When Big Love began in 2006, the Henrickson family's problems were at first limited to the challenges facing four adults in a plural marriage: questions of sharing, solidarity, and personal secrets. They were an ordinary family in some extraordinary circumstances and creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer opened a window into a world that few of us will ever see: one of compounds, fundamentalists, intense faith, and vengeful adversaries.
Over the course of the show's groundbreaking run, the family was besieged by both external and internal threats as the four main characters—Bill ( Bill Paxton), Barb ( Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki ( Chloë Sevigny), and Margene ( Ginnifer Goodwin)—and their ever-expanding brood of children attempted to find their way, to grab hold of those fleeting moments of joy, and to struggle with the pain of loss, betrayal, and ignorance.
In its final episode, Big Love pushes the Henrickson clan to their breaking point, as Bill faces both a lengthy prison sentence for statutory rape charges and the loss of the family's business. But Bill also receives his true testimony in his church—a nod from Mormon founder Joseph Smith's wife Emma ( Rebecca Wisocky)—and he restores the true balance that had been thwarted at Juniper Creek. Bill can now lead his flock of believers into the light.
Or he would have—if his life hadn't been so brutally taken from him by a former friend. But Bill's death accomplishes something that Barb, Nicki, and Margene had struggled with for the past five seasons: it finally unifies the three sister wives in an unbreakable bond. In the final minutes of the show—11 months after Bill's shooting—these three find the common ground they've been fighting for throughout the entire series. And Barb, who struggled with her questions of faith, gains the priesthood she's long sought after and leads the righteous into a new beginning.
For a show that, at its core, has been about families and faith, it was a perfect way to end the remarkable series, as heartbreaking as it was. The 12 scenes selected below from Big Love's five seasons exemplify the way that the show shifted effortlessly from domestic drama to faith-based vision quest, and from the mundane to the divine.
Season 5, Episode 10, "Where Men and Mountains Meet": Bill is shot to death
The murder of Bill Henrickson is easily the series finale's most shocking, senseless, and unexpected moment. It arrives just after Bill becomes the prophet of the Principle and its reformer and brings the discussion of the legality of plural marriage to the floor of the Utah State Senate. But while the wolves have been prowling around the Henricksons for five seasons now, Bill's killer isn't Albert Grant ( Matt Ross), the scary-as-hell Greens, or even a disgruntled member of the LDS Church. Rather, it's his neighbor Carl Martin ( Carlos Jacott), a character who—with his wife Pam ( Audrey Wasilewski)—has been a part of Big Love since its first season. Out of work and concealing a death wish in recent episodes, Carl snaps when Bill fulfills his promise from the season five opener to have Carl's front lawn resodded. It's a simple act of kindness (and typical of Bill trying to stay true to his words), but it encapsulates everything that Bill has and Carl doesn't. Viewing the act as an affront on his manhood, Carl shoots Bill three times (befitting the Easter day) and calmly walks away as Bill bleeds out in the street. But in his final moments, Bill does what he hasn't been able to do throughout Big Love's five season run: give the power of the priesthood to his wife Barb, as he asks her for a final blessing. For a character who has looked up at the sky and seen the outer darkness, it's only fitting that Bill sees the cloudless blue sky and his three wives before him. His final act on earth connects his wives to the divine, just as they send his soul off to eternity. Beautiful and poignant, Bill's death is as senseless as they come on television, but it also speaks to the power of love.
Season 5, Episode 10, "Where Men and Mountains Meet": The sister wives take a joyride
Relishing in her new role following her divorce from Bill (and Bill's subsequent legal marriage to Nicki), Barb impulsively buys a new car to replace the old hauler she's been driving for the past nine years. For Barb, the act represents her freedom, her desire for a fresh start amid the chaos and confusion of their current situation, and her quest for inner fulfillment. Will she go through with her baptism at her new church and turn her back on her husband's church, the one he built for her after her ex-communication? Or will she stand with her family as her husband takes the pulpit? The three sister wives hit the road together and their expressions say it all—Barb is serene, Margene is jubilant, and Nicki is morose until she too manages to crack a smile. But the moment is shattered when the reality of their situation inevitably catches up to them: they might be together in this car, but they're coming apart at the seams. After Margene offers Barb her support, Barb's voice cracks as she says that she'll be fine on her own. But the saddest moment occurs when Margene suggests they just pick up Bill and keep driving—a dream of denial that befits her young age. There's a tangible sense here that this is the calm before the storm and that the small moment of happiness they shared is possibly also the last.
