Big Love's Big Finale
In an exclusive day-after interview, the creators of HBO’s polygamy drama, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, spoke with The Daily Beast about Sunday’s game-changing season finale. Spoilers abound!
First, a warning: Unless you have watched the Season 4 finale of Big Love, or do not care that we reveal all of the particulars of that finale, do not continue reading this article. Really.
Because the season-ender of the HBO drama found the Henrickson clan reeling with uncertainty, as the polygamist family was thrust out of the darkness and into the harsh light of public scrutiny.
Mark V. Olsen: If we’re always pulling punches and, at the end of the day, they’re always sitting down at that table to break bread and share a good time, it just becomes a formula.
The Henricksons' full-blown exposure as polygamists was creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer's big twist. Patriarch Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) won the state senatorship he had fought for, and followed through on his promise to unmask the family as public polygamists, even as he uncovered evidence of incest among a fanatical offshoot, the discovery that the Walkers had been practicing a complex eugenics scheme to keep their bloodline in the family. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) struggled with whether she would remain in their marriage; Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) barely escaped the clutches of her sadistic ex-husband JJ (Zeljko Ivanek); and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) contemplated a new marital relationship with green card-seeking Goran (Steve Bacic) and his fiancée Ana (Branka Katic), who is carrying Bill's illegitimate child. (Still with me?)
The Daily Beast spoke to Olsen and Scheffer about the Henricksons' public exposure, the dark side of Albert Grant (Matt Ross), Amanda Seyfried's departure from the show, what lies ahead for our favorite polygamists next season, and much more.
And may we say once more: Spoiler alert.
The Daily Beast: How critical was it that the Henricksons were exposed now? Does this change some of the central conceits of the series?
• Jace Lacob: More Big Love Questions AnsweredMark V. Olsen: Absolutely. We felt the need for that kind of game-changer and needed to move beyond the hiding. We were ready to do it at the end of the first year, when Barb was exposed at the governor's mansion… We said, "OK, they're outed. This is our new story for the [second] season." We got some very terrified looks from our collaborators, who were suggesting [we] might want to rethink that a bit, and we did. Nevertheless, we knew this day was coming in the history of the show, and we wanted it to be this year.
Will Scheffer: I think we've gotten hit by some critics about the bigness of the storylines and the speed of things growing this year. But… in order to get [the family] to that place at the end of the season, we wanted to move with that speed and that operatic quality... We've always been ones for not worrying that we were changing the tone and the feeling of the show every year.
The Daily Beast: There were only nine episodes this season. Do you think that if you had that 10th episode, there would have been more breathing room?
Olsen: I do think we wanted a kind of breathless approach to this season where we had some strong movement. But, it's true that when the order date went down to nine [episodes] for scheduling reasons, we had to compress some things at the end.
The Daily Beast: Is there hope for Barb and Bill to salvage their marriage, given Barb's decision to get up on stage with Bill, Margene, and Nicki?
Olsen: In that moment, it's a little bit of solidarity with the women. She just doesn't know what that future is going to hold for her, and it's still the lingering vestiges of [her being] disappointed by a lot of the things that Bill has done this year. She does say, "I don't know if I need you anymore." But, she doesn't say, "I don't know if I love you anymore." She still loves these people. She's just really torn.
The Daily Beast: At any point in the planning of the season did you consider just using the casino storyline or just Bill's political campaign?
Olsen: We knew we wanted Bill running for office and it leading to their ultimate exposure [and] to play the casino story with a Sissy Spacek-type as our scaled-back version of Jack Abramoff. Because, although we had this exciting franchise of Indian Tribal Casino, what in the hell do you do with it? We thought we could get those two stories to speak to each other. As post-mortem, I think we're still looking at it going, hmm, could we have done it better? Should they have been independent? I don't know how we finally feel about that in the final analysis.
The Daily Beast: Bill says in the finale that the family has gone off the tracks. Has Bill lost his way or is he the only one that has a clear vision of where he wants this family to be going?
Olsen: I think he still has a clear vision of the direction that he's intended to lead this family… In the pursuit of that, he kind of got carried away and screwed up, hurt those he loved, and was not vigilant of the needs and welfare of his business partner Don [Joel McKinnon Miller]. He sees that he cut corners.
Scheffer: The question for next year is: What does a visionary do when the rubber meets the road? When the world meets that visionary, what is the fallout in that regard?
The Daily Beast: Where was the moment in the season where Nicki realized that she loves Bill?
Olsen: I think it actually started to begin in Washington, D.C. in the third episode, in that final scene where Bill is saying that Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson)'s going to be OK… and Nicki is protesting, saying, "No, I want her to have a better life. I want her to have more than me." Bill says, "But honey, you've had a good life. You're doing OK," and Nicki shakes her head and says, "No. No, I'm not." […] But it's the beginning of that change of force for her.
