Some Thoughts about Big Love

In talking about Big Love, the HBO series dealing with a polygamous Utah family, I think it’s helpful to know some of my past. I’m a product of polygamy. Like many others born in Utah, my ancestors practiced polygamy. My great-great-grandfather was a Mormon bishop in Salt Lake City for over forty years and had seven wives. His wife Abigail was my great-great-grandmother. She decided to leave her husband (she stayed in Brigham Young’s houses for awhile) and moved to Centerville, Utah, which at that time was “the country”. I know this, because my great-grandfather wrote it in a journal. A journal that I (with the help of many others) transcribed and published about 13 years ago.

In the journal, my great-grandfather writes of there being a “general disagreement” between his parents. That’s all he says. His mother left his father and lived on her own, never divorcing and raising the four children on her own. My great-grandfather left Mormonism and wrote a bit about his feelings regarding the church being in open violation of the laws of the country by practicing polygamy. His story is rich and full and amazing. I’ll tell more about him another time.

Abigail turned her back on the polygamous lifestyle and the LDS church and made her own way in rural Utah. My great-grandfather was left $1 when his father died (this was so he couldn’t contest the will) and had strained relations with his father and the family. Polygamy in Utah in the late 1800s wasn’t the dreamy utopia the LDS church was trying to create and once they banned the practice, it proved a divisive stance. Several offshoot sects sprung up in even more rural outposts throughout the west and they still claim to be followers of Joseph Smith. The most infamous group being those who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons more formally called the Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or FLDS.

With this background, I watched the first season of Big Love. HBO got it right in a lot of ways. Utah is a bit like the southern region of the United States. Proudly contrarian and independent and more than a little crazy. Religious and nutty. Jesustastic. Capturing the subtleties in a realistic way is a challenge for anybody not from these regions, and it’s one of the things I enjoyed most about the series. It captured the unique way Mormons and Mormon offshoots talk to one another. There are coded words and phrases like “garments” and “The Principle” and “Young Women”. All captured nearly pitch perfect.

The series’ central family, the Henrickson’s, consist of a husband Bill (Bill Paxton) and three wives, Barbara Henrickson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette Grant (Chloe Sevigny)[solid Mormon royalty surname] and Margene Heffman. It is made perfectly clear from the outset that these are people living outside of mainstream Mormonism; they do not practice the currently official doctrine of the LDS Church. They are also outsiders from The Compound, which is loosely based on the border cities Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.

The Henricksons are attempting to blend into their neighborhood and city. Bill is successful with his local business and keeps his marital situation quiet. The wives do the same. There is hypocrisy galore because of the illegality of their arrangement and the religious “requirement” that they live this way. They believe they are living a higher law of God. As such, the characters are quite self-righteous, none moreso than Chloe Sevigny’s wonderfully evil Nicolette Grant. In nearly every conceivable way, Sevigny captures the irony and hypocrisy of living outside the law and the self-righteous certitude that she’s above that same law. I grew up with people like this, mostly Mormon, but I’ve known other denominations to have their version. I knew a couple of girls like this in high school, one who eventually joined a polygamous sect by marrying the summer after she graduated high school. This girl in particular comes to mind whenever a scene plays where Nicolette gets all huffy about something. Plus, she dresses in an updated prairie style that stays true to her ultra-fundamental roots.

The multilayered aspect of most family dramas is fairly straightforward. In Big Love, it’s twisted and knotted and dense. This density is what makes me cringe. When Margene inadvertently walks in on Bill and Nicolette having sex (they live in connected houses) it’s not like it’s really wrong for them. Bill isn’t cheating in their world. And it’s unsettling to watch. All of these issues are laid out unforgiving and bare. How do you live as a couple when there are others who share a bed with the husband? How do you have a family dinner? How do you deal with outsiders? With the law?

Bill is the show’s center and he’s continually confronted with the two worlds he has created for himself. One is the successful business person. The other is the polygamist who has roots in The Compound. There is a near mythic quality to Bill; he’s not glorified, but clearly has a destiny. In that destiny lies the myth. Bill’s grandfather was the prophet before the very creepy Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) muscled him out. We learn that Bill is a lost boy, having fled the compound and made something of himself outside of polygamy, but is drawn back in. Kind of like Odysseus. He goes out into the world, but it’s looking like he’s going to head back after his journey, kick some ass on the compound and take his seat at the head. At least that’s the hint from the first season.

