By Caryn James | James on Screens March 21, 2011 at 6:19AM
HBO’s daring, inventive Big Love ended with an episode that let us know exactly what happened to polygamist Bill Henrickson and his three wives; no Sopranos black-screen ambiguity here. And in a way that’s too bad. The clarity was satisfying in simple story-telling terms, but the episode wasn’t one of the strongest.
The finale was loaded with heavy-handed Easter symbolism (the Resurrection, not bunnies). And when Bill preached to the congregation of his newly-formed church, he had a vision of his Mormom polygamist ancestors in 19th-century prairie clothes, a moment that was meant to be touching but felt like the ending of Lost with funny costumes.
The violent death that came at the end did seem fated. There had been so many near-deaths and shots fired already, someone had to go. But the epilogue that jumped nearly a year ahead seemed yanked into place instead of following the intriguing directions the characters had been taking all season.
And it was a terrific season, bringing to a head the social and moral issues that had always been at the heart of the series: Is this polygamist family wonderful and loving, or the ultimate in dysfunction? Is Bill a self-righteous egomaniac or a socially-minded do-gooder? Are those women crazy? There was even a fundamentalist Mormon compound with child brides, a place the Henricksons found repugnant and tried to clean up. The drama’s strength was that it had always addressed those essential questions, which the so-called reality show Sister Wives blithely glosses over.
Throughout this season, Bill had become more paternalistic, the women more self-assertive, everyone apparently showing true colors. Before we look at how it all ended, here’s the fascinating way the characters had shaped up as they headed into the finale:
When he started his church, he appeared more than ever to be the monomaniacal patriarch we always suspected he could become. But he did destroy the Fundamentalist Juniper Creek compound, saving young girls from forced marriage and wives from abuse.
He believes he’s righteous (and Bill Paxton always played him that way) which counts for something, but he seemed increasingly self-deluded to me.
The original wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) was so utterly in love with Bill that she would follow him anywhere. She even let him divorce her so he could legally marry Wife #2 and adopt her child. But Barb was no dupe. Her insistence that she had a religious calling equal to Bill’s - and her rejection of Bill’s new church because he wouldn’t allow women to give a blessing - was the series’ strongest blow at his role as the ultimate, alpha-male authority.
Nicki evolved more than any other character, tossing aside her prairie skirts and braid for modern clothes and a reformer’s mission. Like Bill, she was raised in Juniper Creek, and tried to save women from its clutches – although she resorted to her typical bullying tactics to do it. But she came to see herself clearly at last. “I’m spiteful, jealous and mean,” she cried to Barb, and meant it.
Chloe Sevigny has always been amazingly good in this role, never asking us to like Nikki, always showing how damaged she was by her own childhood, how firm in her faith. This season we saw that, in her own warped way, she was Bill’s soul-mate every bit as much as Barb.
When Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) began selling Goji juice, a pyramid scheme masquerading as a humanitarian company, the series was blunt about the fact that she was an emotionally damaged child drawn to cults – Goji, the Henrickson family, whatever. The least complex character, she thought about leaving the family for a true humanitarian mission. If you were guessing a logical ending, you’d have predicted that Margene would bolt.
But the series had a different end. (If you haven’t seen it and want to be surprised, watch before you read more.) Bill is shot and killed not for political, religious or social reasons, but by his mentally distraught neighbor.
As Bill lies dying on the street, his three wives hovering over him, he asks Barb for her blessing, accepting her calling to the priesthood after all. (Nice touch, but it was that or no blessing at all.)
Bill’s death had a sense of surprise, coming from an unexpected direction, and of making perfect sense. There could never have been a happy future for this family.
But then the tacked-on epilogue creates that future. Nearly a year later, Barb has baptized their first grandchild. Margene is heading off on another temporary charity mission. The three sister wives hug in what amounts to a big Yay! for polygamy, justifying the plural marriage that had been such a thorny question all along.
You could argue that Bill’s death pulled them together, but the epilogue landed like a forced “happy” ending that made the wives a cohesive family when all season they were, for perfectly good reasons, pulling that family to shreds. The finale would have felt more wrenching and natural, would have matched the series’ great strengths, if it had left them mourning on the street.
There was an earlier, more eloquent death scene. Suffering from dementia, Bill’s mother, Lois (Grace Zabriskie) had asked her horrible estranged husband, Frank (Bruce Dern) to help her die when she felt she was finally losing herself to the disease. Near the end of the last episode we see them lying on a bed, needle and vial on the bedside table. Frank holds her and gently recalls the happy early days of their marriage as she slips away. Lois’s death was sad and beautiful, a truer ending than the forced group hug of all Bill’s wives.