Since its inception, HBO’s Big Love—which was created by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer—has had a reputation, outside of its core audience, for being “that polygamy show.” But devotees of this intelligent and gripping drama know that plural marriage isn’t its sole focus. Rather, Big Love, at its core, is a heartfelt exploration of the unbreakable bonds of marriage and what it means to be a modern family, albeit an untraditional one.
When we last saw the suburban, polygamist Henricksons, the family was struggling in the wake of a betrayal by sister-wife Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), who had illicitly fallen in love with the district attorney prosecuting her father, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the leader of the show’s fundamentalist compound in Juniper Creek. To compound her treachery, she had passed information to her father’s defense, allowing him to get off. In other dramatic twists, Nicki’s ambitious, but closeted brother, Alby (Matt Ross)—who wanted to unseat Roman and usurp his authority—was injured during his failed attempt on the life of his mother, Adaleen (Mary Kay Place).
They are tired of the lack of self-respect of living in the shadows, said co-creator Mark V. Olsen.
And, at the season’s very end, Roman himself was seemingly murdered in an act of vengeance, while the Henrickson family formed their own church, in the backyard the three wives share.
Season 4 of Big Love launches on HBO on Sunday evening (at 9 p.m. ET/PT) and finds the Henricksons—led by Bill Paxton’s pater familias, Bill—under attack from all angles as they attempt to adjust to several new complications, including the excommunication of Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) from the Mormon Church; the appearance of Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson), the secret daughter of Nicki, and the newfound independence of Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the youngest sister-wife.
The Daily Beast spoke to Olsen and Scheffer about the new challenges facing the Henrickson family—the power struggle at the fundamentalist compound, Bill’s new aspiration to run for public office, the casting of Sissy Spacek, Nicki’s secrets, and more.
The Daily Beast: What sort of emotional context do we find the Henrickson clan in when we begin Season 4 of Big Love?
Mark V. Olsen: They’re always under great pressure, but they are under particular pressure when the series opens in the first episode.
Will Scheffer: The FBI is still hounding them. They are still being investigated around issues that came up last year and emotionally the betrayal that happened with Nicki is still weighing heavily on the family.
The Daily Beast: When you appeared at the Paley Festival last year, you said that Season 4 would deal with the subjugation of women in a "deeper" way than has been done so far on the series. Can you explain that further?
Olsen: I think it is mostly embodied in Barb and her journey this season. Bill has been saying for years, “I have a testimony,” and Barb does, too, on a practical level. She has come to love this family, but she is starting to wonder about Bill’s motives for heading down this path. She starts to question the real underpinnings of this family and how she wound up in this.
Scheffer: Bill’s role as the patriarch of this family is beginning to grate on the wives in ways that haven’t been apparent so far. The idea of being in a patriarchal marriage where he really does call the shots and has a final word in every decision is beginning to create greater conflicts for the women and they are having to find ways of dealing with that and fighting back.
The Daily Beast: Thematically then, what is Season 4 about?
Scheffer: I think this season is really about identity. The characters are in new landscapes—Marg with her business, Barb after her excommunication, Nicki after she’s found a true emotional/sexual experience with Ray Henry—they are all questioning their identities.
Olsen: How does a marriage accommodate the change and growth of the partners through the marriage? Bill sets the family on a course this season… He wants to run for public office and he wants to do it in a way that, after he wins, he can step forward and reveal who the family is and they will become polygamists in the light and will be the new face of polygamy. To a certain extent, that makes sense for who the family is at the beginning of the season... But everybody goes on a big journey this year. Margene deepens considerably. Nicki throws off some of the shackles of the compound in her ongoing evolution as a human being. As does Barb, who is working more or less to hold down the casino. By mid-season—and certainly by the end of the season—this plan that they all had agreed on no longer fits.
The Daily Beast: For the first two seasons in particular, it seemed as though the Henricksons were terrified of being exposed, so what is the motivation behind Bill’s decision to potentially make the family more of a target?
