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Big Love: "The Special Relationship"

Illustration for article titled iBig Love/i: The Special Relationship
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Every season of Big Love, there’s an episode or two that goes in for red, hot doctrinal differences, and “The Special Relationship” was that episode for this season. These episodes are always best when they tie those ideas in to some sort of personal relationship between the characters (since doctrinal differences so rarely make for satisfying drama), and “Relationship” struggled with that until, somewhat predictably at this point, the last half. The end game for the series as a whole is starting to become clear, and it involves Alby going on a murderous rampage by proxy, Bill’s family splintering apart, and Bill and Barb getting a divorce, something we’ve been building to since late season one. So while there are tremendous moments in “Relationship,” there’s also a lot of table clearing, mostly designed, it seems, to get the plot moving forward in time for the end of the show in a few weeks’ time. (Can this really be the halfway point of the final season? Goodness.)

The most unconvincing bit of table clearing was the idea that the state Senate leader would just sweep away all of Bill’s legislative problems as easily as possible. I’m sure that the question of polygamy being made illegal all over again will return at some point later in the season. (Otherwise, why even raise it at all?) There’s always such a glut of storylines on Big Love that it sometimes feels like the writers will just cut bait on one or two of them, and that was the uncomfortable feeling that arose here, as if everyone involved in the show realized that they didn’t have the time to treat this properly, so they were just going to abandon it before it even really got going. As these things go, it wasn’t a horrible way of handling the problem—the leader just needs to get all of this controversy over with, so he can have a productive session, so he utilizes procedural kung fu to keep the bill from ever hitting the floor—but it still felt at least mildly disappointing.


This brings us to the evening’s main conflicts, which are both between Bill and Barb (with Nicki on the side): Nicki forces Barb to tell Bill that she believes she, too, holds the priesthood. Nicki makes Barb do this while Bill is in legislative session, which doesn’t seem like the best idea, but, hey. Why not? This comes around the same time as Bill asking Barb for a divorce—not so they can stop being SPIRITUALLY married, but so they can stop being LEGALLY married, so he can marry Nicki and adopt Cara Lynn with her. Nicki’s tendency toward hero worship and fawning adoration may end up making her the best wife for Bill by the time the series is over, and this seems like a bit of a step in that direction. Still, these two developments dovetail in the final scene, where Bill tells Barb he can’t, in good conscience, extend the priesthood to her and she says they’re going to have to get a divorce. The final scene is surprisingly moving, given how dry and legalistic some of what came before could be, but that could be because it’s building on several seasons’ worth of story.

Barb has been edging away from Bill since toward the end of season one, and the process really began in earnest in season two. I know some fans of the show find it bizarre that she hasn’t even slightly explored the question of being apart from him until these last few episodes, but as I argued last week, Barb has made Bill and the family the whole center of her world, and abruptly cutting that part out of her life would leave her centerless and adrift. As she has realized over the course of the show all of the things that have been kept from her thanks to her decision to go along with Bill’s plan to marry multiple women, it sometimes seems like she’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Here, however, she finally does seem to be ready to do that. Barb’s been so sad for so long that it feels like a release for her to admit that she wants to get that divorce. Will she stay in the family, despite her obvious differences with Bill and, increasingly, Nicki? Future episodes will tell, but I can’t help but think that this is the point where she begins to pull away from her husband of 20 years, perhaps taking Margie (who agrees with her on the priesthood) with her.


I’ll admit it: The priesthood stuff is probably going to bore the hell out of most of the show’s audience. Every time the show gets into the differences between mainline Mormons and Bill’s fundamentalist sect or the differences between different polygamist groups, it has the tendency toward the dry, toward feeling like a term paper a high school student has over-researched on the culture of polygamy. But even though I can’t say the priesthood storyline is my favorite, I’m still fascinated by it. One of the central conflicts of the show has always been the question of how much self-determination these women have in light of the paternalistic way they live. All three of Bill’s wives have veered toward taking the reins of their own lives here and there, but all three have been drawn back into the family because without it, they’d be all alone in the world, at least for a little while. (Perhaps my favorite expression of this was Nicki’s near affair in season three.) Barb’s hopes of taking control of her own spiritual destiny are in keeping with this, but they’re a step too far for Bill. If Barb can be in control, he doesn’t know his own place, and he doesn’t know that plural marriage ever would have entered the Henrickson household. Bill hides it all behind a smile and a sense of sympathy, but he’s as power-hungry as Roman or Alby were. (And thank God this episode didn’t end with an abrupt reversal where the characters all applauded Bill’s genius.)

