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The Dance: The Pursuit of Happiness on Big Love

"I'm trying to win a place at the table." - Bill

Many mourned the loss of the original opening credits of Big Love. Set to The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," it offered a look at the celestial family created by the Henricksons, a glimpse into the eternity offered to their family. But of late, the new credits, which hauntingly depict the various members of the Henrickson family in a state of freefall, seem all the more appropriate, as the clan continues to come apart at the seams. And as each of them searches for their own definition of "home."

This week's evocative and powerful episode of Big Love ("A Seat at the Table"), written by Julia Cho and directed by Adam Davidson, found each of the wives grappling with their own inner compass in the wake of their public outing. Revealed to be "lying polygamists," each of the three wives attempts to find a new path for themselves. For Margene, it's the effort to prevent any further change after the decks have been swept clear; for Barb, it's to question the foundations of her faith and her life; for Nicki, it is a fixation on her teenage daughter, Cara Lynn, an attempt to prevent the sins of her past infecting her daughter's future.

But surrounding this week's installment was also a thematic exploration of the role of motherhood and wives in the polygamist family arrangement. Throughout the episode, we see how each of the mothers--from our three main sister-wives to Adaleen, Nancy, and Lois--deal with their subservience to their husbands. Despite the fact that each of these women are strong and independent, each follows their respective husband's lead, believing his instructions to be the path of guidance they must follow.

But Barb has begun to question this tenet of their faith, questioning the foundations of their underlying belief system, to wonder whether women don't also have the right to hold the priesthood, to offer their own blessings, to set their own path in life.

What follows is a remarkable exploration of faith, family, and spiritual fidelity, something that Big Love has excelled at since the very beginning of this series. As we move deeper into the final season, it's only natural that these questions should loom even larger in the characters' minds and, one hopes, that they spark similar questions in the viewers. What is satisfaction? What price does happiness have? Or sacrifice? Who should decide the paths we take in life? And who ultimately is responsible for the choices we make? Should we all try to live in the light?

I offered a spoiler-light review of the first three episodes of Season Five of Big Love over at The Daily Beast, but now that this week's episode has aired, we can begin to discuss the specifics. (And, no worries about spoilers here: while I've seen the first three episodes, the discussion below is strictly based on the second episode only.)

The abuses of the compounds' doctrines often fall hardest upon the women of polygamy. In looking to reform the compounds, to bring their religion into the light, Bill looks to drag it out of the darkness of abuse. By opening it up to scrutiny, he believes that he can earn the followers of the Principle a seat at the table, and can offer them the same protections and privileges of any American citizen.

Safety, justice, education: these are things that many of us take for granted in the 21st century ivory tower of the States, but these are things denied to many of the compounds' followers. Nicki should know: she claims that there is no high school education at Juniper Creek, and no education of any kind for girls. Even as she strives to give Cara Lynn the best possible education, the best possible start at life's possibilities, she stands up to Alby at Bill's Safety Net meeting, and to the patriarchy at large.

Nicki's claims, that women are treated as chattel and forced to breed until "their uteruses fall out," greatly anger many at the meeting (especially Robert Patrick's Bud Mayberry), but her accusations, louder and angrier than her sister-wife's, are part of an echo of Barb's own line of questioning. Where are the equal rights for the polygamist wives? Why did Nancy fight so hard for the ERA back in the day? Why are these women being systematically abused and denied equal opportunities?

Barb doesn't believe that she is doing anything wrong in questioning her faith. In fact, she believes that the scripture points towards her new-found understanding: that women can hold the priesthood, they can lead their families, they can--as she attempts to do to Margene--make blessings. But her views are radical and go against the status quo. They're perhaps more dangerous than Bill realizes, even as he looks to straighten up the compounds and reform them altogether.

But each of the wives is struggling in their own way. As Barb opens herself up to new experiences, to wine and dance classes and Sunstone, she's looking for something to hold onto, something to live for amid wide-sweeping change in her life. She's looking to experience things outside her worldview, to challenge herself and her faith. Bill believes her to be careening, but Nicki believes that Barb has set in motion a deliberate plan.

In offering Margene a blessing, Barb nearly breaks a holy sacrament. But it's clear that Margene is aching for something as much as Barb, and Barb attempts to help the both of them, to connect them to Heavenly Father and to something larger, and more powerful, than themselves. If Nicki hadn't have intervened, I believe that Barb would have gone through with the anointment. But while Nicki sees her actions as blasphemous (something that Nancy echoes later), Barb clearly is looking to create equality in her religion, to offer feminine empowerment to the connection to their deity.

Barb has always chafed against the constraints of her plural marriage throughout the series' run, testing the boundaries of her marital contract and at times fleeing the confines of their shared homes. It's only natural that she would begin to question the fundamentals, to open her eyes to another way of living, one that's not based in abstaining from experiences but embracing it.

Margene, on the other hand, is certainly careening. Her mother is dead, her business gone, Ana and Goran are being sent packing. She feels as though she too has lost her way in life. Returning to the trailer park where she lived with Ginger, Margene finds the grounds deserted, the only reminder that people had once lived there the disused power outlets amid the swirling dust. She's clinging to her lost past, to the music she enjoyed as a child, holding onto Anna with such fierceness that she inadvertently knocks the pregnant woman to the ground in her frustration with Bill.

