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I'll tell you one of the reasons I enjoy Big Love: The writers know how to give each episode a satisfying internal arc without sacrificing the sense of the big picture. Every week, we get mini-plots that are interesting on their own, yet also propel the sweeping conflicts of the current season (and the series at large.) It's the balance that eluded Lost in season three, which had too little "big story" and too much nonsense about Jack's tattoo, and is currently stalling Heroes, which wastes so much time explaining grand themes that it forgets to give characters nuance.
Full disclosure: I went to graduate school with one of Big Love's new staff writers.
This week's episode, "Empire," has one of the best examples of that small-yet-large writing. It comes when we learn why Don Embry has been screwing up at work, forgetting to provide architectural models for the Native American casino and what-not: It's because Vernie and Jo Jo, his second and third wives, have run off together and taken their kids. Now Don's family has scattered, he has no way to find them, and he can't go looking without possibly exposing himself and his entire polygamous community.
So delicious. In the big picture, this is a fantastic callback to Vernie and Jo Jo's lesbianism, which was coyly referenced way back in season one and then totally dropped. By having it burst into the plot in such a major way---threatening Bill and Don's business, ruining Don's life, etc.---the writers are reminding us that things don't happen lightly around here. This show is a universe where small cracks can spread silently for years and then open up. That's a great way to get us anticipating the looming drama in Roman's trial and Ana's potential role in the family.
Vernie and Jo Jo also give an interesting spin on this episode's theme. In almost every storyline, someone is breaking an established rule, and though not every scofflaw meets the same fate, "scofflaw" is still the name of the game.
For instance, Sarah breaks her religion's rule about having premarital sex, and she gets pregnant. That's also her "punishment" for breaking the community's "rule" about staying close to home: She wanted to go to ASU, and this baby could force her to stay in Utah.
Honestly, the lay-down-in-his-bed-get-up-with-his-baby twist is beneath the show, but I'll stay hopeful for now. I just want Sarah to keep wanting things, even if she keeps the kid.
Anyway, back to rule-breaking... Barb also gets a smack-down. When she thought she had cancer, she violated her internal rule about not wanting a fourth wife, and she agreed to date Ana. How fitting, then, that she found out she was healthy while sitting in Ana's house. Jeanne Tripplehorn's episode-closing expression amazing, because it clearly communicates that since Barb is out of the woods, she wants it back to three-wives-n-Bill. But since she violated her own beliefs, she's stuck.
For now, Nicky is getting away with her treachery, flaunting her duty to keep having babies by popping birth-control pills. It's all so Bill won't stop thinking she's sexy, which is another violation of the "subservient woman" clause. You just know Nicky's going to pay up for this.
On the flip side, it's helpful to look at the rule-breakers in this episode who didn't get punished (or seem destined to.). Since Margene overstepped her bounds with Weber Gaming, for instance, she practically landed the casino account by herself. I think we all figured out that her "shocking" speech about prejudiced Indians was going to turn out well, but obvious writing aside, it was an interesting moment.
And then of course, there's Lois, who broke the rules in a big way and got to kick some major ass. Lois didn't behave when Frank was threatening to kill her, meaning she hog-tied his sorry butt and stuck him in the corner. Awesome.
We're supposed to cheer, of course, because Frank is a jerk. All these stories are designed to make us sympathize with the rule-breakers, not the rules. Even with Barb, you can argue that the expectations of polygamy forced her to overlook her own internal code, and so she was wronged by the system.
But then there's Vernie and Jo Jo. They decided to leave their priesthood husband (!), run off with his children (!!), and shack up together in gay, gay sin (!!!). We should be cheering for them loudest, right?
In a way, yes. They're actually out in the big wild world, which last week I didn't think could happen on this series. Their freedom is exciting.
But also? They're doing damage. The scene where Don breaks down is devastating, especially when he explains that he can't seek the very children he's hoping will join him in heaven. It's a moment where we see the attraction of the polygamous life... where we see that these rules bring some people joy and comfort. By ignoring the code of their community, Vernie and Jo Jo might be happier, but they're also causing harm.
So we end the episode in some murky moral terrain, where no one is completely right or wrong. (Except Lois. Tie him up, girl!) That's enough to get me back next week.
Episode Grade: B+
It would've been higher---especially because of the Vernie and Jo Jo stuff---but Sarah's pregnancy and Margene's lesson on tolerance were just too hokey to overlook.