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Winter: Out of the Wilderness on the Season Premiere of Big Love

"I don't even know what the road in front of us is going to look like." - Bill

In terms of the narrative of Big Love, which entered its last season with this week's evocative episode ("Winter"), written by Mark V. Olsen & Will Scheffer and directed by David Petrarca, roughly a week has gone by since the Henricksons publicly outed themselves as polygamists, joining together on stage in a symbolic gesture of unity. Finding them as the fifth season begins, the family has fled Sandy for the isolation of the desert, embarking on a camping trip together both as an act of escape and also one of healing.

But the old slights still sting. The Henrickson family is in recovery mode, the wreckage from their act of courage still smoldering around them. Their trip to the wilderness is a reactive move, a reversal from their bravery in the face of those flashing cameras. The fallout has been severe as we see from this week's installment: Margene loses her job and her severance package; Wayne is mercilessly bullied at school; Barb is tempted to begin drinking; and Bill faces opponents both on the hill and in his stores.

By announcing the true nature of their relationship, Bill and the wives have dragged themselves into the light, yes, but it's a harsh and unyielding spotlight. No surprise that they've packed up the kids and headed into the great open expanse of the desert, the figurative "north to Alaska" of the song that bookends the installment.

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 the season premiere 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 season opener only.)

Creators Olsen and Scheffer had a lot to deal with coming off of the fourth season of Big Love, which was, in their own words, much more "operatic" than previous years. Storylines involving Indian tribal casinos, eugenics schemes, and corrupt Washington lobbyists took a lot of the focus off of the internal struggles of the family; while they were still there, they took a back seat to some of the more overt or histrionic elements.

But here, we're immediately seeing a returned focus to the Henrickson clan, to their familial struggles and to the internal battles that wage within each of them. The narrative, which still splits its time between the Henricksons and the Juniper Creek compound, already seems to indicate a narrowing of the gap between those two spheres, setting up a parallel storyline involving the notion of purity, of reform, of change. Both the Henricksons and Alby retreat to the desert to regain their inner compass, each reeling in their own way from the actions of the fourth season: from deceit, death, and betrayals.

When the family does return to Sandy, it's with a significant amount of unease, despite the cockeyed optimism Bill seems to be embracing. They return to the safety of their home, but there's something off-kilter about their new existence, the looks of suspicion or outright hatred that are offered up by those they encounter. Wayne is bullied and harassed, hate words scrawled across his face and body. Margene is patronized by her former champion, who disguises her contempt by couching it among moral contract clauses. Bill is openly insulted by his employees.

Barb. The once-and-future Boss Lady is tempted to step outside of her narrow experience, to open herself up to new opportunities, to say yes rather than no, to question rather than to blindly accept. Barb's trip to the State Liquor Store is her own journey to the wilderness, her decision to open that bottle of red wine an invalidation of the belief system to which she once adhered.

I don't believe for a second that Barb is making her "mother's coq au vin," nor that her Mormon mother would allow any alcohol in her home; it's a convenient lie to tell Nicki, though not one that Nicki believes for a second. It is clear, however, that Barb is grappling with some life-altering circumstances and with a clear isolation in her marriage from her partners. She's sacrificed, she's compromised, she's tried to hold it together, but she's coming apart at the seams, really.

When she takes that slug of wine, alone in the living room, she's not only breaking a commandment of her religion, but also of her own moral compass. She's exploring herself even as she self-medicates. The look of shame and warmth that pass over Jeanne Tripplehorn's face is--excuse the pun--intoxicating; it's a portrait of a woman pushed beyond her breaking point, of a mother unsure of where she is leading her family, of a wife who sees that her husband might not know best.

Bill. He can't quite bring himself to admit this to his wives. After a series of disastrous encounters--Wayne's abuse at the hands of the scouts, the awful school board meeting, his about-face at the state assembly--Bill is also close to breaking, though he won't admit this to any of his wives. It takes Don, finally standing up to his business partner, finally confronting him about his lack of respect, to allow Bill to unburden himself. But it's interesting that it's Don who is Bill's confessor.

Knowing that the wives are in earshot, he tells Don, "I've gone and torn my family apart, and I am truly sorry." He might be speaking to the long-suffering Don Embry, but his words are intended for his family, who gather behind him, shocked to hear him come clean, after espousing such virtuous aims for their life in the light. It's a moment of brutal honesty, as Bill rips down the armor around him, standing before his friend, making a confession that the patriarchal Bill can only formally make to another man. The truth is that his plan has been ripped to tatters; he has no idea what his next move is nor what the road ahead holds for his clan.

Which is a scary thought, considering what his wives have done in pursuit of the dream he wove for them. That dream, the "yellow house" they could share together, a life they could lead in the light, is completely shattered now. To live openly, to attempt to be together as one united front, is a constant struggle; survival is the operative mode rather than happiness.

