If My Family’s Not Here, Then I’m Not Here
Wow – what a finale! With all this season’s violent foreshadowing, we knew someone was going to die…but we didn’t spend a ton of time wondering if it was going to be Bill. More so, we wondered how whatever death occurred would break up the family, but we never wondered if whatever death happened would bring real healing to the family. After the building, dissipating and rebuilding tensions of the past two seasons, with threat against threat against threat impending on the Henricksons, how perfect that the violence that finally took Bill out wasn’t really produced by any of his schemes and plans. Karl took us back to the first read danger the Henrickson’s ever truly felt as a family on this show – the threat of snoopy neighbors across the street figuring out who they were and not being able to handle it. For all the ways they’ve drawn connections between gay marriage and polygamous marriage on this show – particularly in terms of legalization and the lack of understanding from non-gay, non-polygamous people – Karl killing Bill at the end here seemed the most stark to me: the problem isn’t what “they” are doing. The problem as far as everyone else is concerned is the threat of what they are doing to our own fragile way of life. The desire to destroy what seems different in others grows out of our own insecurities, and there is perhaps currently a deep insecurity in the conservative American male mind. I think it’s perfect that in the end it wasn’t the Juniper Creek that had birthed Bill that took him down, or the political machine he had set in motion, but it was the suburbia in which he had tried to live his life with normality.
And wow, talk about slaying the Father – Freud or Lacan or some psychoanalytic framework that sees the symbolic death of Fathers as the dismantling of the social systems that create oppression would have a field day. The tension at the heart of this show is the one Bill named in the Senate chambers – polygamous relationships are accused of being patriarchal (as we have done, rightly, many times on this blog). But they also contain the seeds of possibility for genuine liberation for women through the sisterhood of deep familial bonds (as we’ve also, rightly I think, pointed out on this blog). That sisterhood can only flourish if the patriarchy is removed, and the only way to remove the patriarchy is to kill the patriarch.
Bill’s vision of Emma Smith was beautiful – as was his immediate subsequent writing of it down…which I take to be his official vision-recording that passed the power of the the ministry on to Barb (right?). Whether or not Bill’s visions are real has been another theme of the show – we’ve all said time and time again how frustrating it is to see someone saying God is talking to them, when the result of that conversation allows them to have multiple sexual partners and follow any and every whim of their heart. Finally, we got to see one of Bill’s visions – and this one felt true!
What strikes me, though, is that he had it, and shared it with Ben and Don, and then died, without ever knowing that Barb had not been baptized (or that his own mother had died – significant, I think, because of how important she had been for the Emma Smith visions, although I’m not totally tracking the symbolism there). For the first time, perhaps, both Bill and Barb were truly stepping out in faith (i.e. one was not following the other). Barb left the tank out of fidelity to her family, without knowing what would happen. Bill left instructions for Barb’s ascendancy, also not knowing if she had already left them. What a beautiful symmetry! A symmetry I previously would have thought impossible on this show.
The final scene, then, was gorgeous to me – Barb possessing the blessing, and passing it on to her daughter’s son, now aptly named for the slayed patriarch; the family still intact, but in some new way that allowed for Margene’s life path to take it’s own course too (how much more confident and together she appeared having finally found herself both in work and family); Niki perhaps not so mean and selfish and spiteful as we’ve always known her to be, but for a moment actually soft and caring (that scene in the shelter between her and Barb was truly amazing, as a sidenote!); and Barb back in her gorgeous red suits!
The show has always been about “first wife” for me, even more so than “the wives”. The tension they developed this season between her faith and family has been so raw and honest. It’s a tension so many women live – feeling like our traditions can’t support our callings, wondering how we’ll live into our vocations within a patriarchal culture that, while not always explicitly malevolent, still finds ways to hold us down…especially if we’ve chosen to cast our lot in with a conservative religious tradition. But the joys and gifts and depth of love that can come from such communities is true too. I just never thought it would be HBO (a station a common friend of ours refers to as the blow job channel) would be the one to remind me most deeply of the beautiful overlap of my religious, familial, and vocational commitments. I definitely never thought it would be the channel that helped me understand them better!
Can’t wait to hear what you thought of it all!!
