"Blood Atonement" revels in almost everything I like least about "Big Love." The vast majority of the episode deals with inter-polygamist compound conflicts, a large portion of the episode seems to revolve around an apparent miracle (that's not given any of the ambiguity seeming miracles are usually given on this show) and even the Henrickson compound stuff ends up feeling like a few goofy soap opera twists too many. Now, I didn't hate all of it - it's insanely hard to do bad scenes with the show's central trio of wives, and I liked much of the storyline with Ana up until Margie's big decision - but this is probably the series' weakest episode since at least early season two.
[Full recap after the break...]
The problem is that most of the episode focuses on storylines having to do with Lois, Frank and Ben being trapped by the Hollis Greene clan down in Mexico and being put on trial. All the while, Bill is trying to put out fires back home as he tries to make it to his parents and son in time. The Greenes are intriguing enough when used as weird, local color around the edges of the Juniper Creek scenes. For example, the arrival of Hollis late last season - when Roman had promised Kathy to him - gave the conclusion of last season's Juniper Creek storyline the added punch it needed. But the characters aren't horribly well-defined beyond, "Not Juniper Creek and also weirder than them," and that means they can't carry as much of an episode as even, say, Roman and Alby could.
Juniper Creek has always felt like a necessary evil on "Big Love." I don't hate it as much as some critics do, but I also have never been able to get into the politics on the compound like some of the series' fans have. It's obviously needed as a reminder of just what Bill is trying to keep from falling into with his newfangled version of polygamy - a necessary correlative to the modern world Bill is in but trying not to be of. And there have been times when Juniper Creek has stopped seeming like oddball stuff designed just to show the real cost of polygamy and like something tragic and real. But for the most part, it's the only thing on an HBO drama that feels like it was forced on the show by a network note.
It also doesn't help that everything involving Juniper Creek or the Greenes is just so friggin' weird. I'm almost certain that it's so compulsively researched that everything in it is drawn from real life. But when the rest of the show is so vibrant and alive, the show's attempts to blend documentary-like verisimilitude with the tone of a David Lynch knock-off in the Juniper Creek and Greenes plotlines often end up feeling so weird that they can seem like another series entirely. It's like if - every Sunday night - ABC's "Brothers and Sisters" kept cutting to a subpar "Twin Peaks" knockoff for no reason. For example, I'm sure that polygamist rings are big into bird smuggling as a way to raise money. I'm also pretty sure that showing it so matter-of-factly just seems like it's too weird to be believed. This disconnect ends up unraveling much of the tension the show tries to build in these scenes.
Anyway, tonight, the Greenes have taken Lois, Frank and Ben, and Bill, Joey and Jodean are heading down into the heart of Mexico to get them back. (Bill's so intent on this that when he's stopped by what appears to be a Mexican drug cartel, he actually stares one of the members down. Badass.) Mexico, here, is probably meant to feel like something like the film "No Country for Old Men." Instead, it ends up trapped halfway between "Carnivale" and the film "Babel," right down to the bleached out color palette. "Big Love" uses bright, primary colors so well that any episode that involves as much time in washed-out-ville as this one does already feels a little disappointing.
Bill's Mexican adventures form the bulk of the episode and mostly seem to consist of him being far more virtuous and upright than he's been most of this season. I get that in the show's moral universe, there's no way Bill is as bad as Hollis or Roman, but the series also sometimes feels the need to do an episode like this where they restore him to a place of moral rectitude, and that's almost never fun to watch. The best thing about the show's characterization of Bill is when the series shows us that he's better than Roman and Hollis but still has many of the same faults as those men and that his attempts to stay at the head of a friendlier, kinder patriarchy are still attempts to stay at the head of a patriarchy with all of the flaws that that implies.
