Bill Henrickson is a man with a lot on his mind. He's got a business to run, and in these tough economic times, he's looking to expand. His main company is a set of Home Depot-style stores, but he's recently bought a slot machine supplier and wants to get in on the ground floor of building a new casino. He's also looking to expand his family by getting another wife. His fourth, actually. You see, Bill lives what is called "The Principle," part of an extreme offshoot of the Mormon faith where the members practice polygamy. The Principle says that the family you build on Earth is the same family you will have in heaven, and the larger your clan, the more you exalt God. It's not the best time to be growing either part of his life, as one of his fathers in law is the prophet Roman Grant, currently awaiting trial for various polygamy-related charges, part of a larger crackdown on the practice. Roman's legal problems could expose everyone, even families like Bill's who don't live on some crazy secret compound, but rather try to assimilate into normal life.
This is basically where we are at when Big Love: The Complete Third Season begins. Like some kind of fringe religious Atlas, Bill Henrickson is carrying a whole world of belief on his shoulders. Bill Paxton plays his namesake, as he has for the other seasons of this HBO drama, and he does so with true earnestness, balancing ambition in business with his ambition in Christian devotion. The tagline for this season is "Everyone has something to hide," and the overriding theme is that for all the judgment that would be cast on Bill and his brood if their neighbors knew what was really going on in their trio of adjoining houses, each and every one of them has their own skeletons in their closets. The Henricksons are hiding in plain site, as are we all. It's just a matter of fitting in so no one notices.
I enjoyed the first season of Big Love (and even reviewed it here), but fell a bit off the bandwagon during the second season (reviewed by Preston Jones here). The show just seemed to get so heavy, overburdened with conspiracies, with rival factions of polygamists, and Bill's ongoing war with Roman Grant (played with creepy malice by the brilliant Harry Dean Stanton). What I liked best about the show was the multi-planed union, the idea that three marriages in one are really three distinct relationships that have to be navigated not just by the husband, but all three wives, who are also married to one another. ("Sister Wives," as they are called.) In this, not only does the show say something about the nature of relationships, but also challenges the audience's perceptions. I think it's safe to say that just about everyone goes into Big Love with the preconceived notion that polygamy is wrong, and while the producers in no way, shape, or form try to convince us otherwise, at some point we all must realize that we have accepted this family despite their lifestyle. We care about these characters even though their choices are anathema to our own way of living. How can that be?
Big Love: The Complete Third Season once again makes the cultish Juniper Creek Compound a secondary component of the show, and it brings married life front and center. At the start of the season, Bill is dating Ana (Branka Katic, recently seen in Public Enemies), a Serbian waitress who is a bit more headstrong and mainstream than his other wives. The original three include his first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the true matriarch of the family; Nicolette (ChloŽ Sevigny), Roman Grant's daughter and the most uptight and religious of the group; and the newest wife, the young convert Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). The ladies have only recently found out about Ana, and they are reluctantly accepting her due to a surprising effort on Barb's part. As longtime viewers will recall, we know that Bill originally convinced Barb to live the Principle when she was fighting cancer; marrying Nicki would mean Bill and Barb's children would have a new mother already in place. Facing a possible cancer regression, Barb embraces Ana as a way to regain control of something, which has long been a struggle for her character. Her convictions about plural marriage are shakier than the rest.
The group "dating" Ana is the focus of the first half of the season, alongside the trial of Roman Grant. The process of bringing in another wife is just as it sounds: she dates all four of them, not just Bill. We also see a marriage ceremony, and then the difficulty of bringing a new woman into the fold. Paralleling this is Bill's struggles to get the casino going, and the intrigue lying behind Roman's trial. As with much of Big Love, the plot points are meant to present Bill with a moral dilemma and test his faith. Roman being convicted could turn the spotlight on other polygamists, but since Roman's charges involve his coercing young girls into marrying much older men, the Prophet's indiscretions are a perversion of Bill's own beliefs. Is not condemning such a man the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences?