Olsen: They are tired of the lack of self-respect of living in the shadows… but it’s also about self-preservation. They have been so tarred by the images of the compound and the abuses of the compound that it’s kind of time to push back a bit.
Scheffer: Part of that pressure is coming externally from law enforcement at the beginning of the season. Bill feels like they are being treated like second-class citizens and this wouldn’t be happening if they weren’t polygamists. Also there is a kind of a change happening in the legislature because a state senator has died and the position is opening up to a very rabid anti-polygamist who is interested in bulldozing the compound and using Roman’s death as an opportunity to make this new, stronger attack on polygamy in Utah. I think Bill, from those kinds of pressures and seeing that polygamy is being threatened in general, receives a testimony that he is the only person who could really do something and he has to do it from within the system.
The Daily Beast: It seems like you were able to give the entire family a pivotal plot that involved all of them while also giving Bill a major storyline.
Scheffer: We wanted to give Bill a season unlike any he’s had before, where he had a clear agenda… that would carry him through to the end of the season, win or lose, and that would wrap up the family in a storyline to such an extent that the whole family would be threatened and conflicted in this journey together. It [gave] Bill an opportunity… to improve the lot of, not only his family, but his community.
Olsen: He gets to start out with a Jimmy Stewart kind of vision. But is it possible to be a Jimmy Stewart in this era, in these days? I think the answer is most likely not.
The Daily Beast: Do Bill’s political aspirations have anything to do with his establishment of his own church at the end of Season 3?
Olsen: It speaks to the same part of his soul that is starting to claim and own his belief in "the principle" in a more vigorous, full-throated way. But in a practical way, the church actually becomes somewhat of an obstacle… If he’s going to be running for office, [he’s] got to bury all of this polygamist stuff for the duration of this very brief special election that he’s standing for. The church is most likely one of the casualties of that.
Scheffer: He has got to try to batten down all the hatches, make sure he has all of the leverage that he can have, and the family has to retreat into an almost old-school lockdown, with Barb as his public wife, only the three children, and they have to maintain that until Election Day. If he wins, since polygamy is still a misdemeanor, he believes that he won’t be recalled if he’s elected and then comes out as a polygamist.
The Daily Beast: How does Sissy Spacek’s character, a Washington lobbyist, fit into the political storyline? Did you write the part with Spacek in mind?
Olsen: We did.
Scheffer: We had this very interesting part that was going to be crucial for the season and we were thinking of stars to lure into our web.
Olsen: We knew who the character was and for the longest time we thought that character was a man. It was only maybe a month or two into the writers’ room that we were looking at the dynamics that this character was bringing forward and one of us came up with the idea that it would make more sense if she were a woman. It would shake up that story in so many interesting ways. Once we did that, there were a couple of directions… that we could have gone with it but we were really excited to craft it for Sissy. She seemed so down to earth and so of the world that we were writing about and it really just felt like a great fit for her.
Scheffer: It was kind of against type, too. We told people Sissy was coming on and they all said, oh, she’ll fit in perfectly on the compound. And we said, uh-uh, she’s playing a Washington lobbyist. I don’t think anyone has really seen Sissy like this before. It’s really an opportunity for her to play colors that people haven’t seen from her.
The Daily Beast: Have we seen the last of the fantastic Harry Dean Stanton?
Scheffer: Let’s put it this way, you know Roman’s dead. He’s definitely dead.
Olsen: Um… um… [Laughs.]
The Daily Beast: Can we expect to see a power struggle to fill the vacuum that Roman’s death has created?
Scheffer: There’s definitely a power struggle going on between Alby [Matt Ross] and Bill is involved and our new character, J.J., Nicki’s ex-husband [Zeljko Ivanek]. But I think we play it in a very surprising way... So it’s not an all-out power fight, people are going at things in subtler ways. Also, Alby finds love this season. For a while at least, his will to power is a little subverted as he’s more interested in love for a brief moment in his life.
