Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Big Love for Big Love

I’ve never been good with goodbyes, with friends, with family… with television shows.  I always get emotional when shows come to an end.   I think it started when Growing Pains went off the air in 1992.  It seems silly now, but when Carol turned around and said goodbye to their empty house, I cried.  I had been watching the show for seven years, since I was only six years old.  I guess the Seavers were my first “TV family,” and it made me sad that I wouldn’t be spending my Tuesday evenings with them anymore. 

The following year, when Sam Malone closed up the bar for the last time on Cheers, I cried again.  I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t watch Cheers.  Going back and watching reruns now, I realize that there were so many jokes that were over my head, but I always thought the characters were so funny and I liked seeing my parents laugh together. 
The same year that Cheers left the air after its eleven year run, another younger series aired its finale—The Wonder Years.  I remember the final five minutes or so turning me into a slobbering mess.  To this day, I can’t watch the finale without getting chills down my arms and a catch in my throat, especially when Kevin reveals the individual futures of his family and when we hear his own son asking him to play catch (clip below--prepare to cry if you were a WY fan)

The crying trend has continued over the years as I’ve grown to love and then been forced to say goodbye to my favorite casts:  as Buffy and her friends flee a crumbling Sunnydale, as Ally says goodbye to her friends at Cage and Fish (including Billy’s ghost),   Hell, I even shed a few tears during the last episode of Oz.  OZ!!!  

At this point, I know some of you think I’m a little nuts, possibly contemplating my mental health at becoming so attached to television shows.  It’s not that I’m semi-delusional or that I live in some fantasy world.  See, when I write a story, I tend to form an attachment to my characters.  As I breathe life into them on the page and give each his or her own personality and flaws, they become very real to me.  Similarly, I often get emotionally involved with television characters that are very well formed and well written, which explains at least in part why my favorite shows tend to have very strong ensembles. 
Sunday night, I tearfully said farewell to another show and another group of people.  After five seasons, Big Love aired its series finale.  For those of you unfamiliar with Big Love, it’s a show about family, faith and, yes, polygamy.  I can’t even begin to catch you up if you’ve never watched, but the main focus of the show is Bill Henrickson and his family, which includes his three wives and eight children.  From the beginning, Big Love has never—in my opinion—been advocating polygamy as much as using it as a vehicle to make a more important statement about the ties that bind a family. 
Big Love has not always seemed to know exactly what it wished to be.  It walks the line of drama, but often finds itself teetering off into melodrama or even soap opera.  In an hour’s time, it can be humorous, depressing, shocking and infuriating.  What it isn’t, though, is disappointing.  At the start of the last season, I admit I was a bit discouraged with the pace and plotlines, especially the explosive fourth season that preceded it.  I am glad that creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer pulled back on the reins this season, though, allowing us to have a more realistic, satisfying ending. 
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those of you who don’t watch Big Love, you may wish to stop reading now since what follows deals with last night’s episodes and my thoughts. If you do watch Big Love and haven’t yet seen Sunday's episode, you will definitely want to stop reading now. What follows are MEGA SPOILERS. 

