"Sometimes I get so angry at things I can't change. ... The way we grew up." - Nicki Grant
About midway through tonight's episode of "Big Love," Nicki Grant lets out an impassioned exclamation about how the way she and others from her religion were brought up, how it colors everything that they do and makes them unable to see straight sometimes, to free themselves from clearly bad situations. For a series that's mostly about the ways that individuals try to find ways to work themselves into larger communities that are deeply repressive, despite being welcoming to people who just long for a place to be, "Big Love" is always uniquely aware of the ways that you can never escape the secrets of your past, the ways they catch up to you when you're least expecting it and completely blindside you.
[Full recap of Sunday's (Feb. 14) "Big Love" after the break... ]
"Under One Roof" is an immeasurably better episode than last week's, perhaps the best since the season's second, "The Greater Good," which is still one of the best the series has ever pulled off. It's also much slower moving than the other episodes this season, even though it packs in plenty of story. Indeed, if the season had slotted an episode this contemplative in the third or fourth episode slot, perhaps some of the complaints that this season has been a little over-busy (which I share) wouldn't have been able to take root as well as they did.
"Under One Roof" is an episode about remembrance and revelation, about what happens when you recall some essential part of yourself that you've put aside and let get dusty or about what happens when you reveal the truth to someone else. It's probably fitting, then, that in this season, where Bill's dream is to create what is very literally a suburban compound (exemplified by the giant building he reveals to his wives at episode's end, a place where they might live openly together), so much hinges on things that happened long ago coming to light. "Big Love" isn't as good as some other top-flight dramas at things like subtlety or keeping track of all of its characters or blending wildly divergent tones, but there's no show quite like it for letting a plot point fester for episode after episode and then come back and sock you in the jaw, just when you're least expecting it.
One of the bigger problems with the otherwise terrific third season of "Big Love" was that the series spent so much time building up a great story about how a new woman, who wasn't especially called to the Principle by religious reasons, was married into the family, and then just abruptly dropped it. Her name was Ana, and she just disappeared after a few days of being married to Bill. It was one of the missteps of the season, as the show was then immediately on to "Come, Ye Saints" and a kinda stupid plotline about some secret Mormon document that gave the A-OK to plural marriage. Ana's disappearance was a niggling loose thread, especially as the show never made much of the fact that Bill and Ana had sex before they were married, a no-no in the creed of the Principle.
One of the things you have to accept when watching a primetime soap like "Big Love" is that absolutely every loose thread will eventually be tied up. Honestly, it might have been fine had the other wives never learned about Bill and Ana's special time, since that's likely what would have happened in real life, but the series made such a big deal of it at the time that it seemed odd to not have it pop up as season three wound its way to its close. Instead, the series chooses to address it here, as Ana returns to everyone's life, deeply pregnant with a child conceived with Bill before he and she were married.
Seeing Ana try to negotiate this tricky emotional terrain is probably the episode's highlight. Ana's one of the many characters the series has brought in over the years to show just how the Henrickson lifestyle must appear to outsiders. Everyone from Ben and Sarah's friends to Barb's family to the neighbors to Ana to the casino operators has either learned of the Henrickson secret or guessed what's going on (to the point where it sometimes seems like everyone in Utah must suspect what's going on with the Home Plus guy). Ana was, of course, the one who was closest to all of it, obviously attracted to Bill but also obviously a little frightened of the world he'd built for himself. As much as Ana might have found this ready-made family a little seductive, she was also a far stronger, far more independent woman than any of the women Bill married. And that meant she had to run and keep running even when there was something that would tie her to Bill for the rest of her life. (I've seen arguments on the Internet that Ana might have had an abortion, but I don't think that's the case. She seems old enough to me to perhaps see this moment as her one guaranteed shot at having a kid and thus might take her chances with Bill ever seeing the kid and demanding to be part of her life again.)
What's even better about this is the way it affects all of the wives, who long to help out Ana in some way, believing the child to be a part of their family. There's a fantastic scene midway through the episode where Barb, Nicki and Margie discuss just what to do that eventually devolves into Nicki getting angry with Margie for the contents of her Toastmasters speeches - which are all about Margie slowly realizing that deep inside of her is an independent being who's been squelching herself for first her parents and now for Bill. It's a scary notion to Nicki, who tasted some of that last season but chose to give it up in favor of providing a safe home for her daughter and returning to Bill, who is the only person out there who can possibly understand the depths of her psyche's damage. Ana doesn't mind dealing with Bill, whom you can tell she still finds a bit loathsome, but she's put off by these other wives, by their hopes that she will re-enter their lives. [Another highlight: The three wives going to the restaurant where Ana works to try to talk to her, while Bill is already in the room.]
