The Very Ecstasy of Love
by ELEANOR MORROW
How should we treat the ones we love? The new season of Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer's HBO series Big Love puts this issue into the sharpest of focus. Do they need a firm yet giving hand? Do they require a major degree of autonomy to function? When is it right to criticize and challenge those we love, and when is the same behavior certain to destroy them?
It's rare to see actual bad parenting portrayed on television, and this only one strange element about the relationship of Big Love's character to its audience. We can't fully sympathize with characters who treat their children in this fashion, and yet we're drawn into the dilemmas of the Hendricksons slowly but surely, without realizing what exactly we're doing. In case you're overly prejudiced against multiple partners and have avoided the show, the Hendricksons are currently spawning new babies quicker than Brad Pitt's rimjobs: Teenie, Aaron, Lester, Ben, Nell, Wayne, Sarah, Cara Lynn are only the beginning of the large brood routinely ignored by their parents.
None of these kids are turning out very well. The oldest is Sarah, played by Amanda Seyfried. Last season had her dealing with a pregnancy that got deus ex hendrickson'd into oblivion. Now she's just a regular Mormon girl dealing with her Mormon problems, like what dress that goes down to my ankles should I wear today? Given that she's more occupied with movie roles where she's tonguing Julianne Moore, the intriguing questioning Mormon Seyfried portrayed will be missed as a crucial part of Big Love's success, absorbed into a relationship in the same fashion as any other girl you know.
What can fill the void? Nikki's surprise daughter Cara Lynn has been a fun start. The junior math whiz tells her dirtbag father that she doesn't like it with the Hendricksons, but we sense that's about to change when she realizes she can do whatever she wants on her new compound.
The surprise daughter trick has worked quite well as a plot device in soaps, and that's the direction Big Love has headed. The seedy prophet Roman Grant tied the show into a very disturbing portrait of a cult that subjected its members to a series of disgusting circumstances. With his departure from the drama, the stakes have lessened somewhat, and the soap aspects naturally come to the foreground. Before, there was always the distinct and frightening possibility that any character would end up in the joy book of Juniper Creek and became another cog in the wifely machine that is polygamy.
For this reason, I expected the premiere to be more of a reboot than it was. What we really care about are the ties between people on this show, and since Juniper Creek is no longer the pressure point it was during the first three seasons, the show is desperately in need of a new antagonist who represents the morality of the outsider who produce, direct, and write this show. Fortunately guest turns by Sissy Spacek as a lobbyist, Željko Ivanek as Nicki's ex and the return of once fourth wife Ana are promised in the abbreviated nine-episode season to come.
The new opening sequence is a neat metaphor for how the show has changed over time. No longer are wives and husbands swirling away from one another in a fog. They now just fall singularly like Mormon Don Drapers into a new abyss of their own making.
The tension between Roman Grant and the Hendricksons wasn't the only captivating storyline that made Big Love so exciting. There was always some fear of Bill, Margene, Nicki and Barb being discovered and outed. Now it's obvious that every attorney and police in Salt Lake City knows that Bill butters his bread in three houses. If they knew how rarely he was actually getting laid, they might not be so acrimonious. Bill's sex life has struggled terribly now that he's opening his collaborative casino project with the kind and potential Mormon-hating indigenous people of Utah. The focus is on Bill's business, for better or worse, and by the end of the season premiere, his business is in serious trouble.
With the focus shifting towards Bill's casino venture, Margene Hendrickson's plucky, sexpot saleswoman wife has become the unwitting protagonist of Big Love. Where last season she tried to get Bill to bring on a saucy foreign fourth wife, this year her reinvention as Home Shopping Network star promises more laughs than all the scenes Bradley Cooper wasn't in during He's Just Not That Into You. The show's writers have turned one of the most easily pigeonholed characters on the show into one of its deepest.
In contrast, Jeanne Tripplehorn's Barb has become minimized as a result of the focus on the other two wives. Barb's done it all - she beat cancer like a champ, she found dry land in Waterworld, and she got excommunicated from her religion. While the experience of being disliked by Indians is somewhat captivating, she's run out of creative steam and it's going to take a major shakeup to make her anything other than Bill Paxton's dialogue coach.
That brings us to Chloe Sevigny. What starlet was more likely to have a face tattoo and a heroin addiction? And yet Sevigny only keeps on working in what can charitably be described as the role of a lifetime. Her Nicki is a tic-ridden, subversive amalgam of woman, so good and bad at once she'd give Jesus (or Joseph Smith) one hell of a headache. To add insult to Mormonism, she's never been more beautiful. With her father out of the picture, it simply leaves more room for the note perfect scenes between her and her similarly conflicted mother Adaleen (the magical Mary Kay Place). In these scenes on the Juniper Creek compound we get the most obvious evidence of how corrupting an ideology that pervades every aspect of our being necessarily is.
Over time, Big Love has grown more suspicious and derogatory towards polygamy. This is only right - what to the non-cultists looks like a unique but not entirely savage family arrangement over time reveals itself to be more corrupting than you can ever imagine. Bill himself has nothing more to give to his wives, and as if compensating, they find little in common with him. The practical benefit of having a large family is virtually all that can be said in the favor of this family structure.
And yet we ultimately recognize that the ideology which pervades the hypocritical government persecution of the Hendricksons is just as all-knowing and insolent. We should never speak for others, even when what they do is strange and weird to us, as long as it is freely chosen. No one needs a lecture on why polygamy is generally bad for wives and the children that result from such arrangements. The gay married masterminds behind the show Scheffer and Olsen have no intention of giving one. All families have something that redeems them, no matter how disturbing their structure. What redeems the Hendricksons is an open question.
Financial freedom is part of the equation, as it is for every other family in America. But there is something larger beneath that about what we see when we look at our children. Staring in a mirror at the daughter she didn't see in twelve years, Nicki Hendrickson puts on a look of total care and total dominance. She wants nothing of Juniper Creek for her daughter, but she is not perceptive enough to learn or diligent enough to figure out that her daughter may in fact want something of Juniper Creek. But then, if children didn't always surprise their parents, what exactly would be the point of having them?
Even as Big Love conscientiously and dutifully assails the evils of polygamy, it is also offering a brief that the human heart remains capable of more love than we commonly give it credit for. On the other hand, it also endorses a more cynical view - sooner or later, we run out of this mysterious and desired substance.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
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