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A Terrible Foreboding: Psychic Damage on "Big Love"

"I'm damaged." - Nicki

"I think I can understand how difficult this must be, keeping a secret." - Bill

Last night's exquisite episode of Big Love ("Under One Roof"), written by Coleman Herbert and directed by Dan Attias, was the halfway point for the fourth season of Big Love and it built on the slow burn approach of the last few episodes to deliver a staggering and heartbreaking installment about the struggles of several characters, each of whom has attempted to overcome their imperfections to attempt to become worthy of the celestial kingdom they each hope to ascend to.

The quest for perfection and the damage done by the polygamist lifestyle the characters have been either born into or (in some cases) thrust into has always been lurking in the background on Big Love, but never has this intriguing theme been so perfectly explored than in last night's episode, which continues to haunt me the morning after it aired.

A sister's love, a lover's grief, a mother's fury, a husband's sorrow. All of these emotions bubbled to the surface in an episode that will mark a major turning point for the fourth season of Big Love, a tipping point in which the already fragile relationships explored this season might just come crashing down around them all.

"Under One Roof" paid off a number of long-standing plot points from the third season of Big Love as well as some simmering subpoints that exploded last night with boiling intensity: the return of Ana, now pregnant with Bill's child; Lura's suspicions of her husband Alby; the truth about Alby's feelings for Dale; Barb's fears for the future; the sealing of JJ and Adaleen; and the potential vengeance of the sadistic Greenes.

Nicki. Operating once again as Big Love's swirling maelstrom of emotion, Nicki provided the connective tissue between the domestic storyline unfolding at the Henrickson homes and the madness of the compound, where The Principle was once again twisted to ensnare a young girl in its patriarchal grasp. Realizing that her experiences on the compound have shaped her in some terrible ways, Nicki admits to Bill that she is "damaged" by what has happened to her. It's a huge admission for Nicki and major growth for her character; her manipulative ways, the darkness inside of her, what she has witnessed and been a part of have resulted in who she is today and this is the first time that Nicki really comes to terms with just who and what that is. While Roman was alive, I don't think we could have ever seen her so calmly and rationally realize what has been done to her.

But Nicki's sudden twinge of self-awareness also raises the stakes for her protection of daughter Cara Lynn: Nicki doesn't want the past to repeat itself and yet that's just what nearly happens here. Learning that Adaleen is about to be sealed to her ex-husband JJ, Nicki sets out for La Esperanza but there's a growing suspicion in her mind, a sympatico foreboding expressed by Wanda. History is repeating itself once more and Nicki must retrace her steps to the place where her soul was destroyed as she, then just a teenager, was sealed to JJ, a man twice her age.

What she discovers is horrifying and heartbreaking. Before his death, Roman had ordained that Cara Lynn would be sealed to a middle-aged man, Toby, and would become his seventh wife. And Adaleen, who had stood by and allowed Nicki to be sealed to JJ, is willing once more to let the same thing happen to her granddaughter because the prophet had willed it. In tearing Cara Lynn out of that hotel room and away from Toby and JJ, Nicki saves not just Cara Lynn, but also herself.

It's interesting too that Nicki would show up at the sealing ceremony wearing a side ponytail and a mini-skirt, casting off the modest clothing of her religion for something inimical, something shocking and tawdry. Is it an act of rebellion, the ultimate transgression for a belief system that enforces female repression? Or is it, as Nicki suggests, an element of her true self finally emerging from within the shell she has constructed out of a desperate attempt at self-survival?

Barb. While Nicki's eyes are forced wide open, she's not the only one grappling with the truth this week as Barb is forced to confront her husband's hypocrisy and her own, very valid, fears about the future. Bill has become so focused on winning the election and on exposing themselves that he's willing to jeopardize the very things that are meant to provide them with a means to live the future he so desperately wants for them. With Home Plus and the casino potentially in jeopardy, Barb realizes that the fears lurking in the back of her brain are overwhelming, no matter how she might put on a brave face. She wants to stand by her man but the crack in her voice as she recounts all of her fears belie more than just uncertainty about what they're doing and what they've all signed for.

It's further tested when she learns that she has been blind to her husband's behavior. His exclusion of her at the casino is made all the more apparent when she learns that she's been shut out of Marilyn's formal presentation; her position on the board being nothing more than a technicality, a ghostly whisper on a ledger. Ana's reappearance, however, does more to further weaken her perception of Bill, especially when she learns that Ana and Bill conceived this child out of wedlock and that Bill had a sexual relationship with Ana before they were sealed. (It's a behavior pattern that he established with Margene and which goes against every precept of their religion.)