There is that moment in Episode 8 where… Nicki says, "Well, I'm along for the ride because I love Bill." She blurts it out and… she shocked herself that she said that… It scares her so much, she jumps up and runs out of the room. Organically, it just kind of popped out.
The Daily Beast: What should we be making of that scene with Margene, Ana, and Goran embracing? Where do you hope to take their relationship?
Olsen: We're asking ourselves that as well. We did a couple of trims to that scene… After that group hug, we see Goran's hands slide up and down her back and rest on her butt and we see Margie registering that and, in a very Jules et Jim kind of way, looks to Goran, to Ana, then back to Goran. You just say, oh, my God, they're moments away from a three-way. We were going a little fast [so we decided to] just slow that down a bit. But we want to explore it… what marriage and love means to Margene and I think it's very different than what it means to any other Henrickson.
The Daily Beast: How difficult was it to say goodbye to Sarah (Amanda Seyfried)?
Olsen: It became a much less difficult moment when we realized that Amanda is very happy to come back and do some [guest starring] next year… But, yes, it's tough to lose that voice… It's not just that she provided that narrative beat of looking in on the family with those wide, skeptical eyes, but she had deep and rich relationships with every character on that show, certainly with Barb and Bill. It's a tough emotional vacuum.
The Daily Beast: With Alby's destruction of Roman's office, his grief over the death of Dale (Ben Koldyke), and his punishment of Lura (Anne Dudek), are we seeing the birth of a new and even darker prophet in Alby?
Olsen: That's exactly what you're seeing.
Scheffer: We felt that he had risked love with Dale and when he lost Dale, he was turning his back on love. It's kind of the Darth Vader story in a way. He was really embracing the dark side at that point and there's no going back for him.
The Daily Beast: Were you concerned at all about how the audience might react to the incest storyline?
Olsen: There are three or four main branches of fundamentalist polygamists here in the state of Utah. The Kingston family… there's about 2,000 of them, and they've been practicing inbreeding since the 1930s. We knew we wanted to go there [since we wrote the pilot]. Once we landed Zeljko Ivanek as Nicki's ex-husband [JJ], we thought, here's our guy who's going to take us there. Were we aware of the difficulty of the subject matter for an audience? You bet we were. I was the canary in the coalmine on that one. Will was more the fearless leader of let's go there, let's just do it. I'm, like, you know how disgusting this is? Televisions across America are going to be clicking off.
Scheffer: It made it really difficult to play and I think we all felt like we had to withhold it until the last possible moment. It was alienating to us, so we felt it would alienate an audience.
Olsen: Yet, it's so appropriate for the show… It does fit within the themes of what we're looking at, which is family and creation of family and definition of family. It's out there, but it's part of that discussion.
The Daily Beast: Looking ahead, what's next for the Henricksons?
Olsen: I don't think they're going to be greeted by the state of Utah with open arms now as public polygamists. That's not to send a message that next season's going to be a downer, because it won't be. We already have some stories that are a lot of fun. But I think there's going to be some retrenchment.
Scheffer: We do like to surprise people… The "out" nature of the family has to be explored as obviously that was the game changer and we're excited for that. They're not going to be greeted well, and that's kind of the main thing. The family is certainly going to have to go through a major readjustment with how far we push them.
The Daily Beast: For many viewers, this was a contentious season. Do you feel that you succeeded in telling the story that you set out to tell? Was there added pressure from the success of Season 3 to top that?
Olsen: We accomplished what we set out to do in the writers room, which was bringing the family to a new place on two levels: changing the series paradigm about hiding versus being exposed and… trying to take the kid gloves off of some of Bill's patriarchy and the way in which he may or may not dominate the wives and letting it get a little bit rougher in the family… If we're always pulling punches and, at the end of the day, they're always sitting down at that table to break bread and share a good time, it just becomes a formula.
Did we feel an obligation to up the ante over last year? …We want to think that there's more to do, that we have more to learn, and that we can become better at what we do… But that doesn't necessarily imply what people think it does… that that's the reason the show accelerated so much this year, that [we] were trying to do last year's stories squared.... That was not it at all.
Scheffer: It's something we talk about every year. How can we be better than the year before? What risks can we take that don't make us fall into this complacency with where we are? We're ambitious with those kind of artistic challenges.
Olsen: When we ask that question, "How can we be better?" we don't assume that the answer lies in being bigger, faster, or more. That is so not what this season was about for us.
Scheffer: We hope the finale snaps things into place a little bit and people are more like apt to say, oh, I understand what they were going for now. But next year will be a different year, that's for sure.
Olsen: Next year will be bigger, faster, better.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a Web site devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.