As Big Love begins its final season (Sunday on HBO) we can see the influence of this series about a polygamist and his three wives all over the culture. In recent months alone we’ve had Brady Udall’s rich, grabbing literary novel The Lonely Polygamist and the reality series Sister Wives on TLC. The pattern is clear: not mainstream Mormons, but breakaway polygamists, feeding our voyeuristic interest in multiple marriage.
This fascination points back to the trickiest part of Big Love: Bill Henrickson, Bill Paxton’s character, isn’t a villain. He deeply believes that polygamy is part of his path to God. He may be deluding himself at times; he must have done some strenuous mental somersaults to convince himself that taking his third, very young, decidedly non-religious wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) was part of God’s plan, but essentially he’s not a bad guy. And he’s a fiction. Even a glimpse at Sister Wives gives you the icky feeling that the real-life polygamist just enjoys getting away with having four women devoted to him.
This season Big Love addresses head-on the voyeurism and sexism that has always been at the series’ center, and the drama becomes richer than ever. At the end of last season, Bill was elected to the Utah state senate and came out as a polygamist. The new episodes deal with the fallout and, even better, with major changes in the wives’ characters.
Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), the middle wife, is as manipulative as ever, but she has given up her braid and prairie skirts, and is dedicated to helping her adolescent daughter move into the modern world in the way she didn’t: as an educated woman able to choose her own future. Discontented Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the original wife, drinks wine, scandalizing the rest of the family. And by episode three, Margene drops a bombshell about her past. All this coincides with Bill’s plan — here’s his virtuous side — to reform the fundamentalist compound where he and Nicki grew up, the kind of place where young girls are forced to marry old men.
Last season was criticized for its over-the-top touches: kidnappings, a severed arm, Nicki’s mad scientist ex-husband. I enjoyed that as the series mined its built-in melodrama. This season’s emotional and social realism is far more resonant, though.
Nicki tells her daughter about her crazed, now-dead former husband, “Your father tried to play God.” Of course Bill is doing the same thing without the Frankenstein medical experiments. He’s playing God in the family, and as his wives begin to question his role, Big Love heads toward what promises to be an explosive last season.