Note: Even if you haven’t ever watched Big Love, don’t worry about reading the first portion of this article. Once you reach the point past which there are spoilers, there will be a warning.
Big Love is an absolutely brilliant show about which I have written very little. This is due to no fault of the show’s nor its quality, which seems to get better every season, nor my enjoyment of it, which rises steadily as well. It is more due to the show’s labyrinthine plotting and enormous cast of characters–it has enough characters to rival a fantasy epic–which often leaves me feeling too overwhelmed at the end of a season to actually sit down and try to analyze it all. It’s the rare show that I actually feel almost intimidated to review, because it seems like such a daunting task. At the same time, however, I have been neglecting it on this site for far too long and wouldn’t want this to be interpreted as a dismissal of one of television’s best and most original series.
I decided, therefore, that a good idea that would allow me to discuss the show without accomplishing the gigantic undertaking of reviewing the entire season would be to make a list of the 10 moments that I believe demonstrate the best the series has to offer, those moments which highlight its dramatic strengths and power. Obviously, however, someone who has never seen the show may not want to peruse such a spoiler-filled list. Before I launch into these moments, therefore, I would first like to make a brief spoiler-less list of reasons the show is so wonderful, and they are as follows:
- Unusual World ~ Focusing on polygamy and polygamist cults in Salt Lake City, Utah, Big Love peers into a world unlike any ever before seen on television, and while some have argued that it is not as realistically depicted as it could be, it does certainly introduce us to an alternative lifestyle the likes of which are completely foreign to the majority of mainstream America. Television should be pushing the boundaries like this more often, taking us outside our comfort zones.
- Complex Storytelling, Complex Characters ~ Big Love is one of the most complexly crafted series in television history. Each season is spun from a vast myriad of interwoven plot threads and themes, some of which involve the family drama of the Henricksons, a seemingly everyday suburban family that happens to have with three wives, while some delve into the darker, criminal behavior of polygamist cults. The plots often revolve around extremely complicated political maneuvering, and what is most interesting about it is that the intrafamily politics can be just as cutthroat and Byzantine as the political dancing and backdoor schemes that occur between husband Bill and the cult that he wants to bring down. Meanwhile, the characters each have agendas on top of agendas that often take many episodes to reveal themselves, if not entire seasons later.
- Strong Roles for Women ~ Though set in a very patriarchal world, Big Love has more complex, wonderfully scripted roles for women–many of whom are middle-aged or older–than any other show or film today. Yes, the portrayals can be satirical or exaggerated, but when is the last time you remember seeing so many women given such fantastic material in a single project? What other show gives us as shrewd, calculating, and wackadoodle a character–beneath a submissive exterior–as Mary Kay Place’s Adaleen Grant? Big Love‘s women aren’t generally positive role models, but neither are the men. They are, however, dramatically compelling, intelligent, and often hilarious.
- Metaphors ~ At its heart, Big Love is a hyperbolic spin on the American family. Take every concern that might befall the typical nuclear family and multiply it be three. Each episode, Big Love yields rich satire from taking mundane situations, and then exaggerating and exacerbating them due to the multiple wives and children sharing one husband. Because the Henricksons are also forced to remain in the closet, leading double lives, the show also subversively presents an unexpected metaphor for how the majority of gay people in America used to live, and some continue to, sadly.
Now that I’ve presented some of the series’ most winning points, here, without further adieu is my countdown of the top 10 best moments of the fourth season. If you haven’t seen Season Four, you’ll want to stop reading now…
10) Barb Bares Her Soul to Bill (End of Days).
Bill and Barb’s relationship, which had grown increasingly fractured over the course of the season, finally comes to a head in the finale, when Barb informs Bill that she is the one who leaked the story to the press that he fathered a baby out of wedlock, in an attempt to sabotage his campaign. If that weren’t enough, in the powerful ensuing scene, she also tells him that, after twenty years of needing him, she doesn’t anymore, just as his dreams of coming out as a polygamist are on the cusp of becoming a reality.
9) Barb Learns About Bill’s Infidelity (Blood Atonement).