It's Ana's twin revelations that her child was conceived with Bill before the two were married and that she's engaged to a new man that send Barb reeling, off to sign an agreement with Marilyn to make her the lobbyist for the casino, all the better to protect it from meddling evangelical Christians in Idaho. (And the antipathy between evangelicals and Mormons is something the show has dealt with very little, and I'm hopeful the series will return to this well, though hopefully not this season, which is already too crowded by far.) Barb points out to Bill that this happened already with Margie, that it's a pattern that he can pretty much justify whatever he wants via the Principle, and no one can stop him. It's yet another step in the show portraying just how little Bill understands that his essential self is pretty close to Roman Grant, just with a kinder, gentler surface.
"Big Love" is increasingly about people realizing who they truly are and realizing how much being true to themselves is going to cause them to break with the people they care about. One of the most tragic examples of this comes tonight as Alby and Dale finally have a place to be together and on their own, a small apartment that Alby rents. This, of course, leads to his wife learning of his affair with Dale, and things spiral from there, as she tells Bill, Bill confronts Dale, Alby's wife tells Dale's family and Dale kills himself (though the sequence of events at the end is unclear). The season has been building to this, to be sure, since that scene where Dale tried to reassure Alby that they would be rid of the impulses they both so longed to be rid of come their moving on to the afterlife. Dale, cornered and trapped and remembering just how terrible earlier attempts to rid himself of his desire were, takes his own life, rather than admitting he may not be able to change himself, that there is a part of himself that just longs for Alby more than others.
But that's increasingly what this season of "Big Love" is all about: people who are finding themselves in the face of everything in their lives falling apart. This is one of my favorite things about the series. There is no better show on television for exploring just what is alluring about a fundamentalist religion and just what is so ultimately destructive about it. If the early episodes of this season - with their warm, welcoming scenes inside Bill's new church - seemed to be skewing the show too far toward showing just why someone would want to be a part of a group like this, then these latter episodes are a necessary corrective, a reminder that not everything can be taken care of through prayer and fellowship.
Some other thoughts:
There's so much going on in this episode (as with every episode) that I thought I'd just bump a bunch of stuff down here to the bullet points. To wit:
*** The scene of Nicki racing between hotel rooms, barging into each one to see old men with young girls or Wanda with her parents or the like, was truly horrifying, turning that way after a terrifically funny scene where she confronted her mother in some sort of weird idea of what a trampy teenager might wear. (It's Nicki trying to externalize what she thinks her true self might look like. Also, it's hilarious.) This is one of the creepiest scenes the show's ever done, and it largely redeems a go-nowhere J.J. plot for the night.
*** Man, if this is Amanda Seyfried's last season on the show, she's sure not being served terribly well. Her only real moment tonight was talking with Marilyn and her mom about their memories of Republican conventions past.
*** Though, speaking of Marilyn, I think the show's ultimate plan for her is becoming more and more clear. She's not just a wedge between Barb and Bill; she's an example of the ways that women can succeed that Barb and Margie (who are both carefully embarking on business ventures) might not see. She's also a handy character for the show to use to remind us that, yeah, it knows Bill's a douchebag. Sissy Spacek's playing her tremendously well, but I'm hopeful she'll get more to do to justify bringing in an actress of that caliber.
*** I like the way Margie's doubts about the life she's been backed into are playing out this season. I'm hopeful the series will bring them more to the forefront in the final episodes.
*** I didn't mention it last week, but I'm very happy "Big Love" has gotten a fifth season, even if some of the episodes this season haven't hit the mark as successfully as they might have. I am hopeful that the series will announce either season five or season six will be the last. I don't know how much longer this can go on.
Finally, there's Frank, Lois and Ben, who get trapped in yet another bland plotline down Mexico way (though seeing Lois sing her little song about shrimp cocktail was fun). Now, they're in the clutches of the Greenes, and I'm having trouble caring, even though Ben's one of my favorite characters.
*** This week's reminder that Bill's state Senate plan is ridiculously stupid: Does he really think he can admit to being a polygamist who also conceived another child with another man's fiancee out of wedlock and not get laughed out of a Republican primary in the future?
*** This week's reminder that the show knows Bill's state Senate plan is ridiculously stupid: The increased concern from the casino folks over the fact that if Bill comes clean, it will bring immense problems to their casino, possibly casting the entire reservation back into crippling poverty. Good thought, Bill!
*** Do you think Bill's a tea partier? He ousts a sitting Republican who's seen as too conventional and tied to the old machine, he reveres Reagan (though that's true of almost all Republicans), and he's running as an extreme, common sense outsider. I doubt the writers had this in mind when they came up with this arc, but it dovetails nicely.
Discussion point: Assume the series ends with Bill with only one of the wives. Which one do you think is best suited to him and why? (Me, I'm on team Nicki.)