Big Love – “The Greater Good”

“The Greater Good”

January 17th, 2010

While there are a number of ideas on Big Love relating to the Principle that I’ve started to wrap my head around, the idea of a testimony has always felt problematically unreachable. This is, of course logical: as Don tells Bills, a testimony is only true if you feel it in your soul, and since we can’t possibly relate with Bill’s situation nor attempt to discern what his soul feels, we’re left (for lack of a better term) taking his word for it. And when the real heart of the show lies in its wives, all of whom lead more complex emotional lives that depend less on divine intervention, there are times when Bill’s faith-led decision making feels convenient rather than meaningful, contrived rather than spiritual.

At the end of the day, I think I believe Bill’s testimony in “The Greater Good” more than perhaps some of his past decisions, although I’m not entirely sure why. I don’t think it’s that I fully understand testimonies, but rather that the rest of the episode demonstrates the importance of conviction within the Henrickson household. And even if I don’t entirely understand why Bill makes the decision he does considering the wide range of potential conflicts, I fully understand why he would desire to prove his convictions, and why Nicki is struggling mightily to do the same in the wake of her own crisis of faith.

And regardless of whether I believe Bill or not, it was part of a really solid episode of the show.

I’m relieved to hear that Margie hasn’t been hiding the truth about her business from Bill, and that instead she just has been keeping the secret of how much she’s been making: it wasn’t made clear last week, which is just another part of that episode that felt rushed or unfinished. By comparison, this week was a lot smoother, as Margie’s revelation regarding her finances was a nice, subtle tie-in to Bill’s central problem. Margie believes strongly in her own conviction, and she resists placing her money into the collective pot without first considering the potential for her business beyond the simple family dynamic. It’s a simple statement of independence, but it’s one she feels she needs to make in order to build on her current success and make a name for herself.

And after getting largely left out of the premiere, Sarah comes back into our narrative in a big way with a different story about convictions. While Barb argues that marriage should be something celestial, and Scott argues that it is simply a piece of paper that allows them to be together (you could read his insistence as a desire to finally have sex with her again, but if I were in his shoes I’d want to avoid the Henrickson clan mucking things up too), but for Sarah it’s an opportunity to prove her independence. It is a way for her to reconnect with Heather, who hasn’t spoken to her since learning she wouldn’t be going to University with her, and a chance for her to finally free herself from her family. As she notes later in the episode, she has always felt that she was forced into this life (as the oldest child at the time of Bill’s decision to follow the principle), and this is finally her chance to show her conviction.

Amanda Seyfried is departing the show at the end of this season, and while I’ll be sad to see her go after performances like this one I think she’s reached the point where she can gracefully exit the series. What Sarah realizes as she tries to break ties with her family is that it isn’t as satisfying as she believed it would be: she knew she needed to have her own convictions, to make her own choices about her wedding, but yet she didn’t expect it to be something that would cause her mother so much pain, and facing her right before the ceremony breaks all of her resolve. Suddenly, her convictions are hurting the people she loves, and while she is no more interested in being married by her father or having a Church ceremony, she does recognize that your convictions need to reflect the people you love and what you truly want to experience. And so she and Scott are married in the Henrickson backyard, with Sarah wearing her mother’s dress if not quite accepting the celestial beliefs that Barb may have wanted for her. It’s about compromise and reconciling your own beliefs with those you love, and that’s a strong note for the character heading into her marriage.

Of course, the most emotional person at the wedding in question was Nicki, and on the same night she won a Golden Globe for her performance in the show’s third season Chloe Sevigny continues to shine in this role. While Bill’s testimonies have always felt sudden, Nicki’s current crisis of faith has been gestating for a very long time, and it’s coming just as her father has died and she’s forced to come to terms with a hole in her life. In some ways, she never truly committed to Bill and her marriage, always to some degree resisting attempts to assimilate. And when she did eventually assimilate by getting a job, not only was it an effort to exonerate her father (who we now know married her at an extremely young age with little care given to her anxieties) but she also began to have legitimate feelings for the District Attorney. Nicki is still waiting for her testimony, something to give her guidance on how she’s supposed to live her life while caring for the daughter she never knew, mourning a father she never truly loved, and balancing it all with two families (her mother, her sister wives) who feel her slipping away from them. Toss in J.J.’s creepiness, both in terms of his behaviour towards Nicki and his gift of a photo of Roman, and you have a character who is finally trying to escape the life she once led in order to clear her head and yet is so wrapped up in it all that she can’t get a moment to think until the wedding, where all of her emotion pours out of her. I know Sevigny just won the Golden Globe, but if she submits in Supporting I think she’s got a legitimate shot of a win with an episode like this one.

As far as Bill and his political aspirations go, I’d tend to agree with Sarah that it’s a bit insane on paper, but in reality it makes just enough sense for me to buy it. No one other than Bill, who has legitimate family ties to the Compound but has made a name for himself independent of the compound, could speak out in a political fashion on behalf of polygamists (if not polygamy itself, per se). So when it appears as if Bill is planning on playing a ruse, reconnecting with the Mormon faith and lying in order to get the seat, the show seems to be in a fairly believable place, if one that could lead to more drama that I’d like to see in terms of the show’s plot. However, I’m not entirely sure how his sudden conviction at episode’s end to reveal himself as a polygamist is going to work in this situation: is the plan still to lie about it in the short term, or is he going to run as a polygamist, taking the misdemeanour charge and then crusading on? It’s not entirely clear, and both options have some problematic dramatic conclusions, but I’ll accept Bill’s logic: Joey and Nicki’s belief that he should serve as the prophet is not something the show could ever handle, but his conscience requires he stand up for the Principle in some way and politics does offer the best potential avenue for that. My one hope is that the show doesn’t fall so far into his political campaign that it overruns the show: here it was a nice look into how Bill reconciles his faith and his family (and his family’s legacy with his current family), but if it becomes too overtly political it could weigh the show down in the future.

But this was just a really tight hour, emotional and character driven like the show at its best – hopeful for more of this in the future.

Cultural Observations

  • It’s amazing how different the show’s tone is when we have J.J. (Zjelko Ivanek doing some fine work creeping us out) as opposed to Frank representing the male face of Juniper Creek. While Roman may be dead, J.J. is a nice replacement for the show’s purposes, and it’s not surprising Ivanek is up to the challenge. I’m a bit wary of J.J. holding the truth about Roman’s death over Wanda, but I’ll see where that goes before judging.
  • They’re going somewhere with Alby and Dale, and I’ll be interested to see where that is. I think that allowing Alby something humanize him is important if he is to actually take over as prophet, and while his stalking/forcefulness with Dale is perhaps not doing him any favours it does indicate how conflicted he lies in the face of potentially being named Prophet, and it’s interesting how both Nicki and Alby are forced to confront their true feelings in the wake of their father’s death.
  • Like the scene with Adaleen confronting Nicki about attending the funeral, mainly because Nicki lied: she hates the fact that Roman is her father, not that he was the prophet, but can’t say it to her mother’s face. It’s the same as wanting Bill to be Prophet so she can believe that something close to love brought them together, as opposed to believing she was just her father’s pawn and her marriage is a sham as a result (hence why Sarah’s marriage affected her so).
  • Great to have Aaron Paul and Tina Majorino back. Look forward to more from them, plus I’ll be spending time with Paul when I catch up on Breaking Bad over the next couple of months.
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