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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
hen last we left the polygamous Henrickson clan, things looked suspiciously sunny. At the end of the third season, nemesis Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) survived an assassination attempt, only to be marched off to prison for violating the Mann Act; family patriarch Bill (Bill Paxton) had maneuvered his way into ownership of the gaming company he thought would ensure financial stability for his loved ones; and eldest son Ben (Douglas Smith) decided to follow the family tradition by dating twins who wanted to grow up to have the same husband. In marked contrast to most serial dramas, the second season of “Big Love” didn’t end with a cliffhanger so much as it coasted to a temporary halt, with a musical montage featuring scenes of happy Henricksons left and right.
If you didn’t know right then that the “Big Love” writers were setting you up for a whole bunch of turbulence, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly after starting to watch the ten-episode third season: not only is tranquility short-lived for the Henricksons, but things come apart in ways you might not expect. In fact, the show does more with its disappointingly abbreviated third-season run than most have managed with twice as many episodes; the action is spread out over an impressive number of main and supporting characters, many of whom are given the opportunity to act – for better and worse – in ways you’ve never seen them act before.
Without giving away too many details of the third-season arc, here’s what you can expect to see from this batch of episodes: Bill trying to diversify his holdings by moving his corporation into the gaming industry; first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) determining whether or not she’s suffering a cancer relapse; third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) dealing with her role as full-time caretaker of the clan’s children; daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) getting ready to graduate from high school and encountering some unexpected side effects of her relationship with her boyfriend Scott (Aaron Paul); and second wife Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) finding herself caught between her marriage and her allegiance to her incarcerated father Roman. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also the small matter of the family’s courtship of Ana (Branka Katic), the waitress Bill wants for a fourth wife.
If it sounds like an awful lot of story to pack into ten episodes, it is, and yet the third season of “Big Love” never feels overstuffed; arguably more than ever, the show manages to give each of its characters room to shine without crowding the others. Even at its most contemplative, as on the road trip episode “Come, Ye Saints,” “Big Love” is fairly action-packed, to the point where it isn’t unreasonable to expect mentions of characters you haven’t seen or heard from since the first season. Despite its light, often semi-comic tone, “Big Love” isn’t a show you can watch with one eye on the tube – it’s one of the denser shows on cable – but it rewards viewers’ attention handsomely, especially here: in contrast to Season Two, which more or less floated to a stop, Season Three ratchets up the tension in each episode, culminating in arguably the most explosive 150 minutes of the show’s entire run.
To say more would be unfair to non-HBO subscribers who depend on these season sets to keep them up to date, but if you’re on the fence about purchasing “Big Love: The Complete Third Season,” don’t be – the show’s at the top of its game, and as this season’s cliffhanger makes clear, things have only just begun to get interesting.