02/02/2009 12:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Big Review: Big Love Season 3, Ep. 3 (Spoilers)

Don't forget to read this week's "Wife Watch!", the only blog post that ranks the most powerful wives on Big Love.

If I were teaching a course on screenwriting, I would require my students to watch "Prom Queen," last night's installment of Big Love. Chiefly written by Eileen Myers, the episode constructs an elegant central theme, then spins endless variations on it. The result is sixty-five minutes of remarkable drama, and frankly, I can't think of a better television episode I've seen this year. (Remind me again why Boston Legal keeps getting showered with Emmy nominations and this show gets none?)

But before I overdose on praise, let's get down to business. It's easiest to approach "Prom Queen" via an essay that Stanley Fish wrote yesterday for his New York Times blog. He praises the show for having central characters that you can actually like (unlike, say, "Damages," which is filled with bastards), and despite their endless problems, he even calls the Henricksons the modern-day Waltons. He says both families embody lessons of "loyalty, solidarity, love."

That's a fair point, though "Prom Queen" proves those lessons are always, always contrasted by betrayal, fissures, and hate. In this episode, we see that the four adult Henricksons are devoted to the family they've built together because they've all been assaulted by their birth families. Surrounded by loveless relatives, they cling to each other in what Fish calls their "mini-compound" in the suburbs.

For starters, "Prom Queen" drops the bomb that Bill's sister committed suicide to avoid being married to an older man. He responds by insisting his family must expose Juniper Creek, even if it means exposing themselves. He's relying on the love in his tiny clan to help him address the crimes committed in the place he was born. (Meanwhile, it looks like Lois has murdered Frank, which underscores the whole "danger in the biological family" idea.)

The revelation about Bill's sister is echoed when Kathy, Joey's second wife, is exposed as the final snitch against Roman. Sitting with the Henricksons by their pool, she says she was forced to marry an old man when she was still a teenager, and despite begging not to have sex with him, he forced her to, all with Roman's consent. Nicki vehemently defends her dad, until Kathy reminds her that he forced her to marry someone named "J.J." when she was a kid. The only difference is that unlike Kathy's, Nicki's marriage got dissolved.

Um... what? Nicki's father forced her to marry some old guy? Nicki's devotion to Roman suddenly looks like a desperate attempt to deny that her biological family has betrayed her. (I'm interested to see how this plays out, especially since Nicki looks like she's two steps away from hooking up with the D.A. who's prosecuting Roman. Now that J.J.'s out of the bag, will she seek revenge on her dad?)

Meanwhile, we find out Margene's mother died and that Margene... isn't that upset. In a genius scene, she tries to manufacture some tears while the rest of the family says a prayer, but she finally admits that the lady was a drunk and a flake. That's why Margene feels so much happier in Camp Henrickson.

And finally, Barb's sister rolls back into town, campaigning against gambling. Awfully convenient, right? Since Barb's family just got into the gaming business? Anyway, Barb realizes that part of the reason she accepts polygamy is that it gives her sisters she can actually love. This seems to soften her on Ana once and for all. Even though Ana sucks face with an old boyfriend--and notes how hypocritical it is that Bill can have three wives, but she can't have two fellas--Barb convinces Bill she's right for the family.

However, the script implicitly complicates its "love the family you build" moral, since it was just last week that Jo Jo and Vernie ran away from Don and Peg Embry. They may be coming together, but there's no guarantee the Henricksons can make it.

Sarah and Ben have uncertainty, too. After several funny scenes, Ben ends up taking his sister to the prom, resulting in some super-cute sibling bonding. So far, so familial. But then the next morning, Sarah tells Ben she's pregnant. He's the first person in her family to find out that (a) she's having sex and (b) she's paying a price for it.

And that's how it ends -- with two members of the Henrickson clan who didn't choose to be members, silently worrying about what to do next.

Episode Grade: A+

For more reviews and hoopla, please join me at The Critical Condition.