Season 3, Episode 3, "Prom Queen": Sarah tells Ben she's pregnant
Amid the confusion of her polygamist family, Sarah ( Amanda Seyfried) attempts to engineer a normal evening out of her senior prom. Accompanied by a date (even if it is her teenage uncle Franky), she heads out with her best friend, Heather Tuttle ( Tina Majorino), and brother Ben ( Douglas Smith). But while the evening goes horribly awry, it's the morning after the prom that's truly cataclysmic. As Sarah and Ben sit together staring at the lake, she tells him (and the audience) that she's pregnant. After cutting her brother off, the two sit in silence together as Alphaville's "Forever Young" plays. In attempting to embrace the normalcy of teenage existence, Sarah tries to grab onto one perfect moment before saying goodbye to her childhood in this pivotal and emotional episode. Her few seconds of serenity here, watching the sun rise, remain one of the most bittersweet and genuine moments in the entire show. Sarah later escapes the polygamist lifestyle that she's chafed against for so long, heading to Portland with her husband in Season 4, enabling her to grab onto one of the show's few happy endings. (And to free Seyfried to be a movie star.) In the series finale, Sarah returns with her husband Steve ( Aaron Paul) and their newborn son Bill, named after her slain father. As she embraces Barb's new church—with its feminist foundation—the audience sees that Sarah's journey has come full circle.
Season 3, Episode 7, "Fight or Flight": The death of Kathy Marquart
Kathy Marquart ( Mireille Enos), possibly the most tragic character in Big Love's history, prepares for her wedding day to Joey Henrickson ( Shawn Doyle), but is kidnapped by Roman Grant ( Harry Dean Stanton) as payback for testifying against him at his trial. As she's about to be forcibly wed to the criminally insane and skin-crawling creepy fundamentalist Hollis Green ( Luke Askew), Kathy runs, using a pitchfork and a truck as her means of egress. Her escape, however, is short-lived when Roman chases after her and rams his car into hers—with her long, flower-laden braid trapped in the window—her neck snaps upon impact. It was a gut-wrenching twist for a character who had seemingly found love after enduring so much (including a marriage at 14 to a 52-year-old man and the betrayal of her twin sister at Roman's trial). Kathy's sweetness is at such terrible odds with the way in which her life ended, as her wedding day was transformed into her funeral. Shocking and horrific, her death is the catalyst for both her husband-to-be Joey's thirst for vengeance and, unwittingly, what finally dooms Roman Grant in the end. (Following Kathy's death, Enos would continue to play Kathy's sullen twin, Jodean, in the fourth season of Big Love.)
Season 1, Episode 7, "Eviction": Alby makes a sandwich
Albert Grant ( Matt Ross) has been an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable element throughout Big Love's run, but it was this Season 1 scene that first established just how mentally unstable Alby really was. After picking up a male hustler, Alby takes him back to a motel, where the hustler (played by Southland and True Blood star Kevin Alejandro!) attempts to seduce Alby. But the self-loathing Alby is so conflicted about his sexuality that he instead prepares a hard-boiled egg sandwich with a hunting knife, reads a newspaper tire ad, and then makes a strange guttural animal noise while banging his head against the wall, until the rent boy leaves. The first indication that Alby was secretly gay, it was a small scene that cemented the show's off-kilter streak. Alby's relationships with men would later reach an apex when he became romantically involved in Season 4 with married state auditor Dale ( Benjamin Koldyke), who later hanged himself—a twist that transformed Alby into the series' true Big Bad.