The Daily Beast: That would be Dale [Ben Koldyke], who is a new trustee on the UEB Board [the governing council of the United Effort Brotherhood fundamentalist group] at the compound?
Olsen: He’s a state-appointed trustee. It’s largely patterned off of current headlines when Warren Jeffs went on the lam, down in Colorado City in the real world, there came a situation where no one was minding the store, as in the $200 million trust that Colorado City is composed of. The state used that as an opportunity to get a state-appointed trustee in there to oversee pretty much all the assets of the fundamentalists. We’ve adopted the same template this year.
The Daily Beast: At the end of Season 3, Barb expressed a desire to expand their family, but by the end of the season finale, the Henricksons had expanded with the addition of Cara Lynn [Cassi Thomson]. Is that the end of Barb’s quest to add to their flock?
Scheffer: I think Barb is taking a moment to reevaluate where she is in terms of her family and her identity.
Olsen: There’s a line that lands in the middle of the season opener that very accurately gives a sense of where Barb is this season after her excommunication last year. She is very upset and very sad about a variety of things and Margene is trying to cheer her up and Margene says, “Barb, you’re doing such a good job.” And Barb says, “Actually, Margene, I’m not. You’re the one who’s blooming in your new business. I’m just drifting. I don’t know who I am anymore.” That is how we pick up that character this year as she begins to ask different questions and find herself in different ways.
The Daily Beast: We saw Margene finally stand up to Bill at the end of last season. Does her character continue to find her independence and assert herself in their marriage this season?
Olsen: Margene has probably the best season she’s ever had. She finds meaning in her new activities, in her business, and in her new place within this family. She completes her evolution away from baby doll but we do attend to one old item of business on the show, which is we’re finally addressing her relationship with [Bill and Barb’s son] Ben and the complications that come from that.
The Daily Beast: Has Nicki’s attempt to save Cara Lynn given Nicki a clean slate with the sister-wives? Or is there renewed hostility between Nicki and the others?
Olsen: Margie and Barb largely understood and/or forgave Nicki her transgressions; they got it. They suddenly got it when they realized Nicki’s backstory of the daughter she left. But there is an ongoing rupture with Bill; their marriage was truly torn asunder last season. We don’t gloss over that. We clock their struggle to regain their footing with one another and then ultimately to find out what they do mean to one another…
The Daily Beast: Is Aaron Paul back this season as well? What is coming up for Scott and Sarah Henrickson [Amanda Seyfried]?
Scheffer: Luckily, we’ve got him for a bit off of Breaking Bad and he’s really such a wonderful addition to the cast and he and Amanda [Seyfried], their chemistry is really remarkable. [Sarah] proposed marriage last year and he proposes marriage this year and says let’s just do it, let’s stop waiting.
The Daily Beast: Why are more people not watching this fantastic show, which is one of the best dramas on television?
Scheffer: That’s a good question.
Olsen: I don’t think it’s that complicated of an answer, to tell you the truth. I just think that it’s the yuck factor. I still think that’s a hurdle that keeps a certain number of people from going there. It’s “that polygamy show.”
Scheffer: I think that people have been content to say, well, I know what that show’s about. You’ve got all sorts of different people, from feminists who say it’s about the objectification of women and say that they would never want to watch a show that’s about a patriarchal arrangement. And the ick factor: I just don’t want to watch anything about polygamists, yuck. People wind up not watching because they think they know what the show is and they don’t get caught up in what the show is actually about and that’s a shame. We have a wonderful campaign this year; I think the Emmy nomination gave us a little bit more mainstream visibility, and I think word of mouth has been great off of the third season…
The Daily Beast: If people watched the show they would know why so many of us are obsessed.
Olsen: Funny me, I just wish HBO would do a very simple ad campaign and the slogan would be: Get over it. Just watch it once.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website 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.