I know some church groups have their problems with Big Love, but outside of the extreme, non-typical scenario, I've always felt that the show attempted to show all sides of the religious establishment, from the most cynical of doubters through the true believers and up to the worst exploiters, with equal respect. The bad parts aren't meant to discount the good parts, nor are the good people put up for ridicule. Take the issues Bill has with each of his wives and imagine a different husband in each role, not just one spouse, and they would make for believable dramas about individual couples trying to maintain a marriage within their faith. In fact, the portrayal of Bill as a religious man struggling with his ideology is so good, I realized this season that it's part of the reason I have a hard time liking him. He's so faith-centric, it's almost dogmatic, and I get tired of his moralizing. Which, again, goes back to my theory that sometimes Big Love exposes more about the person watching the show than the fictional people that person is watching.*
The second half of the season is focused on the fallout from this fourth marriage and from Roman's trial, and there is a clear demarcation in Episode 6, "Come, Ye Saints," in which Bill packs up the whole family and takes them on a long road trip to trace the path their ancestors followed when they fled the east to escape persecution. As with many a family vacation, things go wrong, people get testy, and Bill begins to realize that his flock has gone astray and that the true test of his faith is going to be finding the proper course of action to bring them closer. Circumstances will get worse before they will get better, though. Bill has yet to find out that his eldest daughter Sarah (Amada Seyfreid) has let her relationship with an older man go too far, or that Nicki has been spying in the D.A.'s office on behalf of her father. Margene also loses her mother, causing changes in her. I'm a bit surprised by one of Bill's sins early in the season being completely swept under the carpet, especially since it provides a dramatic hypocrisy that would be fruitful in Nicki's story, but I guess the back end of The Complete Third Season is already pretty loaded as it is.
There is also a return to the more heavy plotting, particularly as Roman shores up old allies and other quarters move to stop Bill's deal to build a casino on Native American land. The writers start to stack up the complications and unveil secrets, and you can tell even they must think it's all getting to be a bit much when they have Barb exclaim that everything is so out of control, it hardly seems real (episode 8). Luckily for the scripting team, they have an extremely capable ensemble of actors to carry the show, and so no matter how out of bounds the story goes, they've got performers who can sell it. Personally, I think Jean Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin are the real stand-outs of the main cast, playing the two bookends of the marriage, the matriarch with a need to stay in control and the youngest wife with a need to cut loose. Amanda Seyfreid also gets some good scenes, particularly in the cycle of shows that begins with the road trip. Her emotional dilemma is heartbreaking. In addition to Harry Dean Stanton, other distinguished pros that have recurring roles are the quirky character actors Grace Zabriskie, Luke Askew, Ellen Burstyn, and Bruce Dern, and you can pretty much bet any scene they are in will be good.
I'll refrain from talking about the last two episodes of Big Love: The Complete Third Season, as they would be hard to discuss without unleashing a torrent of spoilers. Suffice to say, as with most season finales, as many threads are unspooled as are tied up, and there are plenty of cliffhangers to draw viewers toward the forthcoming new season. That said, there is also a sufficient finish that gives a healthy portion of The Complete Third Season's major narrative a satisfying conclusion.
* I'm not going to pretend I can definitively argue that there is no one on the creative staff without an axe to grind; I'm just reacting to what I see on the screen.
Subtitles are available in Spanish, French, English, and English Closed Captioning.
Surprisingly, there aren't a lot of extras on Big Love: The Complete Third Season. Only DVD 1 has any supplements. First up are four short promos called "Their Stories so Far," in which Bill, Barb, Nicolette, and Margene address the camera directly, giving first-person recaps of who they are and what is going on. These don't really have any spoilers, but I thought it was a bit of a mistake watching the other set of extras before I had dug into the season. This group consists of three "mini-dramas," each about three minutes in length, under the banner "Three Past Midnight." These exclusive scenes demonstrate how various sets of characters--Bill and Barb, Nicki and Margene, and the kids, Sara and Ben--react to a raid of a Kansas polygamist compound. Though this raid takes place in the first episode, the characters are as we presumably will see them later in the season, and though there are no big or unpredictable revelations, some may be annoyed by the foreknowledge. (Though, now that I've watched the whole season, I'm not sure where these fall in the timeline. Is this a tease for Season Four)
DVD 1 also shows a trailer for HBO programs as it loads (skippable with your remote), and kudos to HBO for not putting this on every disc. I've always thought putting the same commercial on every DVD of a TV series set punishes those who actually bought the box. Why should we be advertised to when the sale has already been made? (Don't get me started on the anti-piracy ads on discs I paid for. Sing it to someone else, I'm already in the choir.)