The Lois plot also reached a sort of head, as she decided it was time to leave Bill’s compound and head back to her own home. She’d called in Frank to take her back, despite the vigorous protestations of Bill. In true “I know what’s best!” fashion (though in this case, he probably does), Bill talked Frank out of taking Lois away, causing Lois to lock herself in her room and refuse to eat any food. She doesn’t care about the dementia or the fact that she can’t really care for herself. She just wants the world to go away and to spend what are likely her last days in the one place she’s always known. I’m still not fond of this Lois storyline, but at least here, she took some amount of agency, even if that was a very small amount. (And the scene where Bill talked Frank out of taking her away and stopped short of blaming him for her dementia was very nice.)


Meanwhile, Alby’s finally erupted in the fury he’s been plotting all season, striking out via Verlen (who’s busy hanging out at Nicki’s house with his wife). Verlen sneaks into Don’s ice-fishing shack in a ski mask and tries to kill the guy, but his plan is foiled by Don’s sons, who pull their dad’s face out of the ice-cold water in the proverbial nick of time. I miss the more complex and complicated Alby of last season (who seems to be swept away with the majority of last season’s plotlines), the Alby who wasn’t a cartoon villain. That doesn’t mean that the strike at Don wasn’t nicely filmed and edited, with a nice, chilling undercurrent. Alby’s clearly the Big Bad of the season, and while he’s a pale imitation of his father, that almost makes him more dangerous.

In some ways, though, it all wanders back to Barb. You could make a good argument that Barb is the true main character of the series, the steadfast assistant that realizes her own power and potential and grasps for any possible way to grab hold of that. Barb’s been stumbling in the dark for many years now, and she’s finally begun to realize that everything she thought she wanted was only something someone told her she wanted. She loves Bill, yes, but she’s coming to a point where she loves her own thoughts, her own freedoms, her own independence even more. Around the episode’s midpoint, Bill asks where she got the priesthood. It has to be given to her by laying on of hands and a blessing. She can’t just arrive at it out of the blue. But she suggests it’s been inside of her all this time, that he needs to recognize that she can find her own answers, can make her own decisions. But that’s a step too far for him, and, so, his proposed divorce becomes something even more permanent. And now that this is all out in the open, it’s time for her to find her own path.


Stray observations:

  • Not a lot of stuff going on for us Margie fans tonight, but I did like the idea that she’s been made the public face of the family. I’m sure some will disagree that she should be, what with the whole “16” thing, but I think Bill has a point that if she cooperates with the press, they’ll be less likely to go digging. I also liked the scene with the Goji guy, where he said that she seemed like a smart woman and she alleged that, yes, she was. I honestly don’t know where this season is going to end up, in terms of Margie, since it seems increasingly possible that Barb will end the series apart from Bill, while Nicki will end it with him. Margie’s the true wild card.
  • Other stuff that happened that I didn’t really care about: Bill met with some LDS church leaders and tried to find common ground with them. You can imagine about how well this went.
  • Of course the divorce could end up being something that doesn’t take—in that Barb could wind up a part of the family still, even if she’s not legally—but so much of this season (and this episode) seems set up to remind Bill of everything she’s lost that I have trouble imagining the show not giving her some measure of independence. Bill is going to have to bend somewhat for Barb to come back to him, I think.
  • I was pleased the show followed up on Barb’s quick firing of the intern from last week’s episode, and I liked seeing her flourish as Bill’s intern. She’s always so good at doing the things he needs her to do, and he never really seems to notice. And the scenes where she talked about going to school so long ago also were a nice reminder of all of the things she’s given up over the years.
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that David and Goliath cartoon the kids were watching.
  • Ben says he’s having a hard time reconciling his beliefs with his feelings. I wonder what, exactly, that could mean?
  • "People think that I'm the sunny face of polygamy."

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