Nothing But Memory

God Only Knows

Big Love, a show I’ve watched and enjoyed on HBO for five seasons, aired its final episode on Sunday night. I can’t say that Big Love is one of my favourite shows, but I’ve always found it entertaining. The best thing about it for me is the huge number of non-stereotypical female characters it presents. Bill Henrickson’s three wives — Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) — are the three main women on the show, and the most fully-developed. But plenty of other intriguing women have shared the stage with them, notably: Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), Bill and Barb’s teenaged daughter; Bill’s mother Lois (Grace Zabriskie) and Nicki’s mother Adaleen (Mary Kay Place), both of whom were brought up at the polygamist compound, Juniper Creek; other compound-raised women including problem child Rhonda, Nicki’s daughter Cara Lynn, Bill’s unstable sister-in-law Wanda, twins Kathy and Jodeen, the androgynous Selma Greene, and Alby’s wife Laura; and regular Mormon women like Barb’s mother (played by Ellen Burstyn!) and sister, Sarah’s friend Heather,  and the Henricksons’ neighbour Pam. Basically, Big Love was overrun with female characters, most of whom didn’t quite fit into any of the normal roles for women on TV.

The show placed all these women in a highly repressive, male-dominated society, and yet they were the ones who shone; they were, at least in my opinion, generally far more likeable (with a few notable exceptions *cough* Rhonda *cough*) and almost always much more intriguing than their male counterparts. Series creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer said in an interview for TVLine that it was always their intention to make the show about the women:

Scheffer: The show has always been a feminist show, which I think people didn’t always understand. And some people were put off by the fact that these women were quote-unquote under the thumb of a patriarchal jerk. But it’s always been a show about the bonds between women, about the way that women subvert power when they’re in [oppressive] situations.

I thought last night’s finale, entitled “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” did an excellent job of bringing this fact home. In the process, it made a few very interesting statements about its lead male character, Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton), and his role in the world and his family. It was a solid finale: less spectacular than many shows’ final episodes (for me, Angel and Six Feet Under are the standard bearers for TV endings), but satisfying nonetheless. I felt the writers succeeded at wrapping up most of the many ongoing story arcs — which is pretty impressive, because after the penultimate episode I couldn’t imagine how they’d possibly tie up the seemingly endless different plot threads in just one episode — and left viewers with some ideas to ponder. The more I think about “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” the more I like it.

For a few of my thoughts on the episode, follow the jump.

The Priesthood-Holder. If I’d been Barb, sitting in the Utah State Senate chamber listening to Bill wax poetic about how progressive Utah’s Mormons were when they granted women the right to vote in 1870, well before the rest of the United States followed suit, I’d have wanted to punch him in the face. It was deeply ironic to hear this man going on about women’s rights when he’d been so unwilling even to consider the possibility of giving his wife a major role in the church he’d created. Even worse, earlier in the episode he’d criticized Barb for being unable to find a place for herself in this church, which he claimed he’d created for her, although obviously without attempting to take her needs into account. I don’t necessarily think Bill was a bad person, but he certainly had many moments where he seemed unable to see the forest for the trees, so to speak, and this was a major one.

[Aside: this Utah history website gives some enlightening context about why the state’s women were granted the vote:

In sharp contrast to the long fight for women’s suffrage nationally, the vote came to Utah women in 1870 without any effort on their part. It had been promoted by a group of men who had left the Mormon church, the Godbeites, in their Utah Magazine, but to no immediate effect. At the same time, an unsuccessful effort to gain the vote for women in Utah territory had been launched in the East by antipolygamy forces; they were convinced that Utah women would vote to end plural marriage if given the chance. Brigham Young and others realized that giving Utah women the vote would not mean the end of polygamy, but it could change the predominant national image of Utah women as downtrodden and oppressed and could help to stem a tide of antipolygamy legislation by Congress.

Bill, of course, framed his attempt to legalize polygamy as a bid to ensure women’s rights; that is, to prevent the kind of abuses taking place at compounds like Juniper Creek from taking place — an argument that has been made in reality very recently.]

Too Late for Bill. In the end, Bill appeared to see the error of his ways. During his church service on Easter Sunday, he experienced a vision of his Mormon forefathers — and foremothers, including Emma Smith, wife of the original Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith. Bill had also seen a vision of Emma Smith a few episodes earlier. Mark Olsen’s explanation of these two visions as told to TVLine in the interview linked above is thought-provoking: essentially, he says the visions of Emma represent epiphanies for Bill regarding the harmful nature of the patriarchal society he’s been brought up in, which destroyed his mother Lois’ health, and is now stifling Barb to the point that she seeks baptism in a new church. This “testimony” (to use the show’s terminology), Olsen says, represents “a profound and deep change” for Bill. Unfortunately, Bill doesn’t get the time to act on his new enlightenment (although it seems reasonable to assume whatever he was writing as he sat in the backyard had something to do with it). But he is at least able to convey some of his feelings to Barb by asking her for a blessing as he lies dying on the sidewalk at the end of the episode: this is not a mere moment of deathbed desperation for him, but rather the expression of a true spiritual awakening.

But Not Too Late for the Wives. In the epilogue that takes place 11 months after Bill’s death, we see the rest of the Henrickson family still living together and seemingly doing very well. Barb has taken her lead role in the new church, Nicki is able to express her emotions in a way she never could before, and Marge has been given the freedom to pursue her international charitable work. They all seem relatively content, and a family that nearly fractured when Bill was alive has survived his passing intact.

Could the women have achieved this level of apparent fulfillment and unity with Bill still in the picture? Possibly, but I think it’s doubtful. And the ultimate message of Big Love, to me, is that a patriarchal structure is a patriarchal structure is a patriarchal structure. Sure, Bill wasn’t as bad as Alby. But ultimately, as long as he was in charge, no matter how comparatively liberated his idea of polygamy might have been, these three women would always be under his thumb and unfulfilled. It’s only through his death, and with it the death of the male domination in the Henrickson family, that they become free to be fully themselves.

A Martyr for … My Lawn? While the Pam-and-Carl-having-trouble subplot had been referred to several times throughout the season, Carl’s rage at Bill still seemed to come out of left field. I do think it makes sense, though, that Carl would feel this anger towards his more successful neighbour (see Gina Bellafante’s New York Times article on the finale for a good take on Carl). This randomness was what I liked most about the manner of Bill’s death: far from dying heroically as a martyr for his cause, he meets his end because of a completely unrelated matter. Bill would probably describe himself as a very principled man who always stood up for what he believed in, and this may be true. On the other hand, I would say he was an arrogant, self-aggrandizing man who tended to equate his family with the principle of polygamy, making the erroneous assumption that what was good for the principle must also be good for the family — which was seldom the case. At the risk of being too hard on Bill, I bet he envisioned himself dying gloriously in defence of the principle, probably going down in a hail of bullets fired either by his enemies from the compounds or his foes from the mainstream LDS Church. Having him shot down by a neighbour over a re-sodded lawn seems like an appropriate comeuppance for his megalomaniac tendencies. You are just a man after all, Bill Henrickson.

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