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Big Love Wife Watch!: Season Five, Ep. 2

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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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Yes, people. Yes! This is why I will spend so much time thinking and writing about Big Love every week... because at its sterling peak, it is intricate, masterful, and moving. This week's episode, "A Seat At The Table," rivals "Come, Ye Saints" from Season Three as the most elegant and satisfying in the series. Like the older installment---which included landmines like Sarah's miscarriage---this one uses major events to tease out larger themes. It succeeds both as character-driven drama and spiritually resonant rumination.

Oh, and once again, the episode is written by a playwright. (It was Melanie Marnich who gave us a "Come, Ye Saints," and Julia Cho delivers "A Place At The Table.") Maybe that accounts for the subtle revelation of a world-altering truth. So subtle, in fact, that it's full impact may not be felt for weeks.

But I'll get to that.

First, let's start with the episode's unifying theme: The uncontrollable chaos of the public sphere. Sure, you could argue that's shaping up to be the theme of this entire season, but it especially structures this episode.

Bill, for instance, tries his damndest to have a public "safety net" meeting with various polygamous leaders and local politicians. His goal is to get everyone working together so that polygamists can live their lives in peace and everyone in their communities can get health care, education, and other basic rights and services.

But how does that meeting go? Well... ask Alby, who is shrewd enough to teleconference in so that when he intentionally picks a fight with a prairie-haired woman from another compound, he can click off his iGod and let everyone fight without him. In the end, Bill's meeting implodes and a senator he was courting proposes legislation that will criminalize polygamy, make it an impeachable offense, and allow citizens to sue the D.A. for not prosecuting polygamists to the full extent of the law.

So... yeah. The chaos of the public sphere. It's only afterward, when Bill gathers the various leaders (including Alby!) in the privacy of his home that people have a civil conversation. Is the lesson that secrecy and privacy are the road to good work, while public performance of any desire, no matter how noble, is the road to ruin? That would certainly explain last week's final scene, in which local polygamists secretly joined Bill in his house to discuss their options and give their support.

Or does all this mean that people get unfairly punished for public honesty and therefore have secrecy thrust upon them? And if so, doesn't that imply we've created a poisonous society that doesn't allow real change or truthfulness?

If you take the former point of view, then the Henricksons have made a mistake by going public, and if you take the latter, their community is wrong for not letting them. It will be interesting to see which way the pendulum swings in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, we also see Margene get pulled in the private/public war, as she toys with selling an energy drink that seems to get her so coked up that she must dance around to Jewel and Human League. (Which... awesome.)

That's really just Margie's attempt to reclaim her public life. However, her private life is in shambles, too. She learns her childhood home has been razed, and for about the millionth time, she feels stifled inside her Henrickson life. This time, though, she doesn't even have Anna for consolation, since Bill decides to send Anna and Goran packing. He says it's what's best for her, but it might also be good for his flailing political career if the woman who was once his fourth wife had his illegitimate baby in another town. You know?

When Margene sees her link to Anna snapping, she snaps, too, and hurls her anger at Bill. Surprisingly, he tells her she's free to leave the family. That's always been true, of course, but it matters that he actually admits it. It matters that Bill says Margene's happiness, and not the Celestial Purpose, is the most important thing to consider.

Bill's change of perspective is not even the major event I was referring to before, but it's still huge news. The immediate impact is that in the final scene, Margene seems to relent on her desire to leave. Maybe she didn't need a public life (selling energy drinks) or a new private life (with Anna or whomever). Maybe she just needed her private life with Bill to include more options for freedom. Knowing you're not trapped in a situation makes it easier to stay. For now, at least.

The public/private questions gets another fascinating spin with Nicki and Cara Lynn. On one hand, Nicki wants her daughter to get out of the hellish privacy of compound life that she herself endured. She brings that up with hurricane force during Safety Net, hurling accusations at Alby about how compound girls don't get educated at all, and that even the boys have to stop before high school. With that in mind, her ferocious devotion to Cara Lynn makes even more sense, and then for an added bonus, we find out that Cara Lynn is a math genius. Like, seriously a prodigy, winning trophies and outpacing her teachers.

I love that wrinkle because it resonates in several ways: For one, it makes me empathize with Nicki's determination even more, because if you were raised in an environment where girls get nothing, and then you realize your girl has more potential than most people, wouldn't you push even harder to set her free? I would. But on the other hand, Cara Lynn was home-schooled on her own compound, so clearly she did get some kind of education there. Is the public world or the private going to help this girl more? Confusion!

Toss in Margene's weepy instructions to Cara Lynn to get the hell out of dodge, and the girl becomes Sarah 2.0---the one with potential who must break loose. And speaking of Sarah... Nicki's blow-up in HomePlus? About never letting her daughter turn into a slut like Barb's? C-O-L-D. Actually, there's another four-letter "c" word that comes to mind, but I'll refrain. (Oh, okay: Cola.) The acting in that scene is so delicious I want to drizzle it on my ice cream and eat it.

And that leads us to Barb. Here's the thing I was talking about before that Cho's script does so well: In the very beginning of the episode, she has Barb state plainly that she's looking for a community of her own. That lets us connect to the motivation behind all her actions in this episode, from joining a dance class to asking her mother to speak with her at a Sunstone symposium. (For those who don't know, Sunstone, according to a Mormon friend of mine, is "a loose organization of Mormon intellectuals, rebellious independent theologians, conciliatory types, and, often, Mormon feminists. The Sunstone magazine spawned symposia.")

Barb's proclamation is not the revelation, however. It is the key to understanding it.

At one point, we see Barb offering to perform a blessing on Margene. And according to my Mormon friend, this is a huge deal, as blessings are only meant to be given by priesthood holders (read: men). There are many women, however---many of whom are involved with Sunstone---who are fighting to reclaim the right to give blessings, which they once had but have since been denied. Barb shows her ignorance by grabbing some store-bought olive oil, as its only consecrated oil that is used for blessings, but she also shows her determination to act like a priesthood holder.

This determination continues with the events surrounding the Sunstone symposium. That wrenching scene where Barb's mother Nancy berates her for being polygamous and then distances herself from her own history as an ERA supporter is really important. It says that Nancy used to be a Mormon feminist but is now much more conservative. By chastising Barb for ignoring the Proclamation on the Family, she is revealing her own conservative (and some would say oppressive) views on gender roles. This is not the kind of woman who would try to support the ERA, yet that's who Nancy used to be.

Clearly, then, Barb reaches because she want to bond with her as a strong, independent woman who is devout in her faith. (The scene of Nancy watching a Betty Ford video suggests she's uneasy about her dwindling feminist thoughts.)

And so, we are left with the revelation that Barb is not simply looking for a new community. She is looking for a community that will let her be a powerful woman of faith. She wants to be a priesthood holder. A feminist. A devout Mormon. She wants to be surrounded by people who can celebrate and love her for that, and who can join her in celebrating and loving God.

There's going to be trouble for Barb, of course. In an echo of Bill's failed meeting, her public sphere appearance at the Sunstone symposium just collapses. Just as her family is coming out of hiding, she is carrying a big new secret that may cause her just as much grief as the old one.

And all this because she wants to be loved, to have a family. Which is what all three wives want. And because all three of them do such bold things this week in order to find their place in the world, I'm declaring them all First Wife.