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Out of the Darkness: Daybreak on the Season Finale of "Big Love"

"I've needed you for twenty years. I don't think I need you anymore." - Barb

Doubt and uncertainty have always clouded the Henrickson clan throughout the four seasons of HBO's Big Love, which has depicted their struggles to embrace the Principle and remain true to themselves, their family, and their religious beliefs, which often put them in conflict with each other and opened up internal debates about the path they're on.

Throughout the series' run, the Henricksons have gone to great pains to conceal their plural marriage from those around them, almost sequestering themselves in the three homes they share, which open out onto a communal backyard, a sanctuary representing their true selves, a place where they truly can be themselves away from prying eyes.

In last night's spectacular fourth season finale of Big Love ("End of Days"), written by Eileen Myers and directed by David Petrarca, the Henricksons took a major first step to reclaim their own destiny, to live their private lives in the public eye, and to unmask themselves for who they really are.

While one can't help but admire their courage and determination, their decision to expose themselves, to control the outcome of this reveal, couldn't have occurred at a worst time for the family or for polygamists in general.

Bill's entire political campaign has been based from the start on the idea that it would be a platform with which he could push the family from the darkness of fear and concealment and into the light. It's a noble mission but one that's clouded his judgment throughout this season as he was so hell-bent on achieving this end that he was willing to sacrifice numerous relationships to do so. The Henrickson clan has been splintered by the end of the season in more ways than one: daughter Sarah has fled for Portland with her husband; Barb has serious doubts about the way Bill is leading this family; Margene is looking for an escape route but may have discovered something else with Ana and Goran; Bill's devoted business partner, poor Don Embry, took the fall for being a polygamist and nearly destroyed his own family.

If there was ever a time not to rock the boat, it would be this one.

Adding to the pressure being placed on Bill: the calculated assault being perpetrated by the venal lobbyist Marilyn Densham; strife with his partners at the Indian tribal casino; and a series of indictments coming down out of Kansas which point to shocking allegations of inbreeding and incest from Juniper Creek's sister compound. A compound that was overseen by Nicki's psychotic ex-husband JJ, who arrived at the end of last season under some mysterious circumstances.

The writers masterfully built up this last storyline throughout the entire season, waiting for the last possible moment to pull the trigger on the incest storyline. While I've suspected as much from the clues that have been subtly deployed throughout the season--from JJ's lack of fingernails, the creepiness of his parents, and Wanda's mental breakdown--the truth was even more shocking and horrific than I could have even imagined. While the series stopped short of having actual forcible incest portrayed, JJ's eugenics scheme was gruesome and perverse: a misguided effort to keep their bloodline pure through a series of in-vitro fertilization that scientifically wed siblings, cousins, parents, and children.

Bill. I was stunned that Bill managed to carry off being elected into the state senate after a very close race with an opponent who was willing to use every trick at her disposal. While the season was building to this inevitable conclusion, I was extremely surprised that Bill had carried off his election without being exposed as either an adulterer or a polygamist by the numerous people who were seeking his destruction.

Throughout the four seasons that have aired so far, we've often seen Bill shouldering more than he can humanly carry, whether that's his relationship with his wives, his business empire, or this new political calling. It's a calling to office that he claims he received from a new testimony, one that was dramatically at odds with that at the end of last season. Turning his back on the church he had established, he believed he could do more good from a political office than the pulpit.

On the one hand, I agree with Bill's determination: he wants to reclaim the Principle from those that would twist its purpose and its message. He wants to give a new face to polygamy, one that isn't rooted in the squalid or the depraved transgressions of Juniper Creek, Roman Grant, or Frank Harlow. One that is essentially about love, family, and acceptance.

I believe that Bill has a higher regard for human nature than is really warranted, especially when it comes to people accepting the Other. He believes that because he's now told the truth, revealed himself and his family as polygamists, that he'll be accepted for who he is and he'll be able to become polygamy's Great Reformer, a role that Alby Grant seems to castigate. But Bill doesn't take into account that he lied to everyone--to his campaign supporters, his backers, the volunteers who worked the phone lines, the Mormon church he returned to, his neighbors, and everyone who checked the box next to his name in the voting booth--and that revealing a lie doesn't take away the sting of betrayal.

He might want to live in the light, to be honest and open about his beliefs and his identity, but public scrutiny casts a harsh glare. Will Bill really be able to do anything in office now that he's revealed the truth about his family? Will anyone trust him again? And while he might refuse to step down, hasn't he misled the public and the party throughout this whole election campaign? How can one reform when one no longer has any power? The keys to the kingdom have been seized from Bill before he's even begun to enact his vision.

