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Eternity: Thoughts on the Series Finale of HBO's Big Love

"I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I'll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I'd be with you."


Saying goodbye is never easy, particularly when it's a series as deeply nuanced and as emotionally resonant as HBO's Big Love, a groundbreaking series that subtly shifted our perceptions of what the television family drama could accomplish.

Over five seasons, the audience witnessed the struggles of the Henrickson clan as they attempted to seek out their own destinies, both as a group and as individuals. This was a series that was centered around hearth and home, sex and salvation, faith and family. It was at times hugely operatic (Season Four, I'm looking at you), Shakespearean, or pared-down (the final season).

But what Big Love accomplished was to deliver a look into a family that was markedly different, perhaps, than our own, but which also had the same growing pains, the same fears, the same desires that each of us face within our own families, whether traditional or nontraditional. It charted the way that we each need to find our independence and also find strength in one another, the way in which we can lean on our loved ones and struggle to understand them. It was, at the end of the day, about love.

It's fitting then that the series finale of Big Love ("Where Men and Mountains Meet"), written by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Dan Attias, should end the way that it does: with the three sister-wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin) finally able to put aside their differences and come together. Over five seasons, we've seen these three squabble, argue, and manipulate one another, but when they're faced with a truly life-altering event in the final episode, these three find an unbreakable bond within themselves. There is, after all, a reason why these four have been sealed for eternity, but both they and the audience discover why they're sealed on earth as well.

I've been saying for quite some time now that the only way the series could organically end is if Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) became the one true prophet, something that Olsen and Scheffer pull off magnificently here. There was a reason why Bill had a testimony to run for office and, despite the legal and political obstacles in his path, he ends up on the floor of the Utah state senate to not only rescind municipality to Juniper Creek following the arrest of Alby (Matt Ross), but also to openly discuss the legality of plural marriage.

Bill has struggled for so long to find a way to bring the Principle out of the darkness and back into the light. With his courageous stand and his refusal to bow down to his enemies, he creates a dialogue about their beliefs and their lifestyle. And in the process, he does become a lightning rod for polygamy, a symbol of openness and freedom that resonates deeply with his fellow believers. So much so that they show up at his storefront church in the hundreds just for the opportunity to listen to his sermon, to touch his sleeve as he walks by, to issue their thanks.

In those moments, Bill Henrickson becomes the prophet he was always meant to be.

We've long known that the rightful prophet of Juniper Creek was Orville Henrickson and that the Grants usurped the religious leadership of both the compound and its adherents. When Orville and Roman went for that car ride decades earlier, the outcome polluted the Principle because it thwarted its natural destiny, corrupting the grace of their belief system for two generations.

Bill Henrickson--businessman, father, priest, casino owner, politican--has worn many hats in his day, but the look of transcendence is clear when he steps onto that dais and sees the crowd before him. It's not an act of pride, but of selflessness as he begins his sermon. I will say that his speech gave me shivers, showing us not only his oratory skills but also his ability to reach into the hearts and souls of these believers. Even though he has lost Home Plus, he is spiritually wealthy.

(It's why I also think that you didn't need to actually see the testimony he receives--in which Emma Smith gives him the nod and her blessings--because we could already see this in his eyes. It was clear that he was having a moment of divine grace without seeing just what he saw; while it paid off the dream sequence he had a few episodes back--the one that conflated Emma Smith with his mother Lois--it was an unnecessarily heavy-handed and concrete bit of parlor magic here. We experienced the mystery and beauty of the moment without seeing Emma Smith in the flesh, as it were.)

And Bill is able to win over reluctant Barb as well, who casts off her husband's church for her own, a baptism into this reform LDS church while the rest of her family listens to Bill preach. Stepping into the pool, alone, Barb realizes that she can't do this on her own, that she needs to follow the path set before her family, even if it means renouncing her claim on the priesthood. When she steps inside the church, her presence there is the first blessing she gives Bill.

