“The Mighty and Strong”
January 31st, 2010
Big Love has always dealt with, by design, the trials and tribulations of Bill Henrickson and his extended family, reaching back into the depths of Juniper Creek and into the three houses that sit side-by-side in a Utah suburb. But over time, we’ve come to meet people who are connected to this extended family in different ways than the “family,” people who are part of this world without necessarily being part of Bill’s drama.
“The Mighty and Strong” certainly doesn’t refer to Bill Henrickson, bully, with its title, nor does it refer to his three wives who are all struggling to come to terms with their current situations. Rather, it seems to refer to the people who are on the periphery, the people who are there for these characters when their worlds start to unravel or who are there to offer a critical gaze on the actions being undertaken. They are, in a sense, what we imagine ourselves to be in this world: someone who will cut through the politics, but through the sensationalism, and just treat these people like human beings rather than pieces in a elaborate puzzle.
And, unfortunately, they’re people that the show’s central characters don’t always appreciate as much as they should.
My favourite scene in this entire episode, which after a bit of a rough start began firing off a number of emotionally devastating glimpses into the consequences of Bill’s actions, is Scott walking into Sarah being interrogated by her parents. Throughout that entire story, as Sarah has a baby dumped into her lap and she finds herself reluctant to give it up, we’re all sitting at home thinking the same thing: considering her miscarriage, this is not a simple act of teenage rebellion or insolence. Bill, especially, was treating Sarah as an obstacle in his campaign, something else that he would have to deal with, and Barb was reaching that point as well (in that Sarah was making her attempts to normalize the casino affairs more difficult), but Scott took one look at the situation and realized that it was about something more. He did everything we would want to do in that situation: shut down Bill’s attempts to force Sarah to act in a certain way (which he expected Scott to simply enforce as if he were an extension of Bill), pull Sarah aside, and have an actual conversation with her. In the process, he proved to be entirely rational, a human being capable of realizing when the life that Sarah is caught up in by association has overrun her.
And in some ways, the same goes for Jodene, who we don’t know very well but finds herself the third wheel on Frank and Lois’ adventure to the Mexican border to smuggle more birds (from Hollis Green, no less) into the states to be sold for profit. Jodene was fine helping Margie with her jewelry business because it was something she enjoyed, but being ridiculed and used as a driver for this illegal (and, in her mind, cruel) venture was something she couldn’t stand. And while it’s a small bit of rebellion, her choice to release the birds into the wild in order to put one over on Frank (and, by extension, Lois) was her saying that she wants nothing to do with it all. And I respect her for that, and it makes the Frank and Lois story far more enjoyable than J.J.’s schemes: while the latter promises to be melodramatic and overwrought, the former offers not only foreshadowing for future troubles but also a commentary on the state of affairs, a sign that not every character in Juniper Creek gets caught up in the madness of it all. When Joey and Wanda were lying in bed, and Wanda spoke of her dream of a yellow house with rocking chairs for their children and grandchildren, it was a reminder that there’s human beings beneath the surface of those stories, which isn’t always apparent (See: J.J.).
But there are some people who aren’t so lucky as Scott and Jodene, people whose convictions are stricken by loyalty to the very people who would abuse them. Adaleen, so fiercely independent and in control as Roman’s first wife, is reduced to being sealed to J.J. so as to not spit in the face of everything she’s believed in, much as her daughter was forced to do the same marrying J.J. in the first place. Don Embry, always a loyal lieutenant to Bill at HomePlus, is forced to out himself as a polygamist for the sake of saving Bill’s political campaign. The episode sees Joey actually be blackmailed by J.J. into taking a larger role in Bill’s campaign, but Don and Adaleen aren’t blackmailed at all: they know precisely what they’re doing and why, and that they’re still going through with it demonstrates the consequences of people like Bill or Alby taking advantage of those around them.
As much as Alby spends the episode trying to chase off his father’s legacy, in some way marrying off Adaleen because it’s something his father would have disproved of, it’s Bill who should be worried. Alby may still be creepy (slimy is also an appropriate adjective), but his speech to Dale about wanting to chart a new path was more sad than terrifying. You sense that there is a human being within Alby, a homosexual man who repressed all of his humanity in an effort to repress that part of him which shamed his father and his religion. And in that he is very different from Roman, whereas the line between Bill and Roman grows more thin each episode. It may have made for a fun “gag,” but it can’t be forgotten that Bill asking Nicki to spy on his opponent’s campaign as a volunteer is quite literally from Roman Grant’s playbook. Bill’s testimonies may be less religious in nature, but the more he follows his convictions the more it seems the people around him are becoming pawns: when Ben becomes a distraction, he decides it is best if he went away – this might be the right decision, but is he making it because it will help both Ben and Margene, or because it will help him?
Speaking of Ben and Margene, I thought those scenes really sold what might have otherwise been a difficult story to tell. Sure, the story had to deal with EvilTeenie (as the combination of new character beats and a new actress seems to be overselling the manipulative side of the character) as an exposition tool, but Ginnifer Goodwin and Douglas Smith nailed the sort of tragedy at stake here (especially Goodwin, who ripped my heart out multiple times over). When Ben points out that he’s grown up, and yet Margene continues to deny everything, it comes across as honest rather than creepy (which it seems to be when I write it out like this); Ben is asking whether a real emotional connection, two people caring for each other, is more important than appearances or the madness that is this family unit. For Margene to say it meant nothing is tragic enough when you consider Ben’s age, but that Ben then lies for her (in the process accepting its lack of meaning) shows a nice bit of pathos for a story that borders on incest. It was nicely folded into the larger story of how Bill is treating the people around him, and places Ben at odds with the family’s stability and thus in an ideal position to head off for a while.
The road for Bill’s run is still bumpy, but the concerns over the store and Coleman’s investigation are more or less over. The question is what was left behind in the process, and by asking that question long before Bill is likely to, the show gets one step ahead of the game and delivers some great dramatic television in the process.
- I enjoy that the scenes with Sarah and the baby started with the baby interrupting sex, which is an abrupt way to show how attached Sarah had become to the baby’s care, and ends with something as serene as that shot of Seyfried singing. It was an interesting trajectory, and Seyfried was great throughout.
- Did you remember that Joey was an NFL quarterback? Me neither, at first: I remembered after a few seconds, though, honest.
- Frank has long lost any chance of being an actual father to Bill, but it was an extension of the above theme that Frank showed up at the rally just as Bill is singling out his mother for guiding him to where he is today – he deserved it, sure, but there’s one more person that Bill is cutting out of his life for the sake of his campaign (not to mention Sarah, who doesn’t get to be on the podium with the other kids for what reason precisely?).