Margene. Margene believes that she's lost everything. Her livelihood is gone, her contract null and void, Hearts on a Sleeve trashed beyond saving. Ana and Goran's continued existence in their lives threatened by a reversal of fortune. Margene reluctantly agrees to annul her marriage to Goran; Goran is forced to leave the country in 60 days, lest he be imprisoned. And Ana? Despite the fact that she's carrying Bill's son, she wants to be by Goran's side, even with Bill offering her a secretarial job.

Those cries in the night aren't just for being called a "lying jewelry hawker," but for the losses Margene has endured. Did she comprehend just what she was doing when she stepped onto that stage? Did she realize the grave consequences that would follow her decision? That the tabloids and the news coverage would only intensify? That by acknowledging the truth of her situation she was turning her back on the relative peace that had gotten her to that moment? That in one fell swoop, her life would be irrevocably transformed?

Nicki. Even second wife Nicki seems uncomfortable with the glare of the spotlight, especially after her attempt to enact vengeance upon Wayne's tormentor backfires so magnificently. (The "tomato head" kid runs smack into a metal pole, knocking out one of his teeth.) The twist in that plotline? The kids' family are polygamists as well, the secret that he was so scared of Nicki writing on "his bottom" the very same one that the Henricksons dragged right out into the light.

But Nicki also backtracks somewhat on a comment made last season, in which she said that she didn't want to share Bill with Margene and Barb anymore. Clarifying her remarks, Nicki says that she "wished" she didn't have to share them, but even that's at odds with their polygamist lifestyle. Her censuring of Barb as well invalidates the support her sister-wives have given her over the years, with Barb offering a litany of transgressions, from spying and infidelity to the bill control pill fiasco. (Such callbacks help to remind us that the world of the Henricksons is a living, breathing thing. These things are not simply swept under the rug, but their viral quality continues to infect the family years down the line.)

Among Nicki's choicest quotes this episode: "It's diluted" (in reference to whether she was using turpentine to scrub Wayne) and "She's an alcoholic!" (when confessing that Barb was caught drinking). Oh, Nicki, I've missed your acid tongue.

Adaleen and Alby. Adaleen is still pregnant, still carrying around the monstrosity that JJ implanted within her (the fertilized egg that is his and sister Wanda's incestous offspring). Poor Adaleen has been imprisoned in the root cellar, but she's dragged out by Lura, and told to "scat." She has nowhere to go, no protector, no home. She burned her husband and her sister-wife to a crisp; she is a true pariah, an untouchable. Her lack of purity endemic to Alby of what's wrong with Juniper Creek. (Cough, cough.)

As for her son, he emerges from the desert with a clear understanding of what he must do next, his certainty at odds with Bill's lack of direction. He claims to want to clean up the compounds, to purify everything as he has been purified but Alby's soul is black and infected. He corrupts everything he touches. His return to the big house is no happy homecoming, but the return of a sullen and mercurial prophet to the mix. Even his trusted companion Lura--the brilliant Anne Dudek--seems unnerved by his reappearance.

News that the millions of dollars in the UEB trust have reverted back to their control produce no discernible improvement to his mood. The sight of Bill's troubles, however, lead him to thirst for a righteous vengeance against the Henricksons once more. "He destroyed everything I ever loved," Alby tells Lura, as he breaks her heart in two. He wants payback for Dale's death but he refuses to acknowledge Lura's complicity in his former lover's demise. He's dead inside, it seems. And that, more than anything, makes him even more dangerously unpredictable.

But it's not all doom and gloom within "Winter." The emergence of those polygamists at the end of the episode--after the failure of Bill's open house--signify that there is still hope, that Bill and the wives' sacrifice hasn't been all for naught, that they represent a new face for polygamy, one that isn't lived in the darkness or in fear. As the family welcomes these few refugees in from the cold, Bill sees the first snowfall of the winter, a symbol that life goes on, the seasons change, the snow still falls.

The world hasn't completely spun off of its axis amid their public declaration and as those snowflakes fall once more to the ground, we see the spirit of hope lit once more within Bill Henrickson.

All in all, a fantastic episode that sets the stage for the final showdown to come and the endgame that Olsen and Scheffer have cooked up for the Henricksons. There's a sense of hope that emerges from those final moments, from the first snowfall, and from the sense that perhaps these sacrifices are indeed worth it, that the Henricksons' lives aren't just being lived for themselves but for others afraid to speak the truth of their love. And, quite possibly, with the closing of that door, Bill Henrickson has taken the first steps towards regaining the prophethood stolen from his family all of those years before. Sometimes all it takes is the sight of the first snow...

Next week on Big Love ("A Seat at the Table"), Billʼs attempt to stage a “safety net” meeting for polygamist leaders is hindered by Alby and Home Plus objectors; in an effort to find common ground with her mother, Barb asks Nancy to join her at a symposium focusing on mother-daughter Mormon challenges; Nicki learns the extent of Adaleenʼs isolation; Margene despairs over the quandary involving Ana and Goran; and Cara Lynn impresses her math teacher.


Anonymous said…
Great review. You've managed to capture exactly what it was I loved about this return to form, and was unable to express quite so eloquently myself.

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