Season 3, Episode 9, "Outer Darkness": Barb at the Temple
With her ex-communication from the Mormon Church imminent, Barb attends the Temple so she can undergo the endowment ceremony. Beautifully filmed, this provocative (and hugely controversial) scene depicts a Mormon religious ritual that outsiders had never seen portrayed before (or since). The beauty and grace of the rituals that Barb undergoes are deeply contrasted with the inner turmoil she experiences here. Upon passing through the veil to see her mother ( Ellen Burstyn) and sister ( Judith Hoag) in the Celestial room, Barb breaks down when she realizes that she won't be with her family in the celestial kingdom after all. It's a punch to the gut for Barb, and her pain is palpably felt here, and the line at the end—"Your 15 minutes are up."—reinforce the belief that life on earth is the equivalent of a blink of an eye; Barb hasn't just lost her church, but her family in the afterlife. The question that hovers over the action is whether following the Principle is worth, not only the heartache, but the eternal separation of her soul from her family's. Has Barb been on the right path? In Tripplehorn's raw performance, we see a woman who is being ripped apart due to conflicting beliefs. And Burstyn perfectly captures the happiness of a mother who sees her daughter returned to the flock, only to fully realize just what this ceremony was all about for Barb.
Season 3, Episode 4, "On Trial": Nicki shoves Roman down the stairs
Throughout Season 3, Nicki's behavior goes from unsympathetic to truly abhorrent as she steals Margene's identity and gets a job in the district attorney's office in order to feed information to her mother Adaleen ( Mary Kay Place) while her father is on trial for rape and other assorted charges. When Nicki reveals that Kathy is the Jane Doe witness and Kathy's twin invalidates Kathy's testimony, Roman is freed. As he celebrates his newfound freedom, crowing that "the righteous have prevailed," Nicki is forced to contend with what she's done to engineer his release… and what had been done to her as a teenager (she was sealed to a much older man in marriage when she was 15). When Roman thanks Nicki for helping him, the weight of her actions finally hits her, and she shoves her father down the courthouse steps. Shocking and unexpected, it's the first indication that the manipulative Nicki might finally realize the damage that had been done to her. While she still needs to break out from under her father's thumb, it's proof positive of her allegiances to the Henricksons, rather than the compound, clear for the first time.
Season 3, Episode 6, "Come, Ye Saints": Sarah suffers a miscarriage on the family's road trip
This episode, set smack in the middle of the superlative third season, remains one of the all-time greatest episodes of Big Love. Following the Henricksons on a road trip to Cumorah, New York, (where their prophet, Joseph Smith, was said to have discovered the gold tablets that were the basis for the Book of Mormon), the weary family, undone by tensions both large and small, is nearly ripped apart by a series of secrets that come tumbling out: Ben and Margene see each other naked; Ben admits to having feelings for her; Nicki's birth control pills are discovered by Barb; and Margene learns that Bill has been taking Viagra. But it's the unexpected miscarriage that secretly pregnant Sarah has while on the road trip that finally brings everyone together. Surprisingly, it's prim Nicki who not only comes to Sarah's rescue in the middle of the night, but who compels Sarah to tell her parents what has happened. As the family, shocked and surprised to find out her secret, gathers on the side of the road, Sarah confesses all. The elegiac scene plays out without dialogue, but the implication of acceptance and love is more than clear. It's a poetic and heartbreaking moment that shows the Henricksons' true bond, even amid tragedy and loss.
Season 5, Episode 3, "Certain Poor Shepherds": Margene comes clean about her age
Margene has often seemed the most immature of Bill's three wives, little more than a child herself. But the Christmas Eve confession of Margene in Season 5, in which she revealed that she was 16 when she first slept with Bill and married him, made her appear even younger still. Her confession doesn't just knock the family: it also makes Bill guilty of statutory rape. Coming on the heels of the family's outing as polygamists and attacks from every corner, it's a revelation that pushes them over the edge. It's this moment that reverberates throughout the final season, providing both a parallel for the inappropriate sexual relationship between 15-year-old Cara Lynn ( Cassi Thomson) and her teacher Greg Ivey ( Christian Campbell) and a noose around the family's neck, as they find themselves fighting for their very survival. With everyone—from Albert Grant to the LDS Church—baying for Bill's blood, Margene has unwittingly transformed Bill into everything he's fought so hard against.
