about this? What did she make JJ "promise"? And what could be so dark and nefarious that JJ is willing to blackmail his sister into silence?

The mind shudders to think.

All in all, an absolutely fantastic installment of Big Love that pushed the plot into overdrive. With only two more episodes remaining this season, things are about to explode for the Henricksons and I'm terrified to think of just what new and shocking twists series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer have up their sleeves. The wait until next Sunday is going to be torturous...

Next week on Big Love ("Next Ticket Out"), Sarah shakes up the family with an announcement; Nicki makes an all-out attempt to be the woman Bill wants her to be; Margene is put on the defensive when Bill questions her real reasons for getting married; Marilyn looks to bring down Bill as his campaign winds down; Barb jolts Nicki with news about Joey that Bill was supposed to deliver; a suspicious Bill looks for clues about J.J. in Kansas, while Adaleen finds them closer to home.


AskRachel said…
I can't believe there are only two episodes left! There is so much going on I don't know how they're going to wrap it all up. Politics! Babies! Murder! Agh!
phil said…
Great writeup! Thanks. I needed it just to put all the threads back in place.

Do we know if Big Love was renewed for next season?
Jace Lacob said…

Yes, Big Love has been renewed for a fifth season already.
Unknown said…
I can't believe you didn't mention Jodean! She's so badass!
Jace Lacob said…

Jodean is so badass in this episode but I wish that she would have been a bit more organized in her efforts to free the Henricksons. Yes, she managed to get into the Greenes' compound and find the ostrich pen where the Henricksons were being held but I wish she would have at least alerted Bill and Joey to what she was doing... and then maybe wouldn't have been caught.

But it's a blip as I'm crazy about Jodean and can't wait to see what she gets up to next!

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