Barbara can’t stand The Compound and there are a couple of subplots in the first season that deal with the biggest issues facing the polygamous sects; abuse of teenage girls who are subjected to incest, sexual abuse, physical abuse and mental abuse as they are handed off like human cattle to much older men, in some cases relatives.

I think my favorite parts of the show are the older children of Bill and Barbara.The kids are old enough to have their own opinions about how their parents are choosing to live. The effects of that lifestyle are most felt by them. Their oldest son Ben is a believer. He wants to be his dad. He attends Mormon seminary (a release-time class that’s basically the same as Mormon Sunday School, but taught at a building near the high school in Utah. In most places, seminary is taught in the early morning, before school at the instructor’s home) to fit in even though his family isn’t really Mormon. Barbara and Bill’s oldest daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfired) thinks it’s all a crock and does her best to rock the boat. Her friend Heather (Tina Majorino) is another perfectly rendered character. Heather could be a neighbor. She looks Utah Mormon and talks it. Sarah and Heather’s friendship is one of the tools in Sarah’s arsenal of pot-stirring. When Heather sits at the Henrickson dinner table, she assumes the viewer’s role, wanting to ask so many questions and holding her views about the wrongness of polygamy from every perspective.

This series is rich with a lot of great talent and dense story. The crazy interconnectedness of the family, even as they feud with those they’ve rejected and set aside those feuds for family events holds a particularly savory place for me. It’s not an easy show to watch. And it’s kind of cathartic to watch something like this. I’d never want another wife. Nor do I really understand the drive to want more. Even from a sexual desire standpoint. Most men have had fantasies of multiple partners (if they haven’t already done it) and Big Love deals with the realities of waking up in the morning and having to eat breakfast with everybody. To be clear, there’s no actual group sex in the show, but it’s very clear that all the couples are sexually active and this brings certain issues to the fore. Like walking in on your husband while he’s in flagrante delicto with another wife.

The biggest issue I have with the show is that it’s clearly shot in Southern California. They try to simulate a Wasatch Front suburb, but the mountains and light aren’t quite the same. It’s a minor nitpick, but I find myself looking for anything shot in Utah. It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid. They’ve done a nice job covering, with some interesting shots of the Salt Lake City skyline (with angles that don’t exist in reality) and in one hilarious scene, how marketers in Utah work in subtle Mormon and BYU references to fit in with and appeal to the still dominant Mormon population.

As for polygamy, I think consenting adults should be allowed to marry who they want. You can call it a civil union, but I think there will be those religiously inclined who will want to call it marriage, and I believe that’s what it should be called in every case. I don’t want polygamy legal because I believe it will lead to gay marriage being made legal; I want consenting adults in this country to be able to marry who they wish. Watching the Henrickson family go through their contortions to deal with prying eyes of the community and coworkers is difficult. Even more difficult is hearing the hypocrisy come out of the characters when they talk of being honest, even as they are dishonest with so many around them. Bill is the worst in this regard, and it adds yet another layer of fantastic Sturm und Drang to the series. I think it mirrors nicely the U.S. culture of hypocrisy. Don’t look at me like that, you’ve done something grossly hypocritical in the past seven days. Whether it’s dissing Brittney or rolling your eyes at another parent, the U.S. is awash in hypocrisy. Religious subculture doubly so.

I hope HBO renews this series, as it’s some of the most compelling television I’ve watched. I’m not sure that I’m in the majority on this one, and I don’t really care if I am or not. But if you’ve watched the show, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think it’s a great step forward for television. It’s not perfect, but it’s hard to turn off.

UPDATE: Some of the comments and email I’ve been receiving are seeking clarification from the second to last paragraph. To sum it up: I want polygamists and gays to be able to marry. But only as consenting adults. No 14 year-old brides and husbands. I’m not advocating for polygamists as a back door (pardon the pun) to legalizing gay marriage. I’m advocating marriage for all consenting adults, which includes gay people and polygamists.