Big Love – “Strange Bedfellows”

“Strange Bedfellows”

January 24th, 2010

When a show gets into its fourth season, and when that show has in some ways come to the end of its initial storyline, they begin to branch off into new directions that producers will sell as exciting or intriguing and which are…often not.

The problem I think Big Love is running into is that they have chosen to expand its world as opposed to (for the most part) exploring nuances within that world. While the third season was perhaps the most successful yet in terms of turning its attention onto the family and their interactions with one another, this season has that family more scattered than ever before; while it’s opening up new story opportunities that have their moments, it feels as if the show is splintering in a way which doesn’t feel like a metaphor for the family falling apart or anything similar.

Instead, it feels like a show that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and that is just going with the flow when it should be stopping and considering an alternate route in a few instances. However, with only nine episodes in the season (yes, we’re a third of the way there), they seem reluctant to reconsider, and “Strange Bedfellows” reflects that tension.

I think the idea that Bill is running for State Senator is a bit too big for the show, but I feel like the show is using that to its advantage as opposed to necessarily trying to make any commentary on the state of our political system. Bill’s time in Washington showed him to be as much of an outcast as you would expect him to be, and watching him navigate highly politicized waters in an effort to win a Congressman’s endorsement showed Bill at his most vulnerable. The show was also smart to introduce Sissy Spacek’s Marilyn Densham in a way that clearly labels her an opportunist who intends on using Bill to her advantage, as it keeps the visit from becoming a total mystery and gives a “face” to the complications of running for political office that isn’t just a blatant, anti-Polygamy antagonist. While I think the series is moving a bit too far away from the Polygamist reality of this family, the show has spent enough time on outside pressure that providing someone different to complicate his political run, and someone who is as enjoyable an actress as Spacek, is a smart move.

And I thought that Nicki continued to be the most compelling wife, primarily because her drama has managed to overcome the presence of the overly villanous J.J. (as much as I love Zjelko Ivanek) and felt like something deeply personal. Her struggles with Bill are the most pressing “concern” on the series in many ways, but she is far more concerned with her daughter, Cara Lynn, and the wonderful irony of the person on the show who has struggled the most with assimilation trying to force her daughter to ignore her own mistakes. Watching as Nicki tries to force her to assimilate as quickly as possible so as to “unbrainwash her” is really quite intriguing, and by the time they have their blowout in the Hotel lobby you realize that Cara Lynn is never going to be able to get past that initial abandonment, and that whatever relationship they might have is going to forever be defined by that moment just as Nicki’s life has forever been defined by Juniper Creek. Cara Lynn is just at the right age, and in the right environment, to call her mother out on past mistakes, something that Nicki never got to do, and while the situations aren’t analogous I think there’s been some really great and compelling material to be had here and the show nicely isolated it within the Washington D.C. side of things.

However, things back in Utah weren’t quite so consistent. Barb and Sarah’s story was problematic for two key reasons. One is that the show is making Barb out to be about fifty percent less intelligent than she was previously, as that sensitivity training was actually offensive (as opposed to potentially being viewed as offensive) in terms of her demeanor towards the employees. From what we’ve seen, Barb is actually being overly controlling and rigid in her behaviour, and since I doubt Jeanne Tripplehorn is not delivering what’s asked of her I consider this a problem of conception. With Margie and Nicki in other stories and Bill running for Office, Barb sort of got the casino by default, and as a result she has become the writers’ conduit for telling stories about the true reality of Native Americans in the twenty-first century; they want to go from the compound to the reservation, in a way, and while that’s not a terrible idea on paper it’s causing them to make some character shortcuts with Barb and creating a storyline that lacks any real stakes.

Having Barb and Sarah run into a young Native girl with a meth habit and a young baby, and having Sarah take that woman into her care in an effort to “save” her does solve how Sarah is going to factor into this year’s stories, but it also feels like one enormous cliché. While the show is interested in Native culture, and sees it as a logical bit of horizontal integration in terms of the show’s major themes, I don’t even know the young girl’s name, and she feels like a stand-in for drug problems and teen pregnancy as opposed to an actual character. Say what you will about Rhonda, who nearly drove me crazy at points and convinced me that Daveigh Chase went through some sort of satanic ritual after voicing Lilo, but the character felt like she came from someplace unique and specific within her community. This girl has none of that, and to me there are more important stories within the family itself, and within each individual characters’ decisions, which feel more organic than this particular tangent.