Instead, we get to see Bill arrive just in the nick of time to save his son and parents, offer to take their place in captivity when Joey messes everything up and barely react when his mother cuts off Hollis' arm. He's like Captain America or something, taking the good word of Home Plus to the people of Mexico, and his ability to say exactly what needs saying and be right where he needs to be at any given time in this episode ends up feeling a little ridiculous. I've liked that this season has given Bill Paxton more chances to show all of the shades of Bill Henrickson, but this episode felt a little too much like a regression to the early days of the show's run, when we were just supposed to go with Bill's good, moral rectitude a little too much. (The lowpoint of this storyline was probably when Bill pulled a gun on his brother to keep him from joining his quest to free the prisoners. The highpoint here was when Bill, watching a Mexican musical on TV, called Barb to tell her that things would be different. It was one of the few scenes here that maintained some ambiguity.)
This meant that much of the episode's good stuff fell to J.J., of all people, who's apparently unleashing some plot to take over the UEB by implanting Adaleen with a seeming miracle fetus, which will prove he's uniquely suited to take over as prophet or something. (This is all conjecture, but I'm assuming it's the case because the series wouldn't do anything like have an actual miracle baby. Unless Adaleen is way younger than we've been led to believe.) J.J.'s plot has been bubbling away on the back burner this whole season, and it's often been the least interesting thing going. But I am intrigued to see what his ultimate plot is here, though I assume it will be some variation on what I posted above. It's also interesting to see how this dovetails with Nicki's discovery that she's going to have trouble having another child, thanks to, as she says, her uterus being unhappy. Nicki's quest to get back in Bill's good graces has been one of the quieter plots this season, and this is a development that seems like it will pay off in the weeks to come.
Also, Ana was terrified that Barb would try to send her fiancee packing back to his homeland, to the point where she almost left with him preemptively. She was going to do this, that is, until Margie agreed to marry him and keep him in the country, which would also allow Ana and the baby to stay. This was probably the best thing about the episode, and even though I don't quite buy the whole "Margie marries Goran" plotline, it led to two fantastic scenes. The first was between Margie and Nicki as she revealed her plan to Nicki while shooting pictures of her and Goran at "Christmas last year." Nicki's reveal of her child-bearing problems, combined with her argument with Margie about who, exactly, was going to fill that giant house Bill wants to buy were both a lot of fun.
I also liked the way this episode finally began to rebuild the relationship between Margie and Barb, which has been a little too strained throughout the season. (This has been for understandable reasons, but one of the chief pleasures of the show is watching the ways the three wives bounce off of each other, and not having one leg of that triangle has been unfortunate.) And yet, at the same time, Margie's increasing independence is always going to be something that's slowly carrying her away from the family and toward another life entirely, which has led to things like her bristling at the idea of having a home office or going off to marry Goran without really asking anyone whether to do so or not. (Another touch I liked: Nicki pointing out that this could just be a way to deny that she's a part of the Henrickson clan when Bill "outs" them.)
In the end, this is not a very good episode of "Big Love" despite having quite a few scenes that are fun to watch and at least a couple of plot points that seem like they'll pay off in the weeks to come. One often gets the sense that any given season of "Big Love" has about three different arcs that are split up fairly evenly among the episodes. If that's the case, then this might be the start of a new story arc that will seem more compelling in retrospect. But in the immediate aftermath of viewing it, this just felt like the culmination of way too many things I just don't care about.
Some other thoughts:
*** Even though she likes the episode more than me, I liked Amelie Gillette's thoughts on this one over at The AV Club. Her point that every season of "Big Love" has several season finales is one that's well-taken. As such, this episode could be viewed as something like another season premiere.
*** This episode was actually full of great laugh lines, but my favorite was probably Nicki wailing, "Don't leave me here with Mrs. Petrovic!"
*** Barb and Tommy uncover the fact that Marilyn, evangelical Christian group leader Ray Reed and the Congressman are all carrying out some sort of long con to ... what, exactly? Take down the casino? Take down the Henricksons? I guess we'll have to wait and see.
*** Nice use of the Fleet Foxes at the end, I thought.
And, here's one last question for discussion: Do you like the Juniper Creek stuff? If so, why?