Barb. While Bill might believe steadfastly in his campaign--both a mundane and heavenly one--those around him lack certainty in his testimony. Barb this season has transformed from being Bill's Boss Lady, the first wife wielding power and influence over the wives, into a successful and independent businesswoman, a position that she never wanted in the first place. But her handling of the casino in Bill's absence propelled her into a very different role within the family and within the world.

Her tentative first steps at the casino (remember the crab leg fiasco?) seem miles away from her grit and drive now. Yes, she still makes some serious mistakes, typically when she reacts from anger or hurt (such as when she hired Marilyn), but she's also seeing the world with a clarity that wasn't there before. She did uncover the link between Marilyn, Paley, and the religious right boycotting the casino... and she discovers the truth about Leila and the Flutes.

Barb isn't one to cut her losses or turn her back on those in need and she's shocked and disgusted when Bill has Jerry and Tommy Flute removed by the tribal council rather than working with them to stem the tide of meth at the casino. She's come to have a close understanding of Tommy and formed something resembling a supportive friendship. The ease with which Bill cuts those ties frightens and disgusts her. They were partners, after all, so how could Bill so callously sacrifice them? The casino was meant to be a safety net for all of them, yet Bill was willing to cut out the Flutes like they were a cancer.

It's no surprise that Barb wants to put the brakes on Bill's decision to expose them. I was shocked that she leaked the paternity test results to the press but her betrayal was a last-ditch effort to stop Bill from destroying their family, from pushing them into the public eye, and destroying their reputations. If anyone understands the risk, it's Barb after her excommunication last season. She sees just what damage can be done here, to them, their marriage, their children. She's willing to do whatever she has to in order to keep things behind the veil of secrecy.

But even after she admits what she's done, Barb still can't go along with Bill's plan, no matter how much Nicki might be on board. Private polygamy is one thing but a public reveal of their lifestyle could destroy them all and it's clear that Barb is having serious doubts about her marriage and the path that Bill is pursuing. It's telling that Barb doesn't tell Bill that she doesn't love him but that she doesn't need him. And she doesn't in a way. She's been forced to rely on herself, to stand on her own two feet, to follow her husband through hell and highwater and something has snapped inside her. (It's not the first time she's had doubts; she left the family for a bit in Season Two.)

But in the end, she hesitates but she does eventually get up on stage to grasp hands with Bill and her sister-wives. Does she do it for Bill? Or for Margene and Nicki? Or for herself? After all, Barb has been exposed as a polygamist whether or not she gets up on stage. She can't hide and she certainly can't backpedal now. But she has a choice: to support the people she's married to or turn her back on them. And, based on her horror at the way Bill handled the situation with Tommy and Jerry, her choice is a difficult one but also the right one. It isn't her dream but she's made her alliances.

Nicki. I've loved seeing the way that Nicki is attempting to find herself this season, casting off the prairie clothes that symbolized her connection to Juniper Creek and her father's lifestyle as she attempts to try on the identities of those around her: first Margene and then Barb. Nicki's blossoming is the payoff to four seasons of self-doubt and self-punishment; she's finally coming to terms with the fact that she does deserve love and happiness, despite the damage she's suffered through her life. The cutting of her braid, a reversal of Samson's story, enables her to find herself, to cast off the past and start anew, to find her wellspring of strength.

But as much as she might tell herself that she is worthy of Bill's love, she feels that she has to uphold her end to the bargain, to continue to bring souls into their family, to be fruitful, to expand their family here and in eternity. And she's willing to make a deal with the devil himself to do, venturing back to Juniper Creek to receive the miraculous treatments from Dr. Roquet, despite the disappearance of her own pregnant mother.

It's ironic that Nicki should be so disgusted by Margene's plan to donate an egg to her ("Your egg, Bill's sperm in me? It's disgusting!") yet what nearly happens to Nicki in Roquet's care is far more revolting as JJ unveils his master plan: to reunite with Nicki by implanting his sperm and their daughter Cara Lynn's egg inside her. It's a jaw-dropping revelation that points to just how sick and twisted JJ really is. His idea of family is an offspring that unites mother, father, and daughter, a perversion of the Principle and the laws of nature, a sick idea of family planning (as April Blessing tells Larry King) that is horrifying.

Just what lies ahead for Nicki remains to be seen but her sudden reversal about polygamy is an intriguing direction. Her unerring belief in the Principle has been one of the guiding hallmarks of her character, yet to find her suddenly wanting to keep Bill to herself, to not share him, to change the status quo, points to a new direction for this always fascinating character.

Margene. Margene meanwhile struggled to uphold her promise to Ana and Goran even as she found herself increasingly attracted to Goran... and caught up in Bill's decision to expose the family, which would likely result in the loss of the business she had built up in the last few months. Playing Bill against the couple, Margene was caught between maintaining an escape route and falling into old patterns.

