Fixing Something Broken…But For Us or For You?
Last night’s episode of Big Love dealt head on with a question I’ve had since this show first started: are the Hendricksons creating a family unit that truly benefits the hopes and desires of all players, or are they performing some twisted version of Bill’s own confused desire? Each time my anger at this patriarchal form of polygamy reared up in the first three seasons, it was quickly challenged by the beautiful love shared by the sister-wives and the strong network of female support they bore to one another. Sure, it’s not a life I would choose for myself, but I could see how it worked and how it brought satisfaction and joy – even blessing – to each member. But as this season has delved deeper and deeper into the ugly side of this patriarchal practice, the sympathetic picture of polygamy Big Love initially worked so hard to create has crumbled more and more. And as Bill treads further and further down his own path of destruction, I’m struck by how this patriarchal system doesn’t just rely on the figure of ‘woman’ as it’s other, but that the male sees himself as able to take advantage of everyone other to him – in terms of gender (spouses and all women, typified in Bill’s ferociously irrational mistreatment of Marilyn), in terms of race (typified in Bill’s refusal to treat Jerry and Tommy like the true business partners they are), in terms of economic and social class (typified in Bill’s horrid treatment of Don – 2 weeks with no movement on that story…I’m starting to wonder), and in terms of parental responsibility (typified in Bill’s not-quite-expulsion-but-still-really-mean-kicking-out-of Ben).
Indeed, I can’t help but see Bill’s ongoing battle with how to time his ‘coming out’ to illustrate a nice version of what the show itself is doing. His tactic of “Just let them see how nice we all are before we tell the truth” surely parallels this shift in how their story is told over these four seasons – from (problematic yet) benevolent patriarchy to borderline abusive patriarchal control, I’m not sure if Bill has strayed from the path of Heavenly Father (whatever that might be?) or whether he was never on it to begin with.
Anna is such an interesting character to me for this reason. She attempted to keep an open mind and enter the family. She experimented with loving the sister wives as an extension of her love for Bill. But once she recognized the control exercised over her own life and body, she was (wisely) out! What the sister wives saw as selfishness in Anna was actually a wisdom. I recall Anna’s true moment of anger rising when Bill insisted she would need to share her waitressing tips with the family – and perhaps the shared desire for economic independence added in some way to Margene and Anna’s bond.
The other big reveal for what Anna and Margene share was, of course, Bill’s pre-marital sex with both. And this is what leads Barb to finally question whether or not Bill’s pursuit of plural marriage – indeed, all his visions to which she so wonderfully alluded at the wives’ meeting – are products of Heavenly Father’s will, or whether they are Bill’s attempts to fix something deep and broken within his own psyche. The argument for ‘damaged psyche’ built last night as Bill and Nicki sat on the couch watching strange black and white footage of war-reel bombs. Nicki alluded to their shared past and the notion that she is more damaged than he…the implicit question remaining, is she really? Through Barb’s realizations and (beautifully) willful moments of coming into her own power we get to see how damaged Bill really is! (Who like me wanted to cheer as she crossed out Bill’s name on that contract to sign her own…stepping into the authority she has but rarely exercises?!).
So speaking of Nicki – I’m not entirely sure why she had to do that crazy ‘80’s miniskirt, devastating side-ponytail get-up. She remains the most complicated character on the show in terms of motivations! The more she tries to protect her daughter, the more I long to know more about her. She has always envied Margene, but tonight we really got a glimpse of why…to her, that’s how Margie dresses and, given that she yelled at Margie that she wishes she could have had the childhood and the ‘in between’, I’m left wondering what further mischief she will get up to this season…unlike previous seasons, though, my sense is that her mischief will serve the liberation of Cara Lynn rather than her own selfishness as the season moves on.
Oof, so much more to say for this episode – Dale’s death was so, so sad. Not that I thought he and Alby really had a shot at it, but he was a lovely character who I really liked and for whom I hoped the best. What his death will do to Alby, I don’t know – perhaps we’ll get to see him as a ghostly guide as happens with Alby’s visions of Roman? But his shared moments with Bill, especially, were quite chilling as we drew connections not only between Dale’s sexual secrets and Bill’s polygamy, but also to Bill’s pre-marital relations. We do well to remember that Bill’s secrets run deep. (particularly in regards to sexuality – remember his admission last week that while a “lost boy” he did things he ‘wasn’t proud of’ to earn a buck?). And as Barb and Margene both come into their own as enterprising business –women (who nevertheless are staunchly not feminists), I’m excited to see what type of independence Nicki might also take on (how long will Nicki be content to remain one of the women behind the woman behind the man?) . We learned that Marilyn also has some sort of patriarchally stained past as she continually referred to a controlling first marriage. And what was up with Wanda’s mumbling about being in the nursery with the ponies? And what, what is going to happen with that giant house on the hill?
Did anyone cheer with me when Marilyn asked Bill why he’s being such a douchbag? Finally! Someone who calls it like it is!
Lastly, as Bill, Nicki and Margene have all now had some form of sexual indiscretion with regards to this marriage…how long will it be before Barb gets hers? My money (and, I’ll admit, my hopes) are pinned on deliciously sweat-lodging Tommy for this one!
Posted by Natalie.
This might just be the longest post on Big Love ever. I wasn’t sure I would have a chance to reply, but I just can’t resist, since I loved this episode! Your analysis is fantastic, Natalie, and I agree with all your musings, reflections, and wise insights into the way the series has progressed. Last night represented a real shift for me – Bill isn’t any less of the douche bag Marilyn accuses him of being, but the show did lay off promoting this side of him in order to spend some serious quality time with the wives. And that was really the theme of the episode to me: the relationships between women and the feminist, prot0-feminist forms of empowerment these women are exploring.
Starting with Margene’s fantastic speech: “I’m not a feminist or anything” followed by an account of a world where women’s autonomous flourishing is affirmed while also acknowledging their deep connections with and dependence on other women – a pretty awesome definition of feminism, in at least one of its guises! As you point out, we watch Barb and Margene each struggle to define their own economic liberty and take control of some of the economic decisions for the whole family. And we have that crazy scene with Nicki, where in some twisted, confused way, she is actually beginning to work through the trauma of her childhood and try to learn to live past it (I was so touched by her confession to Bill that she gets so angry at things she can’t control – and the whole twisted compound dynamics could be explained as struggles to exert control in small, underhanded ways in the face of an overwhelming patriarchal power – and her speech to Alby when she tries to assure them they are both screwed up). We also see one of my favorite themes of the show – the idea that the sister wives are married to each other, not just each of them to Bill – played out in Barb’s insistence that Anna’s baby is “our” baby, not just hers and Bill’s. Of course, this is a problematic relationship, but the most interesting part of the polygamous arrangement – what does it mean to continually submit oneself to the larger good of the family unit, when that family unit encompasses multiple spouses, children, etc?
In the mix of all these women-centered stories, we also have Adaleen. What, oh what, is going on there? It is so hard for me to believe she really has assented to her new marriage and the scene with her and JJ on their wedding night took creepy to a whole new level. I’m not saying Adaleen is not a believer, but has she really capitulated to the Principle as enacted by Alby and JJ? Where is the spunky, fighting spirit she embodied when married to Roman? If her submission really does represent her intentions, this development might just be the saddest example of how detrimental the polygamous system of the compound can be.
OK – enough for the moment! I loved the episode and hope the season keeps sticking close to home and mining these relationships for all the gold they contain. I worry that the sudden return of the Greens in Mexico represents a turn away from family drama to melodrama, but we’ll have to wait and see…
Posted by Kathryn.