Was Sunday's series finale for HBO's Big Love about the triumph of strong women over a misguided man?
Don't read this post if you haven't yet watched the series finale of HBO's Big Love, which aired Sunday night. Because there's one heck of a big honking spoiler coming not long into this entry.
But sitting through the show's final episode, wrapping five years of the most frustrating show I've ever had the misfortune to keep getting drawn back into, I was reminded of why Big Love remains such a maddening, addictive ride.
At times, I felt they should have retitled the show Job, for all the excruciating circumstances they put Bill Paxton's upright hero Bill Henrickson and his cadre of three wives through every season. From the mad scramble to keep his polygamy secret, to their failed partnership in an Indian casino, his struggles with the cultish compound where he grew up, his batshit crazy parents, his even more crazy (and ultimately homicidal) closeted gay compound leading brother-in-law, and the wacked out decision to go public with his multiple marriages after winning a seat in Utah's state senate.
And then, the show's creators put a cap on all that torture by having their principled, put-upon, tilting at windmills hero get shot to death by a crazed neighbor over an act of kindness misunderstood as an insult. That, in a violent nutshell, was always Bill Henrickson's problem -- he kept doing things for one reason, only to see the world take it another way.
When Big Love first premiered, the show's producers claimed it was designed as a fair look at a family based on polygamy. But over the years, that intent seems to have faded as the need for drama rose. Instead, Big Love became a sprawling tapestry to explore all the issues anyone might imagine would surface in a marriage between a man and three wives, from the hypocrisy of the male-centered system, to the roots of such relationships in Utah's twisted world of religious compounds and insanely messianic spiritual leaders.
Henrickson always saw himself as a modern, more principled descendant from those bizarre beginnings. But it was a telling truth that his three wives were only able to truly pursue what they found fulfilling after their husband was shot dead. After he was gone, Ginnifer Goodwin's Margene went on the missionary trips she always envisioned, Jeanne Tripplehorn's Barb became the minister she dreamed of and Chloe Sevigny's unstable Nicki grew into the family's connected, nurturing mother.
They may sell this finale as a triumph of the family. But what it mostly feels like is the triumph of these three women over a paternalistic system which kept them from their dreams for five long years. In the wake of this bittersweet ending, the show's run plays like the struggle of three strong women to stay true to the man they love while also staying true to themselves -- a task which couldn't be accomplished until he became a fond memory.
Most other subplots have felt like minor constellations in this galaxy. Even the end of Herickson's brother-in-law and the Juniper Creek compound felt mostly like an afterthought (that storyline was never really the same after Harry Dean Stanton's character was killed off seasons ago). I stopped watching the show many times over its run, frustrated by the long procession of harebrained ideas Henrickson pulled his family into and numbed by their hypocritical responses.
Much as this family talked of togetherness and spirituality, they lied to each other relentlessly and seemed to turn on one another at the worst times -- led by Sevigny's Nicki, a bitter pill whose capacity for attacking those closest to her always seemed at odds with the open spirit of the other wives and Henrickson himself. Too many times to count, I'd wonder: What does he see in this nutcase? With few answers offered by producers.
Still, the characters were often compelling and the situations dramatic. I loved seeing old showbiz hands such as Bruce Dern, Mary Kay Place, Harry Dean Stanton and Ellen Burstyn in key roles. Red Riding Hood's Amanda Seyfried and Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul even returned Sunday to remind us where they started -- playing characters whose willful union against Henrickson's initial wishes shows again how wrong the household's head could be.
In the end, Big Love seems to conclude as the long, frustrating story of an earnest, bull-headed guy constantly trying to do right, only to discover that most of his moves were wrong. When you put it that way, it's kind of amazing they made it to five seasons at all.