Signing her name to the contract, effectively siding with the Flutes to hire Marilyn, is an act of independence by Barb. But I'm still not sure whether Barb is right to trust Marilyn. Bill's suspicions about the powerful Washington lobbyist may be founded in his personal dislike of Marilyn but there might just be something to his concerns as well. She sees the casino as a major cash cow, though it's the lifeline of both the Henrickson family and the Blackfoot tribe. Just what they'll be left with after Marilyn has picked over the corpse remains to be seen but I also worry about Bill's decision to "rebrand" the casino in Idaho. There are problems aplenty brewing there.

Margene. I loved that Margene joined Toastmasters and is now conducting seminars about her experiences as a single mother, something that Nicki takes great offense to, given the fact that Margene is neither single nor raising children on her own. The whole reason that Margene can be able to pursue her career and now these public speaking engagements is because she has two sister-wives to help cook, clean, and look after the children. Margene seems to relish the communal aspect of their marriage but, as Bill says, seems to want to throw away their relationship when it is convenient for her. Still, her fears about exposing the family as polygamists are valid ones; it could jeopardize everything they've worked so hard to achieve and Margene is not ready to say goodbye to her burgeoning career and the independence it's brought, nor her status in the community. Bill might not want to hide in plain sight but Margene doesn't want to be cast into the shadows, either.

Ana. I can't help but be suspicious of Ana. Yes, the Henricksons stumbled onto Ana in the restaurant and not vice-versa but she's being awfully secretive about a number of things. For one, she concealed her pregnancy from them but now is willing to accept financial contributions from Bill to care for their child, a decision she makes only after she learns that he's running for political office. After all, a sex scandal would make Bill quite a target and she offers him potential visitation rights in exchange for money, with a possibility for more in the future. She's got him over a barrel... and she doesn't tell him that she's engaged to another man. Which makes me wonder if the kid is even Bill's in the first place. After all, Ana did see someone while she was dating Bill and even had sex with him. Who is to say that he's not the father? Ana was particularly anxious that Barb not discover that someone else was at her place, after all and she's particularly keen as well that a lawyer draw up paperwork as quickly as possible. Not good...

The Smugglers. I was extremely wary of Lois, Frank, Ben, and Jodean's trip to Mexico, especially as this quartet is in way over their heads and the Henricksons don't even know that their teenage son is part of a bird-smuggling ring that has crossed the border into another country. Lois' efforts to cut out the middleman and take control of their own destiny is yet another foolhardy get-rich-quick-scheme on her part but, while her previous efforts have been motivated by self-preservation, this one seems slightly more altruistic as she wants to create a better life for Ben, offering him a place to live, a car, a chance to build a new family with her, Frank, and Jodean.

I loved that Jodean speaks fluent Spanish (have I mentioned that I love Jodean?) in addition to being Lois and Frank's de facto work mule, chauffeur, and general gopher. But I had a bad feeling about Don Dona, especially when he wanted to touch Ben's hair and seemed to be stalling when asked about the birds. Sure enough: they're set up by the Greenes, who show up at the market and kidnap them. It's a twist that I'm extremely nervous about (while also surprised that Selma was able to get out of prison, given what went down at the end of Season Three), given that no one knows that Ben is in Mexico... and the Greenes are pure, unadulterated evil and likely want payback against Bill Henrickson. They now have his son and his parents in their clutches and they have no compunction about killing.

But it's also Jodean's presence there that concerns me, seeing as her twin sister Kathy was intended to be forcibly sealed to Hollis Greene and killed when she fled the ceremony. Will Hollis take a liking to her lookalike?

Wanda. I'm also concerned that we're finally learning more about Wanda's madness, which seemed to return when her horrifically backwoods family showed up for JJ's sealing. Just what JJ has that belongs to Wanda remains to be seen but I wouldn't be surprised if she had a child out of incest. The creepy way that her father touched her (and called her "babydoll") gave me shudders and made me question whether there had been an inappropriate sexual dimension to Wanda's relationship to her family. Certainly, her response to Nicki when asked where Cara Lynn was ("She's in the nursery with the ponies") leads me to believe that Wanda is coming apart at the seams once more. Just where is Joey through all of this?

