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Mark Blankenship

Mark Blankenship

Posted: January 18, 2011 12:00 AM

SPOILERS AHEAD

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

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Welcome to the third season of Wife Watch! Can you believe we've been doing this since 2009? Your baby has gotten so big, and that little tree we planted is almost up to the power line!

You may have heard, too, that this is our last season of Wife Watching, as Big Love itself is calling it quits after this year. I'll be sad to see the series go, but honestly, I'm happy when shows end on their own terms instead of getting canceled. I'd much rather see the Henricksons leave with a complete story under their Garments than see them get axed in the middle of an unfinished plot.

Plus, if the season opener, "Winter," is any indication, the imminent end of the series has also reinvigorated the creative team. You may recall that I ended last season in a big fight with this show. We never broke up, but I needed a break, and I hoped that some time apart would let Big Love pull itself together. Looks like my prayers got heard. Just stick with this course, Henricksons, and you'll leave this earth with my kisses all over your polygamy braid.

Um... yes. The point is: I can forgive last season if this season maintains its initial level of quality, and if, as has been promised in several interviews, it focuses on the relationships of the core family members instead of the bureaucracy of casino management, J.J.'s plan to impregnate the world with his demon spawn, and the ancient bylaws of the UEB.

To that end, many scenes from this episode play like a winking apology from the writers, who take care of lots of troubling business in just a few lines. The casino? Can't deal with it, because they won't take our calls! J.J. and Cancer Wife? They're dead, burned up, and Adaleen has served her punishment in some kind of hole, so let's forgive and forget!

And Teeny? Oh, yes... Teeny. Or should we say, Second Teeny. You see, there are about 500 characters on this show, and we've got this really cool idea for another red-headed kid, and Second Teeny never really did anything except sell porn that one time and generally brat around. so we're just going to say she's "living with Sarah." Because it was totally Barb's good idea, okay? To send her teenage daughter to live with her other, barely legal daughter and probably get educated online or by a salty group of cocktail waitresses who take a shine to this little ragamuffin with a whole mess o' mamas. Whatever. The point is, she's out like J.J., so let's get back to business, okay?

And... okay. I can give or take a Teeny if it means a better show.

Speaking of "other red-headed kid," can we take a moment to praise Nicki for getting right to the top of her crazy game? She might have new hair and a new set of floral dresses, but underneath, she's still our compound maniac.

Granted, it is horrible that her son gets branded with hateful words all over his body. Director David Petrarca and writers/series creators Mark V. Olson and Will Scheffer handle his playground assault and its aftermath with an almost objective distance, often framing poor Wayne in a mid-range shot, so that instead of seeing his face in close-up, we see the entire tableau of his humiliation. We see all the other Boy Scouts watching as Boy Scout Red pushes him down. We see Barb looking on while Nicki tries to scrub the awful words off his face and chest. And tellingly, we hear almost nothing from Wayne. Both silent and small, he becomes totally objectified, which puts a steel-toed boot on the gut-kick of his predicament.

Obviously, it's easy to sympathize with Nicki when she gets furious. However, It's a little harder to support her decision to corner Boy Scout Red (BSR) in a fenced-in area behind his school, jumping around like a gibbon and refusing to let him escape as she pelts him with odd names like "ketchup head."

But while I can't support Nicki's cracked-out vengeance, I sure can enjoy it. I love watching her get mad, because she has never been trained how to curse or fight or do anything else that might let her release her emotions. Instead, she tackles injustice from her own unique worldview and threatens to write mean things about BSR on his "bottom." Bottom! It's just so... outre. At least she has the good sense to run when he knocks his tooth out.

That outburst---and her "nanny nanny boo boo, Barb's an alcoholic" tattle-taling after the disastrous school board meeting where she is exposed as a bottom-threatener---keep Nicki from being Wife of the Week, but her furious, flailing relinquishment of power stokes the drama in scene after scene. She just keeps picking fights, which drives Barb and Margene to snap at her, each other, Bill... everyone. Way to be a goad, Nicks!

And speaking of picking fights... I commend all involved for the crackling tension in this episode. You can feel the fury coming several beats before it explodes, which makes me giggle in anticipation. Even better, the fights all make sense: These people should be fighting about their horrible new life in the public eye, their unwillingness to let each other fail without, and Bill's inability to ever, ever, ever admit that he's wrong.

However, the success of this episode---and this is what was so often missing in last season---is that the fights are not the only well-wrought moments. They are counterweighted by moments of ache (Wayne's abuse, Margene's break-down at her old job), humor (Nicki's catty asides), and tenderness. I'm touched by the opening scene, for instance, when we see the tail-end of a family talent show in the desert. Barb is dressed like Charlie Chaplin, Bill's singing a song, Nicki's performing a magic trick, and out there on the range, the family seems safe and happy. The irony, of course, is that they have to leave home and put on costumes in order to feel okay. When they're in their houses just being themselves, they're besieged on all sides.

What an empathetic vision for the start of the year, and how nicely it's echoed when Bill breaks down and admits that he feels guilty for hurting his loved ones. Don (rightly) calls him on his crap, and Bill (in a lovely performance from Bill Paxton) almost cries as he stands there alone in his living room. At the end, though, all three wives stand behind him (in a gorgeously framed shot). By finally dropping the performance of having it all together, he makes it possible for the wives to drop their attitude and just be nice to each other for a second. The performance ends, and home becomes safe for a little while

Lord have mercy... writing that paragraph reminds me how glad I am that Bill has shown some weakness. It makes me think I might actually like him this season, that I might be able to root for him as he tries to get Gregory Itzin and the God-Fearing Senators to stop freezing him out and tries to keep HomePlus and his family from collapsing. It's just so much easier to root for a man who considers himself a man, and not a walking manifestation of God's will.

That's why it's always easy to root for Margene, who is very good at owning up to her culpability and asking others to own up to theirs. Her intense grief at losing the life she was building for herself---the friendship with Anna, the jewelry business---breaks my heart because Margie clearly knows the role she played in her own hardship. And you've got to give it to a woman who will scream the f-word at a news camera in the middle of a school board meeting. She may know she's made mistakes, but she also knows when it's time to defend herself. Do it girl! And keep watching those DVDs with Grant Show singing "It's My Life" and talking about some energy drink. That's not going to lead to any problems at all!

Speaking of "problems," lets keep our eyes on Cara Lynn and her covert soda-drinking, okay? I feel like she could be running a major scam. Maybe Teeny's not really at Sarah's place, if you know what I mean.

But while Cara Lynn may snatch a future Wife Watch! trophy, this week's First Wife is Barb. It may be misguided to see drinking wine as a great new way to expand your life, but at least it's a truly autonomous action, and by sticking to her guns about not needing Bill, even if she's not sure what that means, she displays admirable strength. In the end, it may be good that she loves Bill but doesn't need him. I'm interested to see.

We haven't even touched on Alby's unsettling determination to cleanse his flock (or whatever), but we'll have to save that for another time. For now, let's go check Barb's wine bottle and see if Cara Lynn's breath smells like a late night with the girls.

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