If it weren’t enough that Bill, Barb, Nicki, and Margene’s ex-wife, Ana, returns, pregnant with Bill’s baby, the sugar really hits the fan (as Barb says) when Barb discovers that this baby was conceived out of wedlock, particularly since this establishes a pattern. Bill had also originally been unfaithful to his first two wives with Margene, and this reopens that old wound. Also, from a narrative standpoint, it is a beautiful example of how deftly the Big Love writers use continuity and history from past seasons to inform current story events, both following up on the thread of the affair that hadn’t been revealed up until now and the fact that Bill had cheated with Margene. It also contributes to the show’s portrayal of Bill, which has become increasingly gray, from a moral standpoint, since the show began.
8) Marilyn Knows Everything (End of Days).
Another stellar moment in the finale occurs when Sissy Spacek’s seemingly evil lobbyist character, Marilyn Densham, confronts Bill about his polygamy and basically voices every objection that any average person would have with his lifestyle. What makes the scene particularly effective, besides being the culmination of a season-long dance between the two is that although Bill is ostensibly the protagonist of the show, Big Love constantly encourages us to question him and his actions, so when Marilyn calls him a hypocrite and basically argues that he isn’t a pious man but hides behind his religion in order to be able to sleep around, we as viewers aren’t quite sure who to side with. The woman has a point. It also represents a moment of biting irony, because the only reason Marilyn discovers Bill’s secret is she was told the truth by Tommy and Jerry Flute, after Bill fired them without Barb’s consent for the express purpose of protecting his campaign from any connection to the drug trade occurring on the reservation.
7) JoDean Sets the Birds Free (The Mighty and Strong).
Mireille Enos is one of the true unsung heroes of the Big Love cast. In previous seasons, she played a pair of twin sisters, Kathy and JoDean, distinguishing each often with the subtlest of touches. After Kathy’s tragic death at the hands of Hollis Green last season, however, the brilliance of her performance as JoDean is even easier to see. She portrays JoDean as a deeply sad woman, trapped in a life she doesn’t want, but also one who is strong and quietly defiant. As she is forced along on her husband and sister-wife’s crazy bird smuggling scheme, she rolls her eyes and expresses her disgust at them behind their backs. It is when they nod off to sleep on the side of the highway in The Mighty and Strong, however, that she has one of her finest moments, sneaking to the back of the trunk and setting the poor birds free. She returns to the car in a moment of silent triumph, the birds’ ascent symbolizing her dreams of flight from her loveless marriage and a hopeful sign that maybe it will occur one day.
6) Margene Tells Bill About the Kiss (The Mighty and Strong).
After three seasons of the slowly simmering subplot about Benny’s crush on Margene, this situation finally erupted when Margene kisses Benny on the lips before an important telecast. It is not long before the truth gets out to Barb and then Bill, but Benny covers for Margene, telling Bill it was a simple schoolboy crush. Before one of the most important moments of his campaign, however, Margene, while comically dressed in an elephant costume, can’t hold the lie in anymore and tells Bill that she is the one who did the kissing. The scene is a perfect example of how the show’s writers always manage to juxtapose a moment that should be a success (his event) with a serious blow, usually in the form of a secret being revealed at the worst possible moment. Meanwhile, Margie doing this while in costume is just so Margie–impulsive and honest. It also sets off one of the series’ most intriguing arcs, when Bill kicks Benny out of the house in a manner not dissimilar to what happened to him when he was Benny’s age.
5) Alby Makes a Shocking Discovery (Under One Roof).
Since the start of the show, Alby Grant has been depicted as a deeply twisted individual, emotionally destroyed by a cruel father he could never impress (and who continues to haunt him, in death). Though often painted as a villain, we were also sometimes given the slightest glimpses of the lost boy inside Alby, and this season provided him with a love affair with Dale Tomasson, a lawyer hired by the state as Juniper Creek’s trustee. Their romance provides Alby with the humanity he was lacking. When Dale’s wife finds out about his homosexual activity, however, Dale hangs himself in the apartment in which he and Alby had their trysts. The scene in which Alby finds him is stark and heartbreaking. For a short time, Alby opened himself up to love, and in the moment that he finds Dale dead, he again closes down his soul and regresses into the monster he once was, with a vengeance. Dale’s suicide is also a dark statement about the dangers of the closet and a potentially ominous sign regarding Bill’s plans to reveal himself and his family as polygamists.