Alby and Dale. I was wondering just who had tipped off the trustees about the improper relationship between Alby and state trustee Dale and half-wondered whether Alby had done it himself in an effort to sell out his lover but this week's episode also showed the depth of Alby's devotion and love for Dale, as he goes so far as to buy an apartment for their secret rendezvous. So I was a little confused who else would have known about their relationship until we learn that the saboteur is none other than Alby's wife Lura herself. There have been signs that Lura knew more than she was letting on about Alby's extracurricular activities and last night demonstrated that Alby's wife is just as crafty and manipulative as he is. She follows him to the apartment, tells Bill about the affair (though Bill doesn't quite get it at first), and goes to see Dale's wife at home.

Are they the actions of a desperate wife or a woman scorned? Does Lura feel that she's been played the fool or is she trying to get Alby away from Dale in any way possible? For his part, Alby is clearly head over heels in love with Dale; he even (rather tragically) admits that he is in love with him on the phone. But for Dale, his relationship with Alby is eating away at him, even as he continues to fall for him. The portrait of Alby that Bill paints is a very different one to the man he's come to love: a dangerous sociopath prone to putting snakes in people's bed, stalking teenage girls, and attempting to murder his parents. But Alby attempts to dissuade Dale from believing the "lies," spinning his own version of reality in which he's misunderstood and persecuted.

Dale knows from persecution. He's lived his whole life tormented by his homosexuality, struggling to contain his true self (echoes of Nicki) and besieged by the church that is meant to be helping and saving him. His anger at the Mormon Church and Alignment for failing to do anything to help him was palpable, as was his shame when Bill admits that he knows about Dale's "homosexual affair" with Alby. It's a shame that he's lived with his whole life, through aversion therapy, electroshock treatment, group counseling. And it's a shame that he can't live with anymore. Prompted by the fear of exposure (echoes of the Henricksons) should there be an investigation, Dale hangs himself in the love nest that Alby has bought for them. It's a heartbreaking end to a man who grappled with his "imperfections" and who sought to be worthy of Heavenly Father, to see his true nature as a test to be overcome, a cross to be carried through this imperfect world.

Whether he knew that Lura has been to see his wife before he hangs himself or not is unclear. Did she tell Dale's wife about the affair? Is this knowledge too much of a burden for Dale to shoulder? Big Love has done a phenomenal job at offer a metaphor for persecuted minorities and for so-called alternative lifestyles. Never has the show dealt so honestly with the brutality and persecution experienced by gay Mormons than it did here, offering a heartbreaking end to Dale and Alby's love story and to Dale's conflicted life.

Bill. Dale used the phrase "tested" to explain his struggles in life and so too does Bill, who admits to Barb that he too had been tested and failed. In their own way, each of the characters struggles to become perfect but the series reflects the truth that each of us are imperfect creatures, each of us damaged by own experiences in life, unable to escape the past or anticipate the future. But while the wives are confused by Bill's vision of their future, by his latest testamony and calling, he reveals everything to them with a startling and heartfelt honesty.

The one roof of the title refers to Bill's endgame: a single home for all of the Henrickson clan to live in together, to be who they truly are without worry or care about society's disapproval. It's a utopia that Dale could never dream of achieving, an opportunity not to live in the darkness but to embrace life in the shining light of day.

Everything Bill has done, no matter how misguided or seemingly foolhardy, has been in pursuit of this goal. He knows the pitfalls of their religion, he knows that the Principle can be twisted by those who claim to uphold it for their own ends. The white-trimmed house, with its promise of unity, is an inversion of the squalid and backward world of Juniper Creek: it's not a compound, but rather a temple.

All in all, the very best installment of Big Love so far this season and a brilliant and heartbreaking episode that finds the Henricksons grappling with their imperfections and attempting to come out of their earthly tests worthy of their deity's grace and love.

What did you think of this week's episode? Is Ana attempting to get one over on Bill? Can Marilyn be trusted? What will Alby's reaction to Dale's suicide be? Is Lura safe from Alby's wrath? And will Bill's dream of one roof for his family ever come to pass? Discuss.

Next week on Big Love ("Blood Atonement"), Bill makes an emergency trip to Mexico after Lois and Frank’s latest smuggling escapade backfires; Nicki is jolted by a doctor’s news, but even more flummoxed by Adaleen’s shocking revelation; Margene offers up a potential remedy to keep Ana from leaving the country with her fiancĂ©; Barb finds some disturbing answers after an incident at the casino.