Goji Blast might offer her a home-business, but it's not a long-term solution for the problems facing Margene. She doesn't want to expand their family, she doesn't want to carry a fourth child. She's a high school dropout who has woken up to wonder just what happened to her life. And while she loves her family, she can't help but cry to Cara Lynn, to offer herself up as a cautionary tale, to shock the teenager into following her own dreams.

Margene did get out of that trailer park, but her life didn't turn out the way she imagined. But that's, at its heart, the nature of life in general. Fortunately, the final scene points towards some possibility of happiness, as Margene finally does smile, seeing Bill bathe little Nell, a moment of domesticity amid the sadness.

And then there's Nicki, so clearly projecting (as Margene tells her) her own experiences onto Cara Lynn, reeling from the realization that Cara Lynn and Gary Embry are heading towards a romantic relationship. (That kiss on the stage after Mathletes was a dead giveaway.) Forcibly sealed to a much older spouse, Nicki doesn't see what happened as "rape," but she clearly doesn't want her daughter to be trapped in the way that she was. Nicki rails against everyone around the girl: Barb for giving her a copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves," Margene for terrorizing her with tales of her unhappiness, her math teacher Mr. Ivey (Christian Campbell) when he won't offer Cara Lynn individualized tutoring sessions.

Nicki's behavior towards Barb, however, are beyond the pale. Criticizing her first for her gift of "Jane Eyre" to Cara Lynn, she lashes out at Barb at Home Plus upon learning that the second book was also her gift. She uses the opportunity to remind Barb of her failures: of Teenie's dirty magazine habit and of Sarah's pregnancy. Her words are cruel and caustic, verbal blows upon Barb's character, brutal reminders of how her daughter "defiled her body." It's shocking and awful.

Nicki attempts to reconcile with Barb at the end of the episode, arriving at Barb's dance class in an effort to make amends in a beautiful and subtle scene. But it's Barb who realizes just how closed off Nicki's world has been, how her experiences on the compound have shaped her. A simple question about what they do in the class reveals that Nicolette Grant has never once danced in her life. And the grace that Barb shows her sister-wife, taking her by the hand and leading her around the dance floor, points towards perhaps some future solidarity between the two. Or, at the very least, some understanding of the different paths they've taken.

If only that were true of everyone in this episode. Nicki's sheltered existence, her deprivation from the quotidian joys of life, aren't just her own. Her outrage at the Safety Net meeting is greeted with shouts of acknowledgment by some of the women in attendance. And her own mother is herself trapped in a web of male domination, first by her marriage to Roman Grant and now by the outcome from her marriage to the treacherous JJ. She carries a demon-spawn in her stomach but cannot bring herself to be free of it.

Lois claims to be tormented by Frank, as Bill sees first-hand the conditions she's living under at Juniper Creek, a tree crashed through her broken window, her kitchen ruined by a fire, efforts by Frank to drive her crazy, to reveal where she has hidden her money. Her appearance at the Henrickson homes is a surprise to Barb, as Lois staggers in, "Have I got news for you," spilling from her lips.

The Major, at dinner, compares Nicki to Victoria Gotti, "the mobster's daughter," telling her that Gotti at least admitted that her father was a murderer. But for all of the Major's harsh talk, it's her daughter Midge who presents the clearest threat to the family, as she looks to introduce a bill that would redefine polygamy as an impeachable offense and re-criminalize it as a second degree felony.

It could be the start of a witch hunt, an effort to put polygamists behind bars, to push them further into the darkness. Or, if Bill is able to bring together the divergent polygamist community, to provoke them into unity, into solidarity, and to bring their beliefs finally into the light of day, something that Albert Grant is firmly against. ("The Principle can't survive in the glaring light," he says. "It needs protection.")

But there's a clear difference between protection and living in the shadows. Nicki says that she believes that children need to be protected from the world, but perhaps there's something to be said for not closing yourself off from the world, from putting yourself out there for the world to see. Bill opened his house up to his constituents last week, but it's going to take more than that to achieve acceptance. He'll have to open up his lifestyle and his religion to the world, to say that there is no shame in his homes, no fundamental difference between the love that he shares and those of any other family.

Just as a dance begins with two people stepping together, so too does social change. In an era of Prop 8 and hate crimes, of terrorism and war, the message that the show embraces is one of love and acceptance. And I think that's a lesson, I believe, that we can all take to heart.

Next week on Big Love ("Certain Poor Shepherds"), the Henricksons try to put on a unified face during Christmas, but are tested amidst numbing revelations from Barb, Marge and Adaleen; Lura takes drastic measures in response to Alby╩╝s zealous efforts to “purify” the compound; Lois drifts towards the deep end; Bill tries to soften up a
senator; Ben bonds with Heather; and Cara Lynn looks for answers about her father.


sam said…
A perfect summing up of all the particulars. In this theater of tsuris (where the only big thing is the Karma), Big Love is gorgeously Dickensian and Homeric. Poor Penelope! Poor Ulysses! Poor Little Nell(s)!

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