In its long run, "Big Love" has never defined Margene Heffman as handily or specifically as it has Barb Henrickson or Nicki Grant. Both Barb and Nicki are wonderfully complex characters who can't be easily pinned down, but both have had their complexities plumbed and examined by the series. Margie has always played around the edges of the show. She's the youngest wife, the one who most obviously turned to Bill because she just needed somewhere to belong. She's the one who's often able to build bridges between the different family members. And Ben has a crush on her. We know other things about her, obviously (like the fact that she has a sometimes alluded to dark past), but the writers have chosen to keep Margie mostly in the background throughout the series.

[Full recap of Sunday's (Jan. 31) "Big Love" after the break...]

This, of course, is more than fine. Bill, Nicki and Barb are all fascinating characters, and that the show has spent the time exploring why they operate the way they do is to its credit. But I've always wanted the show to turn more of its gaze on Margie, who seemed to have a lot of interesting psychological underpinnings to examine herself. I was hopeful that season four would be the year I'd get that wish. Season one was largely about Bill's journey, the ways that he's defined himself in opposition to the American mainstream and even what his wives might want. Season two was largely the story of Barb, a woman who was only gradually realizing just how much she'd sacrificed when her husband asked to enter this lifestyle. And season three took an unflinching look at Nicki and just how little she'd examined her own life, her own sorrows. It seemed natural to expect that season four would be the Margie season, especially with the rife with conflict plot of her earning enough at her home shopping job to be able to live independently if she really wanted to.

Instead, Season Four has taken glancing steps at defining Margie more readily, but it didn't seem to have a natural window into her thought processes based on the series' defining plotlines so far (roughly, the aftermath of the death of Roman Grant and Bill's decision to run for State Senate). Her home shopping success has offered an oblique spinoff of the effects of Bill's decision, but that's pretty much it. But last week's closer - when she kissed Ben and the home shopping network introduced him as her husband - finally offered us the plot we need to dig more deeply into just who Margie is and just what appeal this life holds for her.

Quite frankly, "Big Love" is always walking a thin line between being spectacular and being terrible, and it sometimes wavers on both sides of this line within the same scene or the same conversation. Now, there's obviously some terrible stuff in "The Mighty and the Strong" - while I like Lois Henrickson as a character, her disconnected adventures with Frank this season feel even more like trying to give Grace Zabriskie something to do - but the last half or so of the episode is just full of terrific stuff, even redeeming plotlines I wasn't sure were redeemable, as Bill's march to what he thinks will be a cakewalk of an election meets up with pothole after pothole, requiring him to be even more of a pompous ass as he tosses the people he cares about out of his way.

And here's where Margie enters the story. She's clearly feeling bad about kissing Ben, but there's a part of her that feels ignored, that feels like he's the one whom she could turn to in that situation, the only one who seemed there and ready to listen. Her husband, while someone she loves, is someone who's unable to see her through his own belief in his destiny. That might be fine for Nicki (who shares that belief in his destiny) or Barb (who chooses time and again to return to this life), but for Margie, it's increasingly coming up short. She never really has grown up, and now that she's beginning to be forced to, she's not sure she likes what she sees. In just three scenes - Margie and Ben being confronted by Bill, Margie's breakdown on live TV and Margie telling Bill it was she who kissed Ben, not the reverse - Ginnifer Goodwin and the show's writers lay out just how little Margie understands the life she's leading yet how intuitively she can feel that she increasingly doesn't fit in it.

It doesn't help that this episode is one where the "Big Love" writers show us, unequivocally, that Bill's quest is completely and utterly self-serving. Even if it sometimes seems like God's on his side (like how he got into the fundraiser last week), he's being awfully callous with the feelings of the people who love him. That final scene - where Bill kicks Ben out of the house - is almost beautifully done in how little it states. We know that Bill himself was kicked off the compound. We know that Bill's tried to help out others who've suffered the same fate. And now, he's doing the same. Even if he's not as mean about it as Roman might have been, he's becoming the same kind of person. Or look at how he gets Don, the guy who always just wants to be more like Bill, to fall on the bullet when there are revelations that there's polygamy going on behind the scenes at Home Plus. And, of course, Don lies to keep the bigger lie under wraps. Five wives? All so Bill can pursue this ridiculous course of action? At this point, the "Big Love" writers are being very specific in portraying the fact that Bill's not better than Roman, just more relatable because of where he lives and how we might know someone like him (if not exactly like him).

