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Mark Blankenship

Mark Blankenship

Posted: January 19, 2009 02:02 AM

Welcome to my episode review of Big Love's new season! Because the show's in its third year, I'm assuming we're all familiar with its major characters and plot arcs. If you're a newbie (or if you need a refresher course), then the official site can bring you up to speed.

And while you're at it, be sure to read Wife Watch!, the only blog post that names Big Love's most powerful wife of the week.

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It's been almost eighteen months, but it's finally time: Welcome back to Big Love, y'all.

How do you like your crazy? Familial? Political? Surprisingly multi-ethnic? Whatever your flavor, they're serving it up in "Block Party," the season three premiere.

Did you notice that reference to diner food? That's appropriate, since out of this episodes' three thousand plotlines, one of the snakiest involves Ana, the Serbian waitress who was slipping Bill some pie in season two. (Literal pie. Don't be gross.)

You may remember that Margene liked Ana, too, and she was stoked about Bill taking a fourth wife who could be her ally against Uno and Dos. But Barb? Barb was not having it. She didn't want a fourth.

At least until her cancer returned. After a quick family scene, we start the season with Barb in the hospital, getting a regular post-cancer screening that appears to go poorly. And as it did with Nicki, the disease softens Barb's resolve against new wives. Suddenly, she decides that Ana must join the family (albeit on her terms.)

Various shenanigans ensue, and by the final scene, Ana, who has resisted thoughts of polygamy, appears on the doorstep, tentatively ready for sister wives.

For me, that moment captures why this episode is so queasily fascinating. Because even though no one physically drags Ana to Casa Henrickson, she still gets badgered into joining up. For the entire episode, people use borderline-abusive tactics to break her down, like when she tells Margene she can't see Bill anymore. Margene's response? "No. I can't accept that. Do you know how much you mean to him?... You are meant to be in this family."

That's creepy. She might smile and wear pastel sweaters, but Margene won't be denied. She talks about "freedom" and "destiny" and "choices," but she's pushing Ana toward a single, narrow result. Join the family, she says, or you will never be happy.

Their confrontation is like the entire episode in miniature. Almost every character is out to control someone, but they're selling control as free will.

Take Bill and Margene's meeting with Native American mogul Bill Flute (Robert "Chakotay" Beltran) and his Israeli wife Ladonna (Noa Tishby.) Margene convinces the Flutes to let Weber gaming run a casino on their Indian reservation by making cultural references to peace and understanding. But obviously, those squishy buzzwords are just means to her end.

That's a pretty standard business ploy, but the trend in this episode goes deeper. When Heather imagines being college roommates with Sarah, she describes all the ways they can "be together," but thanks to Tina Majorino's performance, it's clear Heather isn't just talking about hanging out after class. She wants to possess Sarah. (That was clear last season, too, when she kept peppering her with various religious ideals.)

And then there's the stuff with Juniper Creek. Lois is furious with Bill because he didn't take control of the council, and she says it's because that would have restored her family's dignity. But that would also mean pushing Bill into a life more isolated than the one he's living. Meanwhile, Adaleen wants to kill her own son because, among other things, he's trying to overthrow his father. She talks about Roman's honor, but that honor means keeping Alby in his subservient place.

This could all be tiresome if the characters who propagate these oppressive worlds weren't also desperate to escape them. In this episode alone, we see Alby trying to wrap his hands around the commune and express the homosexuality the commune won't permit. We see Bill lord his will over his entire family, even as he chafes when his own parents do the same thing.

And really, that's the conflict at the core of this show: Everyone's trying to escape one thing or another, but what are they escaping to? Is there any world that doesn't impose restrictions on their ability to be themselves? If you break out of Juniper creek, you get Bill's houses, with their tight schedules and stern paternal authority. If you break out of Bill's houses, you get a neighborhood community that blacklists you for not going to church.

The nature of "the suburbs" are especially important in this episode because we realize that the neighbors aren't judging the Henricksons for being polygamists. Most of them don't even know. They're judging them for being "inactive'" in the Mormon church, or in Nicki's case, for being related to someone they don't approve of. And this is supposed to be the "outside world," where things are wild and free.

It's interesting how rarely this show depicts or even discusses the space beyond Mormon country. Sarah has made vague statements about moving to Idaho, but so far, that's not real. In this episode, the only places outside Utah that get concretely referenced are the polygamist compounds that were raided last year. In other words, the current universe of Big Love is almost entirely hermetic. Like in a mafia movie, you can dream of leaving Mormonism, but there's no place you can go.

The claustrophobia makes me deliciously uneasy. With all this energy in such a tiny space, something is going to blow. One of these closed-off communities will either open up or get totally decimated, or else the show's going to get so limited that it will get stale.

Heading into episode two, I'm wondering who will lead us into new, non-Mormon terrain. Will it be Sarah, or will she get pulled back in like Michael Corleone? Will it be Ana, or will she leave her old world behind forever?

I don't know, but I'm ready to see some serious disorder.

Episode Grade: A- (Points off for the scene where Bill and Don Embry talk really, really specifically about the way they control their wives. It's like they're saying, "Hey audience! Here's some forced insight into the writers' perspective on our world!")
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