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Mark Blankenship

Mark Blankenship

Posted March 17, 2009 | 01:24 PM (EST)

Big Love Wife Watch!: Round Nine (With the Controversial Endowment Ceremony scene)


Spoilers Warning

Welcome to Wife Watch!, the only blog post that ranks the most powerful wives in this week's episode of Big Love.

I've taken an extra day to process this week's installment---"Outer Darkness"---because it's the most controversial of the season (if not the series.) Some Mormons protestedthe the portrayal of the sacred and extremely private endowment ceremony , which gives this episode a particular amount of cultural heft.

In one sense, I agree with James Poniewozik from Time magazine that in the context of this episode, that scene seemed like the least of the church's worries. As he mentioned, this episode depicted LDS leaders as corrupt and power hungry, basically excommunicating Barb for spite because of her family's connection to the infamous "polygamy letter." There were also pointed references to Elizabeth Smart and other church scandals.

By contrast, the endowment ceremony was portrayed as a sacred and powerful expression of pure religious faith. As an outsider, I could only watch it as a piece of theater, but it struck me as incredibly beautiful. Seeing Barb get the opportunity to symbolically touch the hands of God and then join her mother and sister in a "foretaste of eternity," where she and her family can sit lovingly together forever, was deeply moving. Those aren't my rituals, but I do have rituals, so I can appreciate how stirring the endowment ceremony must be to someone who believes in it.

But there's the rub, right? I'm not a believer. I asked an ex-Mormon friend of mine what he thought about the endowment ritual being televised for a largely non-Mormon audience, and this is what he said:

My first response was, "Somebody's going to get hurt." Somebody's going to be deeply hurt by having this shown because it will feel like a violation. It's like having someone see you naked that you don't want to see you naked. It's hard for me to imagine anything that could be accomplished aesthetically or thematically that would equal the hurt that comes when something private and precious is revealed.

And this coming from an ex-Mormon. I can imagine how a practicing member of the church must feel. To complete the binary I created above, I agree with James Poniewozik in one sense, but I disagree in another. Of course the depiction of corrupt church officials seems more volatile to me than the fictionalized portrayal of a ceremony that I don't believe in. I can relate to the negative ramifications of corruption more easily than the revelation of the endowment ceremony. But for a practicing member of the LDS church, I can absolutely understand why pulling back the curtain on something sacred would mean more than dissing some guy behind a fancy oak table. The Mormon leaders are merely human, so a stain on them is a stain on one person. The ceremony is holy, so a stain on it is like a stain on God.

Thinking about it this way, I feel sullied by what was shown. It's the same way I felt when I saw a performance of a Native American tribal ritual as a teenager. Everyone is demeaned when something so powerful is put on display as entertainment. Or at least they are when the ritual is designed to be private. I don't think it demeans Christianity, for instance, to show fictional Baptist preachers on television, because the ethos of Christianity is so often about creating public declarations of faith... of not keeping the "good news" to one's self.

But from my understanding, that's not how Mormons work. They're not public worshippers, and so by forcing them to become public in this scene, Big Love may have crossed a line. Like my friend, I'm not sure there is any aesthetic achievement that can be worth so much hurt.

Sigh.

Another part of my conflicted response is that I loved this episode. I was moved and engaged, which means I am now complicit in turning a sacred ritual into an entertainment product. I need more time to sort out what that means to me.

But for now, I have an assignment, so I hope you will bear with me as I lay aside my qualms and continue the Wife Watch! mission. After all, there is a clear first wife this week.

I was impressed by Margene's gumption as she secreted Barb to the compound for a reconciliation with Nicky. It didn't work, of course, but still... good on Margie.

However, I think she's trying to convince herself that she wants to stay in this family. Did you notice that when Nicky and Bill were fighting about Nicky being kicked out of the family, Margie mentioned that no one asked her if she wanted a divorce? I was like, "Whoa, Margene! Is that what you want?" It seems possible.

Obviously Nicky isn't this week's first wife, what with Bill saying he wants a divorce, though as usual, her storyline is gripping. Learning that she had a daughter with JJ was especially devastating, since we learn about her first lost family just as she loses another one. Talk about your pity and fear. This show is like a Greek drama.

And if I lay aside my moral questions about the endowment scene, I can see Barb's journey in this episode as another piece of fantastic classical drama: Like a tragic Greek figure, she moves from willful ignorance to terrible knowledge about her own position in a church she loves so much. And because of that revelation---that her beloved church doesn't want her if she lives the life she's chosen---she is forced to alter the course of her life forever.

You know the drama is working when Barb's choice is uplifting and crushing at the same time. On one hand, she can exult in her decision to stay with her polygamous family---to honor what she has chosen for herself---but on the other, she must suffer as she imagines herself cast into the outer darkness. In Barb's eyes, she's chosen one path to eternity at the expense of another... but what if she chose the wrong path? Again, pity and fear. I may not have Barb's faith, but I can certainly pity someone who makes a life-altering decision without being 100% certain it's correct, and I can fear that I'll be put in the same position some day.

And because Barb leads us to a catharsis while also choosing to keep the Henrickson family in tact (for now), she is clearly this week's First Wife.

For more, please join me at The Critical Condition.