The Complete Second Season
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All photos © HBO
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
t’s a chapter of its history that its members would really rather people forgot, but once upon a time, the Mormons – sorry, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – were officially practicing polygamists. They were, that is, until the federal government not-so-subtly hinted that Utah’s chances at statehood might be improved if the territory’s most popular religion adopted a more traditional stance toward matrimony. Then, voila! The church’s prophet received a divine revelation, the Mormons went back to the whole one-wife-per-husband thing, and everyone was happy.
Well, not everyone. The Latter-Day Saints have always been a pretty fractious bunch – the church had split even before the switch away from polygamy – and rather than spelling the end of plural marriage, the change in policy ushered in a new era of splinter polygamist sects. Given the church’s tortured relationship with polygamy, and the fact that many of these sects operate on the fringes of society, both the Latter-Day Saints and the government have largely adopted a live-and-let-wed approach.
Aside from being a fun (albeit grossly oversimplified) look back at one of the more interesting chapters in American history, the above paragraphs help draw a few broad strokes on the backdrop for HBO’s “Big Love.” Taking what sounds like a ridiculously prurient setup – One man! Three wives! – and, uh, wedding it to a group of solid actors and typically A-level writing, the show does for polygamy what “The Sopranos” did for the Mafia. In other words, it depicts a lifestyle while providing a brilliantly entertaining list of all the reasons why a person would have to be nuts to want to get involved with it.
Unlike “The Sopranos,” “Big Love” doesn’t rely on a palpable sense of dread, or the constant threat of horrific violence, to drive the action – but then, it doesn’t have to. The point isn’t that polygamy is an inherently violent lifestyle, after all – or even, within the framework of the show, an amoral one. The point, really, is that successfully managing onemarriage is hard enough. Keeping three wives happy? And being a good father to a bajillion kids? Never mind getting whacked – Paxton’s Bill Henrickson has more immediate concerns.
Of course, this being a television drama, it isn’t all about keeping the home fires burning; Henrickson also has to contend with Roman Grant (a supremely creepy Harry Dean Stanton), the self-styled prophet who tossed him out of the polygamist compound where he grew up. Henrickson’s desire for revenge motivates him in ways he may not even fully understand – his second wife, Nicki, is one of Roman’s daughters – as well as driving many of the show’s more dramatic arcs.
Case in point: Though much of “Big Love’s” second season is spent observing what seems to be the slow, inexorable unraveling of Henrickson’s family – his teenage son and daughter wrestle, in markedly different ways, with their parents’ lifestyle – the thread that connects these 12 episodes concerns Henrickson’s efforts to purchase a company out from underneath Grant. (It sounds dry, but again, this is HBO. Bullets are involved.)
If this all sounds like an awful lot for an hour-long drama to juggle, well, it is. “Big Love” occasionally feels like two separate shows – particularly in the episodes leading up to the climactic fallout from Henrickson’s decision to attack Grant’s business interests – but even when it’s disjointed, it’s never less than engrossing. The only problem with this set, really, is that it arrives with Season Three on the distant horizon. Get moving, HBO.