01.12.11

'Big Love's Big Comeback

Jace Lacob on why HBO’s polygamist family drama Big Love is back in fine form for its fifth and final season.

When HBO’s Big Love premiered in 2006, it offered a window into a subculture rarely glimpsed except in news reports about compound crackdowns: polygamist families. The launch of Big Love, which revolves around a Utah businessman and his three wives, was controversial, both for its unorthodox depiction of marriage and for angering the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which released a series of press releases to distance itself from the show’s polygamist subject matter.

In an unlikely turn in popular culture, now, five years later, polygamy has reached critical mass: Brady Udall charted the lives of a family dealing with plural marriage in his 2010 novel The Lonely Polygamist; cable network TLC has a polygamist reality series in Sister Wives; and Big Love is about to embark on its fifth and final season this Sunday.

When we last saw the Henricksons, the family had done the unthinkable and outed themselves as polygamists following the election of pater familias Bill ( Bill Paxton) to the Utah state senate. As the three sister wives—played magnificently by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin—stood united on stage, Big Love faded to black after a troubled fourth season that many maligned.

Given the numerous award nominations—including an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series for the third season—and critical praise heaped on the show that hailed it as one of the best dramas on television, the backlash was severe.

Viewers expressed frustration at Season 4’s breathless pacing and the sometimes over-the-top plot twists, and critics questioned the believability of the political campaign plot. Even the actors seemed unhappy at times, with Sevigny openly criticizing creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer in a controversial interview, despite winning a Golden Globe last year for her performance as Nicolette Grant.

After three superb seasons, Olsen and Scheffer had attempted to make the show even faster and crazier. That operatic quality gave the fourth season a breakneck pace, transforming what was a marathon into a dangerous sprint. It resulted in a season that still had some of the emotional resonance that made Big Love an addictive and thought-provoking drama, but it was at times buried amid high drama: severed limbs, kidnappings, suicide, incest, vengeance, and political gamesmanship. “We've gotten hit by some critics about the bigness of the storylines and the speed of things,” Scheffer acknowledged to The Daily Beast in an exclusive Season 4 postmortem last year. “We've always been ones for not worrying that we were changing the tone and the feeling of the show every year.”

Could it be that Bill Henrickson, the great reformer, the believer and politician, the family man and the outcast, is destined to take over the compound?

It’s fitting then, given the audience response to these intensely melodramatic elements, that the decks be cleared a little bit for the final season of Big Love.

In the first three episodes of Season 5 HBO has sent out for review, Olsen and Scheffer have wisely stripped away elements that distracted and detracted from the family at the show’s emotional core. They have channeled their energies—and the show’s focus—back onto the Henricksons themselves, paring back superfluous elements (a sanitized Indian casino, gruesome eugenics schemes, and seriocomic parrot smuggling, among others) in order to get back to what Big Love does best: Examine the highs and lows of modern relationships, here complicated by the addition of numerous spouses.

The frantic energy of Season 4 has been dialed down considerably, returning the often-contemplative nature of the show to its forefront. Olsen and Scheffer don’t deny the life-altering quality to events like the public outing, but instead demonstrate that there are grave consequences to the Henricksons’ actions, both in and out of their homes.

The result is back to the fine-tuned emotional nuance that has made Big Love thrive in the past. The fifth season finds the Henricksons grappling with themselves once more, with what it means to be the new face of polygamy and with matters of reform rather than revolution.

If there’s one thematic thread that runs through the first few episodes of the fifth season, it’s the notion of purity. Just as the Henricksons retreat at the beginning of Episode 1 to the desert to get their bearings, so too does the false prophet of the polygamist compound Juniper Creek, Albert Grant ( Matt Ross); both Alby and Bill emerge with a quest for purification and embark on personal missions to bring that value to the compound and to followers of the Principle.

Just which man is destined to lead the faith remains the ethereal question hovering over the season. Cast off from the compound as a child, Bill now offers hope and salvation—as well as the promise of federal rights and protections—to those who have been harmed by the abuses of the fundamentalist compounds (which include a lack of education and even, at times, forcible and unlawful marriage), even as steps are taken to crack down on polygamy in Utah and make it a second-degree felony.

Could it be that Bill Henrickson, the great reformer, the believer and politician, the family man and the outcast, is destined to take over the compound and assume the mantle of prophet that was stolen by Roman Grant ( Harry Dean Stanton) from his grandfather decades earlier? Might this be the endgame of the series, to see the Henricksons restored as the rightful custodians of Juniper Creek?

If only life in the Henrickson household were as simple as that. Rather than be unified by their self-outing, the family seems to be falling apart, their homes the frontlines for an internal battle of wills and self-fulfillment that asks hard questions about the male-centric religion they follow and their own inner desires. As Tripplehorn’s Barb is tempted to experiment with life’s pleasures—from dancing to drinking wine (strictly against Mormon beliefs)—Sevigny’s Nicki wrestles with her expectations for the teenage daughter ( Cassi Thomson) that she is hell-bent on giving the opportunities denied to her, and Margene confronts a shocking truth that could forever shatter the Henricksons.

The result is a provocative and stripped-down fifth season of Big Love that is both heartfelt and gut-wrenching, and which harks back to the glory days of the show, to the internal battles that drive all of us and the small domestic moments—both beautiful and filled with sorrow—that mark the emotional lives of families, nuclear and nontraditional alike.

If you don’t get a little teary when Bill and the wives take to the ice together—to the strains of ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You—in one of the early episodes of the fifth season, you are made of stern stuff. As the foursome skate out to the glares of bystanders, grasping one another’s hands, smiles on their faces, their show of unity is at odds with the song’s bittersweet lyrics (“Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes/Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye”).

Along the way, familiar faces return (such as Tina Majorino’s Heather Tuttle), old wounds fester, and we are reminded of why we fell in love with these characters in the first place, with their flaws and their good natures, with their shortsighted decisions and their sacrifices, and with the shared experience that we all face: growing old, growing together, and sometimes falling apart.

The first few episodes of the season demonstrate just how successfully Olsen and Scheffer have recaptured Big Love’s potent blend of emotional depth and gripping domestic drama. That makes it all the more heartbreaking that the show’s superlative return to form arrives just as it’s nearly time to say goodbye to the Henrickson family for the very last time. But there’s also a certain satisfaction that comes from knowing that Big Love is at least going out on a very high note.

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Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.