I originally wrote a total recap of the show that ran about six pages; however, anyone who is a big enough fan to read all of that already saw the episode.  So instead of a Cliffs Notes version, I’m going to address the questions I’ve heard/read people asking since Sunday night and provide my humble insights. 
Why didn’t we learn anything about Joey and Wanda? 
There’s no reason to believe that Joey and Wanda didn’t attend Bill and Lois’s funerals (as long as they were able to be located in Mexico).  Since the epilogue takes place eleven months later, they would have no reason to still be hanging around. 
What’s the deal with Teenie?  
The Teenie storyline has been neglected for awhile.  First, they had to replace the actress who played her because the original actress got so tall/mature between seasons that it caused a continuity problem.  When Teenie returned from camp last season, they had a new actress.  There were hints that Teenie had some problems and I read that the intention was to send her away to her grandmother’s house because she was unhappy with the Henricksons.  That storyline got buried.  This season, they sent her to live with Sarah since she wasn’t handling all of the attention very well after the family “came out.”  Since she has been so absent, I guess they just didn’t feel like her character needed more than a mention.  It would almost seem a little unnatural for her suddenly to pop up.
What will happen to Alby and Adaleen? 
 Alby was already wanted for the murder of Rhonda’s husband and the abduction of Nicki.  I also assume that the first shots fired in the Capitol building killed Salty (especially since Salty looked so scared).  Alby shouldn’t be free for many years.  As for Adaleen, she’s out on bail, so it’s possible she may end up spending some time in jail after going to court.  Regardless, she can’t go back to Juniper Creek, so I feel she’ll eventually crawl back to Nicki and beg forgiveness once Alby’s spell is broken.
What’s with the cows/ox under the baptistery? 
 I won’t even pretend to know more than bare basics about the Mormon faith.  I do know a little about the baptismal font.  I’m not sure if this is true of all LDS temples, but many have baptismal fonts that sit on twelve oxen which represent the twelve tribes of Israel.   I believe there’s additional Mormon symbolism, but I’m not familiar with it.  There were also 12 oxen under the large basin in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23).  What confused me in this episode is that I’ve always understood this particular baptismal font to be used for baptism of the dead, not the living.  Perhaps it is different in the Reorganized LDS church, though.
Why would Margene leave her children, even if she has sister-wives to take care of them?   
As a mother, I am conflicted about Margene leaving her children while she leaves for months on a mission.  I don’t like to be away from my daughter overnight.  But what if Marg wasn’t going on a mission?  We don’t blast mothers who serve their country in the military, even if they’re deployed for a year at a time.  Margene says her faith has led her to share what’s in her heart to others.  I honestly don’t think she’s leaving just to escape her family; I truly believe she feels led to work with those in need.  Even Bill seemed at peace with her desire to work in missions, telling Margene he understood her desires and telling Nicki to support her sister-wife if she decided to go.  Missions are such an integral part of Mormon faith; they aren’t just something for “missionaries.”  Most young Mormons spend up to two years spreading their beliefs throughout the world.  Perhaps Margene needs this time of spiritual and personal growth.  Maybe it will lead her back home permanently, maybe it will lead her into further missions.  Life is full of uncertainty, so why should we expect all the answers from a television show?
Why are the other wives allowed to evolve but Nicki stays so hateful? 
Throughout the episode, we’re reminded again and again that Nicki is quite possibly the most inept person on the planet when it comes to expressing her actual feelings.  In the previous episode, Nicki honestly seemed to believe that the best way to stop Cara Lynn from seeing her teacher was to be ruthless.  And as shocking as that entire episode was (I could barely look at the TV when Nicki verbally assaulted her daughter), I understand the root of her inability to interact with anyone on a normal, human level.  She’s been manipulated her entire life, her love used against her like a weapon, desperate for affection from her parents.   Barb has had to compromise beliefs.  Margene has grown into a woman.  But part of Nicki is still the scared girl from the compound who was given to an evil man as a child.  The scene where Barb forces Nicki to let her hold her was painful, as Nicki insists, “You know I don’t like to be touched.”  Even Nicki’s love is confrontational.  It is obvious that she doesn’t want Margene to leave, but instead of telling Margene this, she tries to shame her into staying.  Even in the last scene, she is telling Margene to call so that “Barb doesn’t worry.”  I pity Nicki because she closes herself off so tightly, but I believe that she and Cara will help teach each other to love and be loved.   Nicki has grown, but she is still so far from the social norm that it's difficult to identify with her.
Are Ben and Heather married? 
I noticed in the final scene that both Ben and Heather are wearing wedding rings, so I assume they have married.  This may seem rushed, but short courtships are fairly common among young people in Mormon culture.   I’ve never been a Ben fan.  He mopes too much and he kind of creeps me out.  If Heather wants to be with him, more power to her.  
Why did they kill off Bill’s character?  (this one is going to get LONG)
Isn’t that just taking the easy way out? I wouldn’t call it the easy way necessarily, but it was the easiest way to tie up some loose ends, allow the family to stay together and provide Bill with some redemption. Bill is going to be indicted for raping Margene, a trail that will undoubtedly put his entire family through Hell. He has lost Home Plus, which will financially ruin his family and most likely leave them homeless and destitute. He has burned countless bridges and left hearts and promises broken in his wake. He is not a perfect man. At times, he is not even a likable man. But he has come to a good place in the moment before the impending storm, telling Ben and Don, “We’re going to be alright.” His death provides an opportunity for him to pass the priesthood to Barbara (notice he specifically requests she bestow it), though I believe he had already planned to bestow it on her following his vision/epiphany during the church service. I think it’s significant that he sees Emma Smith instead of the prophet himself. In many ways, Emma Smith was as intricate a part of the origins of Mormonism as Joseph himself. (Undoubtedly, Barb could relate to the trials and tribulations she faced in being Mrs. Smith.) Behind Emma is a sign that reads “Man is that he might have joy,” a saying attributed to Joseph Smith but actually from the 2nd book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon (though I suppose some will argue that the Book of Mormon is a creation of Smith. I’d rather not debate Mormon theology for now). The verse, from the second chapter, states, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Since I’m not Mormon and have not studied the Book of Mormon closely (though I have read it), I can only make my own interpretation as I see it and as I think it relates to the show. Before Adam fell, he was a perfect being, made in the image of God himself. It is our sin that keeps us separate from God and essentially makes us human; therefore, we are a product of Adam’s sin and we continue to sin. The beauty of being a human, though, is that we can still attain joy. On an earthly scale, we can find joy through our talents and hobbies, through the world around us, and especially through our families and loved ones. On a spiritual level, we find joy through forgiveness and redemption from God. So God granted us our free will and gave us this world so that we could have experiences and seek out what brings us joy, but also to connect with Him and to bring Him joy as well. I believe as Bill sees his vision of Emma and reads the words behind her, he is struck with the realization that perhaps he’s confused his priorities to a certain degree. Yes, his faith is important, a crucial part of not only his spiritual life but his daily life. Throughout the show and especially the past two seasons, Bill has put his beliefs before everything, often to the detriment of his family’s emotional and even physical well being. Bill realizes, as Barb did just minutes earlier in the baptismal font, that faith without family brings sadness and even strife. Faith without works may be dead, but faith without family is joyless. He even tells Ben and Don as much in the back yard, insisting that their faith comes from the love they have with each other, not the other way around. During his vision in church, I honestly think Bill decided that he wanted to extend the priesthood to Barbara. When Bill is in the backyard writing before his death (on yellow paper… an allusion to Smith’s golden tablets perhaps???), I think he is creating new bylaws for his church that will allow female priesthood holders.