That church, as we discover finally here, was build by Bill for Barb after her ex-communication from the Mormon Church. That she would turn her back on it, that she would trade it for another, is an affront to Bill, even more than the way she trades in her old car for a new one. The car was bought by Bill for his wife nine years earlier, before she got sick; it was the car that Sarah and Ben learned to drive on and she traded it away for something new and flashy without a second thought. So too does Bill see Barb's decision to renounce his church as an indictment of the past they've shared. If this was her church, built for her, how can she so cavalierly head off into another direction?

And it is Barb's church, both past and future. Built for her, it serves two purposes: a home in the wilderness, somewhere where she can feel comfortable and be surrounded by her eternal family; and, finally, the church where she can achieve her true testimony as priesthood holder. It's this final element that we're left with at the very end of the series following the shocking death of Bill.

The Henricksons have never wanted for enemies. Whether it be the Grants, the Walkers, the Greens, the district attorney's office, the state senate, the LDS church, law enforcement. They've lived in fear of exposure and then exposed themselves to the world. They've struggle together and apart. But they've always maintained a friendship with Carl and Pam Martin (Carlos Jacott and Audrey Wasilewski) across the street. Carl and Pam have been mainstays of Big Love since the first season, their lives intrinsically linked to the Henricksons.

But we never had any idea just how interwoven their fates would become. Throughout the season, the writers have planted hints about Carl's mental deterioration, as he lost his job, sparred with Pam about money, warred with Bill and Margene about Goji Blast, and crashed two cars, seemingly in failed suicide attempts. But here he snaps completely when he sees that Bill has had his front lawn re-sodded, a promise to Carl that he made in the season opener ("Winter").

Sometimes the smallest things have the biggest impact. All for the want of a nail, and all that. Here, a promise kept is what dooms Bill, as Carl sees the re-sodding not as a neighborly gesture but as a condemnation of his self-worth. It symbolizes everything that Bill has and which Carl doesn't (he is unaware, after all, that the family has lost Home Plus): not one but three wives, financial success, many children. The gunfire in the street is a misguided battle between have and have-not.

It's fitting, of course, given the Easter day of Bill's death, that Carl fires upon him three times. (Three being of particular significance to Christ.) But as Bill bleeds out into the pavement outside his three homes, surrounded by his three wives, his thoughts aren't fearful ones. Looking upwards, he sees not the outer darkness that has plagued him for so long but the blue embrace of eternity, of the celestial kingdom where he will be reunited with his wives forever. But as his wives cry and tell him to hold on, Bill does something selfless and beautiful: he asks Barb for a blessing.

The moment is a profound one and the realization of Barb's own destiny. In doing so, he connects her to the priesthood, fulfilling her the testimony and connecting her to Heavenly Father. Her words don't matter here, as Bill drifts in and out of consciousness. What does matter is the fact that he asks her for that blessing and, in doing so, gives her the church he had built for her. Bill's prophethood lasts for barely more than a blink of an eye but it has resounding consequences. The final shot of the three wives surrounding Bill as he dies made me sob aloud, as the camera pans up over the houses and into the blue beyond.

But as I mentioned earlier, Bill's death also connects the wives in ways we haven't seen before. I thought the joyride scene between the three--in Barb's new car--encapsulated their differences. The split-second of joy they have together (even Nicki smiles, albeit briefly) connects them in sisterhood before the moment is lost, amid realizations of the tribulations of ahead of them: Bill's possible prison sentence and what his loss from their household really means for them. They can keep driving but eventually the truth will catch up to them.

Eleven months after the shooting, we see three sister-wives who are truly united by the bonds of marriage, even without their husband to guide them. While Nicki--the legal wife--wears black in a show of mourning, Barb has ascended to the head of their church as priest, and Margene--her hair shorn as she looks far more mature thatn we last saw her--prepares to leave for another mission. Their final embrace, the three-who-are-one coming together before physically separating, is a emotional display of trinity and unity, with the shade of Bill sitting apart at the table. It's a beautiful moment to end the series, a poignant and heartfelt moment that pays homage to the journey that each of them has been on, a testament to the eternity they will spend together.

