February 21st, 2010
In one word, that’s my reaction to “Blood Atonement.” I’ll save the rest of my words for after the break.
Seriously, though: what the hell was that?
I fully understand that Big Love is a soap opera, and has always been a soap opera, so it is not that I am inherently averse to the show heading in that direction. However, there is a difference between being soap operatic and becoming a soap opera, and there is a difference between embracing the latter in a way which feels aesthetic or purposeful and embracing it in a way which feels pointless and sensational. There is a way to evoke the soap opera without being consumed by it, just as Mad Men engaged with (but was never overtaken by) the heist movies that undoubtedly gave its third season finale their influence. It was Mad Men does Heist Movie, rather than a Heist Movie version of Mad Men; by comparison, “Blood Atonement” was the Telenovela version of Big Love rather than Big Love’s take on the Telenovela.
I’ve spoken out against Juniper Creek and its wackiness in the past, although I don’t think that this episode had to be as painful as it was. I will agree with those who argue that Juniper Creek offers an important window into Bill’s past, and certainly don’t feel that the characters need to disappear entirely, but the show struggled mightily to keep “Blood Atonement” on the right side of the fine line between unbelievable (which is fine) and ridiculous (which is not).
A lot of it goes back to the shortened season order, as the writers got only nine episodes and yet seemingly cut absolutely nothing out of the season. The show has always relied on putting fifteen balls in the air to make the Henricksons’ lives as complicated as possible, but “Blood Atonement” was so bogged down in stories that nothing felt like it had enough time to develop. A bomb was planted at the casino and yet it was more or less brushed off, while Margie decided to create a Green Card marriage despite the fairly substantial legal hurdles required to prove it (that require more than a few photographs). Combine with the over-the-top Hollis and Selma, and the insanity going on south of the border, and you have an episode where a lot happens but none of it has any real impact since it’s all being rushed to inefficiently.
The episode also struggled because it risks turning the entire season into a series of conspiracy theories that have our protagonists as, largely, innocent victims. The casino has been sucked into an elaborate lobbying scheme that has even been tied up with Bill’s political career, Ana and her husband-to-be have basically blackmailed Margie into orchestrating a conspiracy, and Hollis and Selma were established as criminally insane even before the existence of an Ostrich pen. While we can track these various circumstances to decisions that Bill made (like banishing Ben, or sleeping with Ana before getting married), the episode doesn’t bother: instead, Ben is the hostage of the criminally insane and out of control Hollis, the Indian lobbying scheme was a slick Washington ploy, and Goran is just vicious enough to dehumanize Ana’s baby for plot purposes. And while I’m sure the show will build towards that type of culpability, its absence here positioned Bill as heroic rather than reprehensible, which just doesn’t fit my perception (or any logical perception) of his character. While his line to Barb assuring her that he isn’t becoming the man she thinks he is, everything else about this season, stories and events that this episode did not overwrite, contradicts that, and the episode did not spend enough time on this particular reality.
And, while I’ve argued with others about this in the past, there was just no sense of reality in Mexico, much as Juniper Creek has been problematic in the past. First and foremost, the plot holes were wide enough that you could drive a Chevy Astro through them: Frank happening to be smuggling guns; Jodene not getting killed trying to get onto the compound; Bill not getting detected before the party; no one guarding the Ostrich Pen; no one stopping Lois from chopping off Hollis’ arm; no one immediately killing Lois upon the chopping off of Hollis’ arm; Selma actually buying the ridiculous theory that a heavily armed and guarded compound did not have the forces capable of both detaining the intruders and also help Hollis to the hospital; etc. I’m not criticizing this because I felt as if the arm chopping went too far, or that the Ostrich pen was a bit too campy. Rather, I felt that the story lost any sense of danger when the plot holes became too large, and the execution was so terrible in terms of what would logically be possible that any impact it had was pretty well gone.
Perhaps, with another episode, the story could have worked: Ben could have argued that their murders would dampen the mood at Selma’s party, suggesting that they be spared another day so that the day could remain celebratory rather than vengeful; we could have met the guard responsible for the pen, and she and Jodene could have bonded over abusive husbands, and she could have gotten drunk and gone to confront him which would allow Bill to arrive unimpeded (since the party would have them all distracted). I’m fine with this story happening, and Lois can even chop off Hollis’ arm for all I care, but the show needs time to keep these stories balance: this one felt so rushed and so over-the-top that it made everything else in the episode (Adaleen’s miraculous pregnancy, the Green Card Marriage, the Casino) seem even more broad than it would have in an episode that remained more grounded.
But even then, it focused on the Greenes, often the wackiest (if most dangerous) of the polygamists in the series’ stable, without offering any sort of alternative: frankly, the episode was perhaps most problematic in that we never saw Alby’s response to Dale’s suicide. Alby has been by far the most engaging, and most human, thing about Juniper Creek this season, so for him to be absent meant that there really was no sane counterpoint. There was nothing to keep this madness from seeming like a poorly executed trip into the telenovela, nothing to keep the show from feeling like its response to putting too much on its plate was just to let it all pile up and then wipe it away when the time comes.
In last week’s episode of The Tobolowsky Files, a podcast I will likely blog about sometime this week in further detail, actor Stephen Tobolowsky tells a story of a neighbour who was so used to living in decay that they let foot sit out for months, and then cleaned it away once their parents came to visit. And right now, Big Love feels like it has just left all of its food on the table for the entire season, letting the mold grow and the decay set in; and my one concern now is that, as things become big conspiracies and their big dreams seem to be falling apart, the show is getting set to clean that table without truly facing the deeper meaning of that mold. “Blood Atonement” was nothing but mold to me, and I have to wonder (and, as a fan of many of the show’s elements, worry) that they’ve taken it too far to step back from the fine line they risk crossing.
- Nikki was the one part of the episode that I thought worked from start to finish: her troubles conceiving were logical, her reaction to her mother’s story (and its potential for her) was realistic if related to conspiracies, and Sevigny sold her ultimate frustration at being surrounded by babies (and wanting nothing to do with Margene’s scheme).
- Barb is slowly regaining her intelligence at episode’s end, realizing the Scotland connection, but her irrational behaviour with Ana is still a sign that there’s been some sort of lobotomy here.
- Considering that the episode did nothing with Hollis’ attempts to bargain will Bill over Ben’s safety, I wonder if it was even necessary for the Greenes to be the ones who were behind the kidnapping.
- And on that note: Hollis is only going to become more broad once he becomes a one-armed psychopath, isn’t he? Le sigh.