Season 3, Episode 1, "Block Party": Nicki climbs the roof
The family's fears of persecution and exposure are at their height in the third season opener, which finds the family grappling with suspicion from the neighbors as the national crackdown on polygamy intensifies and Roman Grant's trial looms. While Nicki is secretly betraying both the family and the course of justice (by aiding her guilty father), she does stick up for them when it seems as though Bill and a neighbor might actually come to blows at the neighborhood block party. After some kids steal her ladder while she's working on the roof (Nicki is always self-sufficient, if nothing else), Nicki shines a spotlight on herself, announcing that she is the daughter of polygamist Roman Grant, and that she owes everything to the Henricksons and Margene for offering her support and compassion. It's the first selfless action Nicki had undertaken at that point on the show, and a true symbol of family unity. While she's meant to be acting for the sake of the neighbors, her words are actually truer than she dare admit in that moment. But just as the family comes together, they're hit by another bombshell: the arrival of potential fourth wife Ana ( Branka Katic), who turns up and says that she wants to give plural marriage a try. (In true Big Love fashion, any fragile peace is punctured by an unexpected twist.) While Nicki's perfidy becomes clear down the road, here she's the savior in a rare honest and heartfelt moment from this master manipulator.
Season 4, Episode 9, "End of Days": The wives out themselves on stage
After four seasons of struggling to keep their polygamous activities a secret from the neighbors, the wives follow through on their pact to bring the Principle into the light by outing themselves on stage after Bill is elected to the state senate. While everyone struggles—Nicki doesn't want to share Bill; Barb doesn't need Bill anymore; Margene is drawn towards Ana's boyfriend Goran ( Steve Bacic)—they all come together to hold hands in an act of solidarity that's intended to help them reclaim control of their destiny. It's both bold and foolhardy, as the Henricksons believe that they can be accepted for who they are if they peel away the façade they present to society. But as people angrily walk out of Bill's press conference, it's clear that this moment—four years in the making—won't quite go down the way the family intended. This final moment, after a contentious and often over-the-top season, as the wives stand side-by-side (in red, white, and blue, no less), is a stunning scene to go out on, leaving the audience realizing what the Henricksons don't: that where there is much light, the shadow is deep.
Season 3, Episode 3, "Prom Queen": Lois suffocates Frank with a plastic bag
Perpetually locked together in war, Lois ( Grace Zabriskie) and Frank ( Bruce Dern) have provided some of the show's oddest and most surprising moments, but none went quite as far as this sequence in which Lois, after digging a grave for her tied-up, no-good husband, feeds Frank his last meal (Kentucky Fried Chicken), and then attempts to suffocate him with a plastic bag. Her murderous wrath is interrupted by a phone call from Bill, with questions about the decades-old suicide of his sister Maggie. Was she sealed to an older man as a teenager? Was death her only escape? As Lois tearfully acknowledges what befell her daughter without uttering a word, it's a release after bottling up the truth for so long, even as Frank gasps for life in the next room. The juxtaposition here between matters of life and death and ephemera (that fried chicken) seems intentional, as Lois attempts to avenge not only her own stolen life but that of Maggie as well, punishing her husband for all of the injuries he's done her. Yet in Season 5, as Lois succumbs to dementia, we see the possibility of love that could still exist between the two, a love that Lois recalls here, sharing the story of how she waited outside her father's house for a kiss from him. Lois and Frank's suicide pact in the series finale—as they reminiscence about halcyon days—is a chance for peace and release. Finally, these two battleaxes have their happy ending.
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.