Bill’s allowing Barb to be a priesthood holder also opens the door for Sarah to rejoin her family in the area of faith, as she allows her mother to give the blessing to her new son. 

Ultimately, Bill’s death joins his family together in a way that he was never able to accomplish. Barb tells Sarah, “We’re strong. We’ve been forged. We endure.” Though their trials and tribulations have tested their bond, it is the tragedy they’ve shared in Bill’s death that has provided an Earthly sealing of sorts. 

Bill’s death also serves a larger purpose in that it makes him a martyr for his cause. Though his death wasn’t necessarily a direct result of his polygamy, Carl most definitely saw Bill’s calling himself a “Mormon polygamist” as a mockery of the church. Yet ultimately, Bill is successful. He has a church, he has his wives, he seems happy. Before shooting Bill, Carl declares, “I love my wife. I love my church. I will not be ridiculed. I will not be a failure.” Carl has adhered to his faith as closely as possible but just seems to fall further and further behind in life. During Bill’s last sermon, there were almost 500 who had made the “pilgrimage” to see him. He is already a hero and now he is a martyr. Nothing like blood on the street to light a fire under people. 

My thoughts on Lois

As if the entire episode weren’t emotional enough for me (I cried at the end of Oz, remember???), the Lois situation hit entirely too close to home for me and absolutely reduced me to tears.   I hurt during her moments of lucidity, time spent mourning the independence she’s lost and the days spent in a fog of confusion.   Each passing memory would brighten her only momentarily, leaving depression in its wake as it escaped her again.  When Bill invites her to Easter, her face softens as she recalls pieces of Easters long ago when she wore hats and how they made her feel “so full of herself, something special.”   Lois hasn’t always been the most likeable character, but she’s strong and independent and crafty.  To see her reduced to a shell of her former self is heartbreaking.  When Bill again visits Lois and takes her the Easter hats, it was almost more than I could bear.   Looking in the mirror, Lois exclaims, “She’s ugly!  Why is she wearing my hat?”  Bill says, “It’s you, Mother.”  Lois’s face crumbles, as did mine.  “God save me,” she says as she allows Bill to hold her.   The final scene with Frank and Lois was almost too much for me.  As Lois drifts off into her next life and casts off the broken, troubled mind of this one, Frank gives her back her lost memories—especially the ones of Bill and happier times they had together as a family.  His last words are, “You gave ‘em what for.”   I’m glad that Lois at least got to go out on her own terms.

As a whole, I was pleased with the final episode. No, it didn’t tie up every single loose end, but isn’t life one big set of loose—and often frayed—ends? Even when we die, those around us keep living, our lives a constant ebb and flow. The big questions were answered, the answers to many others can be inferred, and the rest remain mysteries (just as questions in our own life are).

I will miss my Sunday evenings with the Henricksons. 

For anyone interested, here’s the final scene. The song over the closing credits (Natalie Maines’s cover of the original opening song, “God Only Knows”) is gorgeous and the words have a different meaning now that the show—and Bill’s life—has come to an end. 

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