I know what you mean – the finale took my breath away for its utter perfectness for the show. I’d been bracing for melodrama and mayhem, some catastrophic end that would rival the showdown on the Mexican compound from two seasons ago. But as this season has done consistently, it all came back to the family and to their great experiment to live together. The moment peace descended on Bill I knew his game was up. There was something beatific and almost Christ-like about his demeanor that spelled eminent demise. But like you, there was no way I could have predicted just how much, like Christ, his death would set his family free. And that was a word we kept hearing last night – “freedom.” Unlike the compounds, it has been a tenant of the Henrickson faith that every member is truly free to stay or go. For all his faults, Bill has shown remarkable resolve around that principle and has supported his wives and children in their pursuits even when they threaten the very bonds of the family. Perhaps more than anything else, however, the show has also insisted that an easy notion of freedom as complete self-determination and un-entanglements may not be freedom at all. There is a possibility for self-growth and self-realization that only comes from deep, close, tangled relationships.
The freedom that came with Bill’s death was exactly this tangled freedom. It left the wives, each in her own way, free to become the person that the experiment of their family had enabled her to be. I had not really made the connection that Barb made last night that for her polygamy was a doctrinal change of great magnitude that she took on out of love for Bill, in the same way she hoped he might make the doctrinal change and accept her priesthood status in love for her. But it is also true that Barb almost certainly would not have come to her belief in the priesthood if she had just remained in a monogamous marriage. The journey of enlarging her marriage to include Nicki and Margene was part of what led her to the conviction of her own leadership role in the family. Likewise, the marriage was the vehicle for growth for Nicki and Margie. We’ve watched Margie wrestle and struggle with “so many false starts” and to see her come into her own and to learn that balance between family and work was just amazing. Nicki more than anyone has needed freedom, but freedom to love her family with less constraints and legalism. I agree, we saw her stony, manipulative heart melting just a bit in that deep wifely/sisterly embrace at the end.
All of this, as you point out, required the death of the patriarch. I agree completely with your read of the revelation and Bill’s moment of grace – somehow Emma Smith’s presence affirmed to him the truth of Barb’s testimony to the priesthood. And even more so, affirmed the larger principle, the one that truly seemed to knock his socks off, that the love that grows out of a family is faith, can change faith, and does not just reflect it. In that revelation he could see that Barb’s priesthood was the growth of their family’s love and therefore authorized. But still, even in authorizing it on paper or perhaps verbally to Don and Ben, it could not become fact until he was gone. Don’t you want to know what this means, though, for those 400+ people attending Barb’s church? How does patriarchical polygamy exist in a new order that ordains women? What will the Principle look like if it continues to be practiced in a church one of whose leaders is a woman without a living husband? It is a delicious thought experiment. I can only hope it look something like that final shot of the wives embracing. For five seasons we’ve watched them call each other spouse and talk about their marriage to one another and yet they have rarely ever embraced. In that moment they looked like a marriage, physically supporting each other as they each live their calling in the world.
If Bill’s death made possible the full blooming of his wives empowerment that was latent in their deep sisterly/spousal bonds, the manner of that death also made it clear the patriarchy takes its toll on men as well as women. I agree that there was something deeply fitting that the very suburbia they tried to embrace would be their undoing and that it revealed a real crisis in masculinity. The almost Christ-like nature of Bill in that moment was the one thing I had a hard time stomaching. But it was made better by the fact that he died at the hands of patriarchy itself. It was a real reminder that male headship is not just a privilege and responsibility, but is a heavy burden, enough to make anyone crack at the pressure of being a perfect provider and leader and spiritual authority. In this way, patriarchy’s burdens took out the patriarch.
There are so many other things to say – Lois and Frank, what a scene! Though did you think that it was also a kind of loneliness in death, just the two of them, a monogamous couple again, compared to the community of wives left standing after Bill’s death? Still, it was a beautiful scene and it totally got to me. And what about Heather and Ben? Maybe the death of the father is going to loosen that boy up a bit, but I still have my doubts. I suppose I don’t really mind all those loose ends. I’ll take one last memory of Barb’s face in the whitening sky, speaking words of priesthood comfort.
I am satisfied.