The other two major stories in the episode are heading in that direction, but both have been given a sort of melodramatic flair that I don’t entirely know I’m keen with. I’m nearing the end of Deadwood’s second season right now, and the subtlety in terms of how the show builds to its dramatic moments, and how it manages to achieve constant tension without constantly drawing attention to that tension, are both qualities that demonstrate how different Big Love’s approach is. With Alby and his new boyfriend of sorts, the story is an investigation into an ongoing character, as we’ve gone further than ever before into his repressed homosexuality. However, the show has littered the story with mines, whether it be Dale’s position as the UEB trustee (which makes the story more feasible, logistically speaking) or Alby being trapped between his sexual instincts and his “evil mastermind” ones as he twists his moustache in the form of a cell phone photo he may or may not use. I think the story is suffering from the nine episode order, as things are rushing so fast that we’re entering into Alby’s mind (and his visions of Roman) too quickly for it to avoid feeling like a story filled with potential red flags. The show’s early scenes dealing with Alby’s repression (the altercation with Kevin Alejandro, the scene in the Police Station where he couldn’t stop staring at butts) were really intriguing, but the show is going too fast for that same sense of nuance to go beyond that initially park altercation (which was itself a bit comical considering the binoculars and all.

As for Margene and Ben finally having some form of intimacy in the form of a pre-show kiss as Margie prepares to go on during primetime, I think it’s an instance where the show needn’t have “gone for the kill” if you will. The show sat on the story for a long time, only occasionally dropping hints in seasons one and two, before it emerged in earnest as part of the clusterf*ck that was “Come, Ye Saints” in season three. It was largely tabled after that episode as well, but it returns here as Ben is the only person who’s willing to change his plans to be at the studio for his big event, and Margie responds with a fairly expressive kiss that catches the eye of her boss. That moment, in itself, worked quite well: Margie is vulnerable and getting no support from her sister wives or her husband (who’s got bigger fish to fry), and while she likes to see this as her own independent venture the truth is that she still needs their support in moments like this. And so, Ben was there, and she showed her appreciation in a way that has always been there under the surface, especially after Ben had defended her honour against J.J.’s invasion earlier in the episode.

My issue is that the show feels the need to go so far as to have Margie’s boss try to turn Ben’s presence into an on-screen event, and pan over to “Mr. Heffman” standing staring awkwardly into the camera. I’m not sure what that gives us: you know that Margie will tell Barb that it was a simple misunderstanding (there was a hug, and her boss made a presumption), so it’s not as if there’s any chance that their indiscretion would actually be revealed. Instead, it’s a cliffhanger that didn’t need to exist, and you could have just as easily gone out on the boss making a quip about younger lovers or something similar, with Margie looking particularly guilty. Bringing Barb into it creates melodrama on top of melodrama, and because we’re only three episodes into the season you know there’s no chance that it will actually be blowing up next week.

It just seems like the show only bothers to bring characters of the family together right now when it wants to create drama, which is giving the show a real sense of disconnect. While there is nothing here that is particularly bad, the stories feel rushed and in some instances tangential to where the show’s real interests should be. While the world is getting larger as Bill runs for State senate and the casino opens, the stories are actually feeling smaller than ever, enclosed not in terms of withdrawing amidst the chaos of a life of polygamy but in terms of characters being isolated from one another in a way that damages the show’s dynamics. I don’t care how strange the bedfellows are, but I want the show to get a bigger bed and use the “family” as a whole more often.

Cultural Observations

  • Your eyes were not fooling you, and Teeny did come back from camp as an entirely different person…literally, as the role was recast. Bella Thorne didn’t really get a chance to, you know, act, but she apparently is more available and can be more present, which is always good (Teeny all but disappeared last year).
  • Todd pointed out a weird fact that Douglas Smith, who gets a pretty huge story as Ben this episode, is actually no longer a regular on the series. This seems unfathomable to me, but I presume it is an economic decision. Either way, it continues the sense that the show is spread too thin, forced to have characters “skip” weeks to cram it all in.
  • The Juniper Creek stuff was a bit strange this week: not entirely sure why we are spending so much time with Jodene, or why she was helping Margene, and I thought the Wanda/J.J./Joey storyline is at this point a bit too all over the place for me to really deal with. Wanda can be a fun influence on other character, but when she’s the stable one compared to Joey and when she’s playing terrified sister to J.J., it just doesn’t work for me.
  • As for J.J., I’m not sure what the character in particular adds outside of providing a more menacing face to Juniper Creek. The stuff about the annexation of the compound and all that is sitting on the sidelines, but right now Ivanek is simply making Juniper Creek more terrifying in a way that feels a bit less cartoonish, which is helpful but only when paired with a story that seems like it matches up with that, which is to this point absent.
  • Speaking of cartoonish, I hope Nicki stiffed the caricaturist who did Cara Lynn’s picture for editorializing: the giant hair was hysterical, but the fact that he didn’t even get her to smile or fake a smile on the image made it such a wonderfully spot-on depiction of her character that it makes him the world’s worst caricaturist.
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2 Comments