But it was the final scene between Ana, Goran, and Margene that points towards some major developments last season. Ana and Goran are acutely aware of Margene's attraction towards Goran and they seem quite fine with it, almost encouraging it in a way. The warm embrace that the trio shares seems more than just friendship and I couldn't help but feel a sense of frisson between them; I wouldn't have been surprised if all three ended up in bed together afterwards.

Just what does marriage mean to Margene? She slept with Bill despite the fact that he was already married to Barb and Nicki. She married Goran ostensibly to help the family but she signed a legal document binding her to another man. And now, despite the fact that Ana and Goran are engaged, she finds herself drawn to another man who is already attached. What future do these three have together? Will they too be drawn into the already growing Henrickson clan?

Alby. As for Alby, he destroys Roman's office, ripping down the blue sky wallpaper that his father put up, cuts up Lura's face in payment for her betrayal, and announces that he is going to name himself as Roman's successor. While the "ghost" of Roman is nowhere to be seen, it's clear that he hovers over the action here. While Bill's purpose is to place the family in the light, to stop the darkness growing inside of them, it's clear from these scenes that Alby has given himself over completely to the darkness, reveling in destruction, punishment, and vengeance. Yes, we're seeing the series' ultimate Big Bad finally emerging from the ashes of loss, grief, and self-loathing.

Adaleen. Loved that Adaleen managed to escape, thanks to a well-timed slam to Malinda's head. (Nicely played, Adaleen.) After everything that she had stood by and watched happen to Nicki, is able to rescue her daughter from suffering a similar fate. (Adaleen is, after all, pregnant with the offspring of brother and sister JJ and Wanda.) Does it reverse the decades of abuse that Nicki went through? No but it does prove beyond a doubt that Adaleen does love Nicki, does care for her, and is willing to sacrifice herself to save her child. She's also willing to serve as an instrument of vengeance, raining death upon JJ and Malinda, whom she ties up inside the clinic and then sets on fire. (An an aside, I thought the image of JJ and Malinda tied together was both beautiful and horrific, setting the two as mirror images of each other, both bald, as the flames consume them.)

Marilyn. I'm still not sure what to make of Sissy Spacek's Marilyn. She was so filled with anger towards Bill, so willing to destroy everything he held dear, but why? Was it that she couldn't charm him? That he saw her for what she was, a venal criminal in lobbyist's clothing? I had a feeling that she wasn't behind the adultery story (too easy) and her flatness in the scene where Bill confronted her in the hotel room confirmed that. I'm hoping that Spacek will be back as I think there's more to Marilyn than meets the eye... and I love that she waltzes into Bill's house and tells him a "sad, stupid man." A fitting proclamation from a woman who abuses the system yet who is utterly, completely alone in the world.

Wanda. Wanda finally regained her voice, just in time to save Nicki and warn Bill about what JJ was going to do with her. I'm hoping that we're finally seeing a Wanda who is more stable and honest than she has been, finally able to speak out about what has been done to her, able to shine a light on the abuses that the Walkers have perpetrated. We finally learned just what it was that JJ had of Wanda's--at least one of her eggs--but I can't help but wonder just what she'll do if Adaleen gives birth to that child. Shudder.

All in all, "End of Days" was an explosive season ender that tied up many of Season Four's dynamic storylines and presented some tantalizing story threads for next season to tackle. While this season has been less warmly embraced by many viewers, I found it to be gripping, controversial, and--to borrow a term from creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer--"operatic." (You can read my exclusive morning-after interview with Olsen and Scheffer here.) It positioned the Henricksons into a new and exciting place and shook the very foundations of the series in a way that opens up entirely new story possibilities in the future, exposing the Henricksons and forcing them to live a life that's no longer closeted. But as the Henricksons will likely find out next season, there's every reason to be careful what you wish for...

I'm curious to hear just what you thought about last night's season finale and the fourth season of Big Love as a whole. Head to the comments section to discuss.

Season Five of Big Love will air next year on HBO.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
Wow. Great review. I thought this season had some faults but, overall, was still a fascinating journey. The characters are so layered and interesting that I would follow them just about anywhere.
pinklady said…
I thought this season was strange at times but very entertaining. I think that they opened the possibility to so many new challenging story lines. I can't wait for season 5.
Unknown said…
So excited to learn that Fringe will be returning for a third season. I find myself waiting for Thursday evenings just to watch. It is a thrilling, continuing plot that has adventure, comedy, sadness, and brillant and talented actors. I just loooove Walter!Thanks Fox tv!

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