Then there's Sarah, who was trapped in a plotline from hell last week but this week seemed to turn that plotline from hell into something graceful. The writers had backburnered Sarah's miscarriage from last season so far that I had almost forgotten about it until I saw her bathing the baby and singing to it. I'm not sure that I needed the show to literalize this by having Scott remind us that it happened ( really, some of the emotional scenes on this show can be overwritten, but the actors usually save them - see also Margie's breakdown on-air), but the rest of the storyline was an effective illustration of just how much Sarah needs to find something of her own to care for and just how she and Scott have the kind of relationship that Barb had always wished she could have with Bill (who goes out of his way here to insist that Scott tell his wife what's what). Before this, I was mostly interested in sending away the plot of Sarah trying to care for the child, but I was impressed with the way the show tied it into larger themes and ideas about her character.

Nicki had less to do this week, but her role as Bill's inside eyes on the opposing campaign was pretty great. (I love that the family is always willing to use her as a spy.) And Barb's seeming crack-up doesn't seem as well-motivated as it might seem at this point, but Jeanne Tripplehorn almost always makes the most of such acting moments, and it seems like she'll get more to play out of this as the rest of the family slowly falls away from her. (It's here that I should note that it might seem odd for Bill to dive into the Senate race with the election so close, but a.) it's a minor election that probably hasn't gotten a lot of media attention up until this point and b.) he's got the money to make a seismic impact on it very quickly. No wonder Senator Tom Amandes is so worried as to call into Bill while he's on a Republican radio talk show.)

The rest of the episode's heart, then, falls to Alby, a character one couldn't say perhaps had a heart in the past but one that the character had misplaced somewhere along the line. Now, deeply smitten with Dale and unsure of what to do with that, he's breaking into the guy's house, trying to build the domestic life with him he knows he can't really have, especially as Dale's planning to break up the UEB and redistribute its assets. Alby's childlike fumblings toward an understanding of his sexuality have been one of the best things about the season so far, and he's coming off as more human than sociopath, the reverse of which is a problem the show has had before. Now, when he marries his mother off to J.J. (another fairly heartbreaking moment), it seems to come out of something approaching a genuine place.

I've seen complaints that this season of "Big Love" is moving too quickly for its own good, that the fast pace of the series needs a few episodes where it takes a breather, as it had in the first two seasons of the show. Season three was fun because of how ramped up everything was, these arguments state, but nine episodes is really too short a span to tell as many stories as the show seems to want to tell this season. I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I also think that the show is, first and foremost, a primetime soap. It's a show about heightened situations and heightened characters that practically calls out for a certain kind of unreality. The worst thing about this process is that it can create episodes like last week's - where bad stuff bumps up right against good stuff - or the first half of this week's - where virtually everything seems to be occurring through some sort of story shorthand. But the best thing about this approach is that it leads to moments when the tragedy of what's happening seems both unavoidable and somehow completely of the characters' own creation. This gives the series a raw, emotional power I'm not sure it would have were it a more consistent - read, a more safe - series, and it's sections of the show like the entire latter half of "The Mighty and the Strong" that keep me watching and make it one of TV's best dramas.

 

Some other thoughts:

*** Teenie went to camp and came back a different actress, but she also came back weirdly malicious, now spreading all the dirt she has on everyone with reckless abandon.

** One of the things I love about "Big Love" is the way it's not afraid to treat some things - like most of the characters' fairly extreme right wing views - as a fact of life, despite the fact that most of the creative personnel have views very different from those views. There's no need to say, "Obviously, we're better than that," and that keeps the show honest.

*** "They're both consenting adults, and there's no law against crazy." One of many, many great lines in tonight's episode.

*** Clumsy visual metaphor alert: Bill's log cabin almost falling over while the stage for his announcement is being set up, only to have Joey come to help prop it up.

*** Weird visual metaphor alert: Margie wearing an elephant costume.

This week's question for discussion: How much do the wilder, soapier elements of "Big Love" bother you? A lot? Or not at all?