I'm extremely happy that the writers brought Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) and Steve (Aaron Paul) back for this final coda here, bringing Teenie (unseen, applying mascara in the bathroom -- "that girl doesn't know if she's coming or going") and their new baby along for the christening at the church. Naming him Bill after her father, Sarah's return here brings her journey full-circle as well. She finally does return to the fold after Barb takes over the church, embracing it as her own because she is not only finally proud of her mother's accomplishment but also because Barb's ascension injects a necessary femininity to the priesthood. Sarah has always condemned the patriarchal nature of their religion and seen first-hand the numerous sacrifices her mother has made in order to hold onto Bill. Here, she sees Barb in a different light and she can finally accept her family and her family's religion in a way she never had in the series.

It's also telling that the baby is named Bill. While the Henricksons believe that our time on earth is fleeting, we do live on through out loved ones and through our offspring. There's the sense that everything will be all right for this family and that death isn't an ending but a beginning of a new chapter for all of them.

Easter, of course, is about resurrection and Bill--along with his parents Lois (Grace Zabriskie) and Frank (Bruce Dern)--all die on Easter***. But one could also argue that they're reborn that day, that they head out to eternity together, that their passing is just the shedding of skin. While Bill dies in an act of horror on his own street, Lois and Frank fulfill their suicide pact as Lois' mind slips away from her. In bed together, they share stories of happy times long ago as they shuffle off their mortal coil. They finally get their happy endings, as everyone does in the end, united as they contemplate an eternity together.

(***In the version of the finale that I saw, there were noticeably TWO syringes on the bedside table, indicating that Frank and Lois had both taken insulin. However, in the on-air broadcast, there was just ONE syringe, an edit confirmed by Olsen and Scheffer over here. So it does appear as though Frank upholds Peaches' request to die, but doesn't follow her into the afterlife just yet.)

The same is true at the Henrickson houses at the end of the coda: we see Ben (Douglas Smith) and Heather (Tina Majorino) reunited; we see Sarah and Steve with baby Bill; and we see the three sister-wives facing the future together. As we pan over the three homes with their shared backyard and the neighborhood, the familiar strains of the original theme song ("God Only Knows") sees us off, a fitting homage to the series and to the spirit of love and cohesion that these three have finally forged together.

Despite Bill's death, it does seem at least as though each of the characters achieved a happy ending, or at least managed to grab onto something they've yearnd for throughout the series' run: Barb received the priesthood; Nicki got control of the family's household and status as legal wife; Ben and Heather found each other once more; Sarah was able to return home and look her mother in the eyes; Frank and Lois were able to turn back the clock, even if only for a few minutes; and Margene was able to grab ahold of the freedom she wanted, while still having a home to come home to. We leave the series as we began in: inside this family's noisy, chaotic, loving households, a collection of individuals each with their own struggles who nonetheless prove that the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts.

It is, in many ways, the perfect way to close out this series, on a positive and uplifting note amid loss and death. Life goes on for Barb, Margene, and Nicki and it goes on for us as well. But we should take strength from the fact that these three women haven't broken under the strain but have been tempered and strengthened by the loss of their husband.

They're still a family as we soar over those now-familiar houses almost a year after Bill's death. And that the Beach Boys' song--and its message--is clear: "God only knows what I'd be without you."

What did you think of the series finale of Big Love? Did it fulfill your expectations of how this series would end? And were you as emotional as I was at the final fate of Bill and the wives? Head to the comments section to share as we mourn the passing of this remarkable series.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I didnt enjoy the ending at all. I definetly wasnt expecting Bill to die. I would've loved to see him I1 months later standing at the bathroom door watching Teenie putting on her mascara while getting ready to go to church with his new position as Phrophet I did cry and boo hoo at the end. I mean who wouldnt have.Unless you werent watching it from the very start would have been the only way u wouldn't have shed a tear. Thats just my opinion
Calfoodie.com said…
Loved the end. It felt satisfying, a real ending, and a beginning as well.

I disagree about the phantom of Emma Smith in the church. I thought her blessing led the way for Bill to include Barb in the Priesthood.

And I am an atheist.