John said…
I agree this was one of the best episodes I've seen of any season. The re-emergence of the Greene presents real danger for the Henricksons. I would not be at all surprised if there weren't some real and permanent damages (i.e serious injury or death)that result from the foray into Mexico, and I hadn't considered Jodean's relationship to Hollis. The observations you made about Wanda, wow, hadn't considered that either. She just seemed her slightly crazy self on the surface, but I think you may have hit on what the source of that craziness is.
ewench said…
Great review, I also agree this was one of the best episodes ever and it convinced me this series is still amazing (I've had my doubts since the current season started)

I am not sure what creeped me out more, the Greens, Wandas parents or Adaleen and JJ in their Mormon underwear about to "do it"!

I also agree something is off with the Ana situation and that the Greens seem like really bad news. When Lois was dancing so happily with Ben it seemed like "oh this is the happy moment before something terrible happens". Weirdly, I do like that Frank and Lois are friendly again, they kind of go together.
AskRachel said…
Brilliant episode. I know some people have had doubts about the season but I feel like this episode really brought it all together and paid off a lot of storylines that had been developing in both this season and last. I can't believe how much happened. One of my favorite moments, though, was Nicki in her "slut" outfit with the side ponytail. Just incredible!
Mister K said…
This was a magnificent episode. The scene with Wanda and her father gave me the willies, and seeing Alby cry over Dale showed a side of him that has been truly hidden all this time. I was proud of Nicky for going and rescuing her daughter from being sealed to an older man. She's finally being proactive instead of just floating along. I can't wait to see how things continue from this point.
Anonymous said…
This episode was beyond brilliant. I came to see Big Love late (had to catch up on past episodes) but it is surely the best HBO has to offer - can't wait until next week.
Gayna said…
Slow clap to that episode and this blog.
Gayna said…
Slow clap to that episode and this blog.
freckles said…
I agree, awesome episode. period.

I love that so many characters are really coming to life this season. I loooove Alby's character. I also kinda like the idea of Margene and Ben. I have since early on, and last season they brought the idea to everyone's attention.

Also, after the episode revealing JJ's lack of fingernails, I did some research to see what could cause this. Turns out its a common birth defect found in children of incest. Leading me to wonder if JJ, as a child of incest, has had or is having sex with Cara Lynn. The hushed conversation about school, and for him not to worry, that she wanted to come back with him to Kansas. Weird. Also that he took Wanda's virginity, the something "precious" he has of hers. Not to mention the total crazies Wanda's parents are, her dad and his "babydoll" comment. Who knows, maybe the whole family is out in Kansas abusing their children and such.
Barbara said…
Yes, yes, yes to all that has been said. Three little notes: the juxtaposition of Nikki's "slut" outfit and the really weird undergarments that her mother revealed;the number 7 being deemed lucky by Cara Lynn's would-be husband and clearly not so lucky for Alby and his lover(7 being their love nest's apartment number);and finally, Wanda's strange comment about Cara Lynn's whereabouts. To me, I wonder if the nursery and pony remark is some polygamist slang for where the young girls are corraled before they are sealed to the old horses. Just a thought...Thanks as always, Jace, for the wonderful connective tissue!
J said…
What an amazing episode, and I love your write up. Now I want to go back and watch it again, and see what I've missed.
Beth said…
..."the lack of fingernails" comment got me going. This is a common birth defect of incest?? Big Love is the most amazing show on TV, bar none(for now). Wait until Mad Men returns. Another show about the repression of women and gays (and children, Jews, Blacks, even White Men when you think about it).
Lisa said…
I loved this episode! I was bouncing all over my kitchen chair like a little kid when Nicki came out of that car in her '80s gear. So funny!
Anyway, I just wanted to say that I watched it again last night and I noticed a couple of things that of course you can only notice on your second viewing: When Alby calls Dale in the earlier part of the episode to tell him about the apartment, right above his head in that scene is a clear shot of the wooden beams/rafters in the ceiling that Dale is hanging from at the end. The other thing I caught was Adeleen telling Nicki on the phone that she's made matching oufits for her and Cara Lynn because if she doesn't keep an eye on her she'll start "dressing like a whore". Later scene, there's Nicki in her slut costume!
I love catching these little things. It just makes everything connect for me.

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