What television show has the strongest cast, characters, and writing for women? Today my answer has to be Big Love, HBO’s mediation on religious fundamentalism and, more generally, the meaning of family, love, and sex in modern America. Operating within a modern patriarchal context—whether amidst the poverty and violence of Roman Grant’s fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Juniper Creek compound or gussied up with the material gloss of a Sande, Utah suburban neighborhood—Big Love’s women struggle with their identities and their subordination. In their world, biology is destiny, as childbearing and child raising are the primary functions of their limited roles as wife, sister-wife, mother, daughter, or helpmeet. Individual will has little place in doctrine that guides these lives under the Principle (a euphemism for polygamy), but personal gain is always gumming up the works. Generally speaking, the show balances a “slice of life” view of religious extremism with a sense of our common humanity, but on occasion the wildly simplistic “families come in all shapes and sizes” flag gets waved and I get very uncomfortable. Polygamous families are, by definition, oppressive for women and children at the mercy of a male patriarch—Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) might be a mostly benevolent, even enlightened patriarch, but, if that should change, he wields tremendous power over his dependent and vulnerable wives and children. These reservations aside, Big Love does an outstanding job bringing to life a dazzling array of women who struggle with their restricted circumstances as women within fundamentalism and simply as women in an unequal world.
Jeanne Tripplehorn finally has a role worthy of her considerable talent after languishing in typical Hollywood fare as the devoted wife (see The Firm) and girlfriend (see Waterworld). In many ways, Big Love is a countdown to the day Tripplehorn’s Barb finally leaves for good. Her bout with cancer several years ago was the catalyst for her nuclear family’s adoption of an FLDS lifestyle. With the arrival of Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), daughter of FLDS leader Roman Grant (a superb Harry Dean Stanton), to nurse Barb and care for her children as well as Barb’s subsequent infertility, Bill chose to embrace the Principle and marry Nicki and later Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Barb has thus far grudgingly complied. She is very connected to her sister-wives and also enjoys wielding her power as the first wife, but she can only intermittently contain her rage at Bill for his manipulation of her love when she was sick and vulnerable. Barb suffers over her estrangement from her family of origin and now must confront the profound impact of this life choice on her two teenaged children as they move toward adulthood. And Bill’s continually roving eye—Ana, anyone?—does not help matters.
As for Bill’s other wives, Nicki—as embodied by the amazing Sevigny—has evolved into the unlikely, cockeyed center of the show, as many have noted. She humanizes the Juniper Creek set and is the most fiercely devoted FLDS on the show—she is a true believer and is glorious, terrifying, and dangerous, as are all such extremists. Her hair, clothing, and cadences are perfection. (Where is her Emmy?) Goodwin’s party-girl Margene is also evolving into a woman of substance who still loves a good time … which includes oral sex.
The supporting female cast is uniformly excellent, from Melora Walter’s homicidal yet sympathetic Wanda, wife of Bill’s troubled brother Joey; to Amanda Seyfried’s Sarah Henrickson, who is quietly rejecting the Principle, but is not yet ready to reject her family; to the sociopath who yearns to be an American Idol, otherwise known as Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), Roman’s on-the-lam child bride. (On a show full of crazies, Rhonda might just be the scariest.) But kudos must be given to the show’s creators for providing a venue for the magnificent Grace Zabriskie and the sublime Mary Kay Place. In an industry inhospitable to veteran female performers, Big Love has offered shelter and dynamic roles to these two gifted actors. Zabriskie plays Lois Henrickson, acid-tongued matriarch of the Henrickson clan and daughter of the Juniper Creek prophet deposed by Roman, who awaits her return to power and glory on Earth. In the meantime, she keeps busy overseeing with glee the near demise of her husband Frank (played to sleazy perfection by Bruce Dern) and committing the unstable Wanda to a mental hospital while setting Joey up with a second wife. Lois is dogged and practical; you do not want to provoke her. Nor would it be wise to invoke the wrath of Mary Kay Place’s Adaleen, wife and first lieutenant of Roman and mother of Nicki. Adaleen projects a deeply maternal vibe but beware: she has disowned her daughter and covered up a Henrickson plot to poison her own son, Alby. She played an instrumental role in Roman’s rise from lowly clerk to prophet. And he had best treat Adaleen with the respect that is her due—she helped make him and she can and will break him, if she needs to.
The women of Big Love are a formidable lot on- and off-screen; these characters put a compelling and disturbing new spin on the often-hackneyed concept of family values.
Photo courtesy of HBO