Very satisfying ending.
Hmvx3 said…
Was very sad of course for bill to go but i expected something tragic to bring them closer....all of the characters had a fitting ending to me except for nickis. I was really expecting something more i cant quite put my finger on. But gosh when bill asked barb for a blessing that made it all worth it. Would have liked a shot of the family running around in the yard and the wives looking on. Felt kinda lonely just them in the last shot. Overall-good but a tearjerker for sure
Candice said…
LOVED the ending! I was crying like a baby. Especially the last scene when the sister wives are hugging and Bill is sitting at the table watching over them. So sad it is over.
Dee said…
I have been watching since episode 1 and I have loved every moment. I think the ending was fitting. I did cry a little..when all the sister wives hugged at the end. It was nice to see with all the chaos between them this last season
Anonymous said…
Frank didn't die. He helped Lois die. Ben and Heather weren't just reunited, they were married. They were both wearing wedding rings in the last scene.
Jace Lacob said…
Anonymous,

I actually just updated the post, but thought I'd address it here as well.

In the version of the finale that I saw, there were noticeably TWO syringes on the bedside table, indicating that Frank and Lois had both taken insulin. However, in the on-air broadcast, there was just ONE syringe, an edit confirmed by Olsen and Scheffer over here.

So it does appear as though Frank upholds Peaches' request to die, but doesn't follow her into the afterlife just yet.
Annie said…
Loved the finale. I'm going to miss this show and miss your thoughts on it, Jace. Thanks for introducing me to the Henricksons.
37ft said…
I expected that ending - Carl's descent was there for a reason, but it still hit my like a punch. It's hard to wrap up a show like that & I thought they managed it beautifully. Family, afterall, is everything.
Jen said…
Bill had to die. They couldn't have him going to jail for sleeping with Margie and had that be the ending. Glad they killed him the way they did and that it wasn't Albie shooting him but the neighbor. The part with the wives made me cry at the end.
Wes said…
Thanks for the insightful review. You seem to be one of the few reviewers who understood what the writers were trying to do here instead of hating on the whole thing as a lot of people did. I'm going to miss this show a lot even if last season wasn't the best. The parrots still make me cringe!
quest 2.0 said…
My favorite part was when was Niki was telling Barb that she didn't didn't have an ounce of the milk of human kindness in her and Barb says "I know" twice, understanding while not condemning.
Bella Spruce said…
I know some people gave up on the show after last season but I'm glad I hung in there because they ended strong. I enjoyed the whole final season and thought the finale was beautifully done. I will truly miss Big Love... And your amazing write-ups too!
Deense said…
Love your thoughts on the finale as much as I loved the finale. I had been wary going into S5 after the too-packed S4, but was very pleasantly surprised. The season really kept building and the ending whilst surprising in some ways felt very fitting, and the logical step.
Anonymous said…
Thanks to HBO's haphazard programming I turned it on at 8:01 without being alerted that it was part of a "back-to-back," and watched the entire "11 months later" segment without realizing it was the ending until the credits, at approximately 8:10. So, tip 'o the hat to good ol' HBO for that snafu, eh? Sam
Anonymous said…
I thought the ending was an attempt to weasel out of the patriarchal nature of polygamy, after getting us to sympathize with Bill so strongly, particularly after the legislature and church scenes, where they practically had us cheering for polygamy. It was very easy to see the parallels they seemed to be trying to draw with gay marriage in those scenes. The ending showed that plural marriage benefited the wives in the end by giving them an extended family and support after Bill's death, but they got rid of the reality of polygamy.

My partner commented that she thought killing off Bill was a cop-out, the easy way out. Hmm, not sure. I think the most poignant moment for me was Bill asking Barb to give him a blessing. (while I'm yelling, "call 911, somebody!" LOL
Wolfy said…
Loved this series, It doesn't seem like 5 years, I've been watching but I think perhaps UK tv got the first series later than you over the pond. Then for some strange reason they never followed up with the second series. Thanks to the internet I've managed to see all.

Although I had read Bill died, I was still shocked when it happened. Just two questions I must have missed, what happened to Rhonda? Did she go back to dancing? The second is there anyhting else as good as this I should keep my eyes open for? Ta.

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