4) Adaleen Has Her Revenge on JJ (End of Days).
One of the series’ all-time most shocking revelations occurs in the season finale, when we learn that JJ has been dabbling with eugenics and incest, implanting women with the eggs and sperm of relatives, and has, in fact, unbeknownst to Adaleen, had his sperm and his sister, Wanda’s eggs, placed inside her. Before he is able to plant a combination of Cara Lynn (his daughter with Nicki) and him inside of Nicki, however, Adaleen attacks him, and Nicki stabs him in the back with a pair of scissors. For a short while, when he runs off, it seems like this plot will be left dangling until the next season, until the gleefully gruesome scene in which Adaleen finally has her revenge on JJ and his wife, Malinda, who had been helping him in his scheme, keeping her sedated. She strips the cancerous Malinda of her wig, trusses them up, and sets their house on fire with gasoline and a pair of matches, reminding us all once again why you do not mess with the First Wife of Roman Grant.
3) Nicki Dresses Inappropriately for Adaleen’s Wedding (Under One Roof).
In many ways, Nicki has come further than any other character on Big Love. At the start, she was the painfully repressed daughter of the polygamist cult leader, Roman Grant, constantly judgmental of both Barb and Margie for failing to live up to The Principle in their various ways. She would always wear prudish clothing befitting a 19th Century pioneer and almost always wear her hair in a traditional braid. Now, however, Nicki has come to seriously question the values that her father instilled in her, to the point that in this season, she has a long-delayed teen rebellion. This first becomes clear at her mother, Adaleen’s wedding to Nicki’s own ex-husband, JJ, when Nicki arrives, dressed like Madonna in the early 1980s. The moment is both touching and hilarious. Nicki is desperate to be “normal” but doesn’t yet know anything about modern day fashion and so shows up in attire and hair that is also, in its own way, terribly out of date.
2) Lois Saves Bill’s Life (Blood Atonement).
We have known from the beginning that Bill’s mother, Lois, was a truly bitter woman. In a rather remarkable arc in this season we learn that a great deal of this anger and hatred originally sprang from Frank exiling Bill at a young age. Additionally, we learn that Frank’s motivation in kicking Bill out was ironically, an attempt to stay married to Lois. Years ago, Roman had ordered Frank to either kick Bill out or forfeit his wife, and so he chose what he viewed as the lesser of two evils, which led to the disintegration of their marriage, regardless. Shortly after having a conversation with Frank that should have happened long ago, in which he explains this to her, Lois protects her son in an even more shocking manner than what Adaleen did for Nicki. When Hollis Green threatens Bill’s life, Lois grabs a machete and chops Hollis’ arm off in one clean swipe, in a moment that is both disturbing and heartwarming, in a very twisted way. This is the first time we’ve ever seen Lois really stand up for her son.
1) Bill, Barb, Nicki, and Margene Come Out (End of Days).
This season, Big Love truly saved the best for last when, in the very final moments of the finale, during his acceptance speech, Bill outs himself and his wives as one big, happy family. What he expected to be a triumphant moment, however, seems to come crashing down around him, when the four spouses hold hands on stage to resounding silence, with a mostly disgusted audience leaving the hall en masse. The season leaves us with a huge cliffhanger, namely where do we go from here? The family is out in the open, but it’s not so simple. Polygamy is technically illegal, Margie is technically married to Ana’s fiancee, Goran, and can face jail time if that marriage is proven to be false, and rather than shining light on how normal they are, Bill has instantly angered all the people who had just put him in office. And then there is the niggling fact that Bill’s marriages might be falling apart–Barb may not love him anymore, Margie doesn’t want to lose her business and is starting to feel more for Ana and Goran than for Bill, and Nicki wants him all to herself. One leaves this confronting season not only wondering whether Bill’s family can be saved but whether it should be.
Next season, whenever it happens, cannot come soon enough.