Filed under Big Love

2 responses to “Big Love – “Strange Bedfellows”

  1. Kemmellie

    This is a really interesting, well-written critique of last night’s episode of Big Love, “Strange Bedfellows,” though I find some of it be a bit premature. Some of your questions and observations regarding the plot lines of J.J., Jodene, and the casino will most likely be answered over the course of the entire 9 episode season. Big Love generally introduces a lot of plot and characters towards the beginning of the season, without telling us the why upfront, and it’s never felt disjointed by the end. It seems like your confusion and basic criticism of the show’s main characters moving away from each other and the polygamist household is answered within the context of the entire season’s arc and knowing some general directions that Big Love is moving in.

    For one, the shows creators, Will Scheffer and Martin Olsen, have said that this season’s senate campaign is the first storyline that will run through its entire arc in one season. The new beginning has been met with a lot of controversy in the fan world, but what most fans can agree upon is that it sets the tonal shift of the show for the season and serves as a visual metaphor for how each character is falling this season. It is moving away from the closeness of the family because the creators want to show what happens when each wife finds herself growing in new directions that take her away from her sister-wives. Margene with her new success finally coming into herself as an adult, Nicki dealing with her past and reassessing why she’s in her marriage to begin with after experiencing real attraction (dare I say even love?) for the first time, and Barb pouring everything into the casino, yes by default, but also because she’s so ungrounded after being cast out into outer darkness by being excommunicated.

    I think, given the psychology of her character being controlling to begin with, it makes a great deal of sense that when she feels like she’s lost everything – her family for the rest of eternity, her ancestors that had been in LDS for six generations, her daughter who consistently has been rejecting her and moving away from the family in the past year, and Nicki’s betrayals – she’ll act overly controlling and make a big deal about crab legs (something she can control) and sensitivity training. I don’t think it’s matter of her losing brain cells or the writers taking shortcuts with her character. The casino is supposed to be (as Jeanne Tripplehorn has said) Barb’s “new church,” and we also know that she and Adam Beach’s character, Tommy, have an affair by the end of the season. Talk about moving away from the family instead of towards it! I’m glad that the writers are focusing on all four of these characters as individuals this season, rather than as a family unit. To me, that doesn’t seem like cutting corners in terms of character development. All four cast members have said their characters are all being selfish this season, and doing what you want in a marriage will definitely promote feelings of disconnectedness.

    I agree with you that Barb’s behavior in the sensitivity training was offensive, but I believe it was supposed to be. Just because Barb is an intelligent woman who’s taken a sociology class doesn’t mean she’ll necessarily know how to react to American Indians in the casino or be culturally sensitive. She is still a white Mormon woman, and she acted in a way that seemed natural to me, though highly offensive. Her one redeeming moment in that entire scene was her polite (non)reaction to being called out for being a “white bitch.” Also her later acknowledgment that what Tommy said in his office is true; she’s been living in a “casino bubble.”

    As for J.J., Joey, and Wanda, spoilers have told us that J.J. and Wanda are the products of incest, which was hinted at in the second episode of this season when Margie discovers that J.J. has no fingernails. It seems like that’s the direction for their storyline, and I’m interested in seeing how the show pulls all of these plot lines and subplots together because Big Love always does. I’ve never left a season feeling as if Big Love didn’t explain something that needed explanation. We have six more action-packed episodes to look forward to, and in the promos for next week’s episode, it shows that Margene does in fact tell Barb that she kissed Ben on the lips, so that storyline is coming to a dramatic head. I’m also a fan of Deadwood, but I find Big Love’s approach to drama and storytelling just as compelling as the subtlety of that show, if not more so, because it does make the connections it promises. It may stretch some storylines out for four years, but that just makes it more realistic. We run into people from our past (such as Ana coming back for an episode this season), we don’t always address all our issues all at once but drag them out for four to six years and return to them in our own lives. It’s refreshing to see a show that isn’t afraid to do so too. That makes you watch it to get the answers you’re looking for, and that doesn’t always give you the hints in dialogue, but in something as simple as the look on a character’s face.

  2. Just wanted to add the name of the meth addict Sarah and Barb hit is Leila Stillwater. This season is a bit scattered, and I thought it was interesting how Sarah and Barb are now getting along more, especially given the tensions they had before the wedding.

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