Sunday, March 20, 2011

Big Love Finale: Saying Goodbye to the Sister Wives

Tonight HBO’s wonderful, complicated – and, at times, just plain loony – five-year series Big Love comes to an end. It’s the story of Bill Henrickson and his three sister-wives: Barbara, his first wife and mother of his three eldest children; Nikki, the second wife who was brought up on a strict polygamous culture and is the mother of his two blond-headed boys; and Margene, the young, wide-eyed girl who loves Bill unconditionally and who is the mom of his three youngest. (Warning: Spoilers for all five seasons are ahead...)

When the show began, everything seemed peachy for the Henrickson family. He had three neighbouring houses – one for each wife – and a monthly schedule where he would spend certain evenings with each wife. This was worked out by Barbara, taking various “womanly” things into consideration, and when the series opened we saw that Bill was taking Viagra just to keep up his stamina. As a female, married viewer, I immediately identified with Barbara, as many women who watch this show probably do. She married Bill first (when there were no plans for a polygamist family) and is the only one of the women who knows what it’s like to be his one and only. But then Barbara got sick, and he brought Nikki, a girl from the insane Juniper Creek compound where Bill grew up, to help nurse her through her cancer. Barbara, worried that she might die, talked it over with Bill and agreed that he should marry Nikki, so she could be his life partner, provide him with children, and help ensure his place in the “celestial kingdom.” But then Barbara got better, and now realized she had to share her husband with someone else. And then Margene came along, and Barbara once again encouraged Bill to marry her (we find out this season that she actually felt lonely with Nikki and wanted a woman around who she could talk to). And now with two other women sharing his affections and giving Bill children when Barbara no longer could, Barbara began to wonder if this really was the best thing for her.

Women first coming to the show will probably come at it with the same preconception: How could any woman DO this? How could you share your husband with another woman? How is it fair that he gets to sleep with other women and call it a “religious right,” but if you dared have an affair, it would be nothing more than a tawdry affair? How do these women live with the gender imbalance that exists in their lives? But then, as the first season went on, while these questions still bubbled below the surface, one couldn’t help but start to see things their way. All of these women always have other women to turn to, women who have their best interests in mind and who aren’t jostling for any position (well, except maybe for Nikki). They help each other with the laundry and with the housekeeping. They share groceries and menu-planning and cooking duties. They not only get help raising their own children, but they get the pleasure of helping raise new little ones constantly.

But this was an idealized notion of polygamy. When we traveled to Juniper Creek, we saw a different reality: where the women all dress in identical confining giant Laura Ingalls dresses; where the men use them for sex and baby-making but show them no love or affection otherwise; where they don’t confide in each other, but keep secrets, worried that any confidence will be used against them. Throughout the five seasons we’ve watched Bill’s family slowly come under scrutiny in the public eye, while the Grants at Juniper Creek fight for who will be the “prophet” (once again drawing in Bill, since Nikki is the daughter of one prophet and the sister of the other). We’ve been introduced to the creepy and crazy Greens, and saw Bill decide to shine a spotlight on polygamy and try to legitimize it in the public eye at what could be one of the worst cases of timing in history. At the end of last season, which was just rather psychotic (I’d like to pretend it didn’t happen in many ways), I said to my husband, “So... next season will they all get on a spaceship and move to outer space and hook up with some alien sister wives??” This shift in mood in S4 was signalled by changing the opening credits from this wonderful vision of the women skating with Bill to the sounds of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” to a more ethereal song called “Home” by The Engineers while we watch images of them all falling through the sky in sexy poses in slow-motion. I love the song, hate the context of it, and long for that old opening (which, with the cracking ice, perfectly sums up this season).

The show is always at its best when it focuses on the personal issues of the family. Nikki’s overspending and secret ingestion of birth control pills while pretending to try to get pregnant. Margene’s dreams to be something more, getting a job at a QVC-type of TV show and harbouring a guilt-inducing crush on Bill’s eldest son, who is closer to her age than Bill is. Barbara’s inner struggle with the changing family and her desire to hold the priesthood, just like any man would.

And the reason season 5 has been SO good is because, aside from Bill’s foray into politics, it’s focused more on the family, which is what made it so good in the first place. All three women have been thrust into the spotlight when Bill outs them as polygamists at the end of season 4. Now Margene has lost her TV advertising job and is lost. That’s before it finally comes out that she lied about her age when she married Bill, and his “marrying” her and having children with her legally constitutes statutory rape (with Barbara as the accomplice). Yikes. Meanwhile, Bill refuses to recognize that any woman is capable of holding the priesthood, undermining Barbara’s desires. Nikki’s daughter (whom she had when she was really young and betrothed to this guy at Juniper Creek when she was in the Joybooks as a child, a guy who played Juliet’s husband on Lost and who ends up marrying Nikki’s mother and making her his latest sister-wife before trying to impregnate both Nikki and her mom through in vitro before they both fight back and burn down his clinic with he and his evil other sister-wife inside... no, really...) has come back to live with her, but because Nikki isn’t legally married to Bill, Bill can’t adopt the girl as his own. So he DIVORCES Barbara and marries Nikki. It was a whopper of a storyline this season, and brought our sympathies and affections back to the person with whom they originated: Barbara.

Now, as we enter the season finale, Barbara has some decisions to make. Bill’s about to go away for a long time if the statutory rape thing goes through. Nikki is legally married to Bill and is the only woman who can see him for conjugal visits. Barbara is trying to find herself – she’s begun drinking casually (something Mormons do not tolerate), she’s visiting her old church again, she’s continuing to vie for the priesthood, and she’s refusing to visit Bill’s new church. Nikki is happily at Bill’s side no matter what, and has gotten her wish at being his real wife, something she rubs in Barbara’s face every chance she gets. (Nikki is played beautifully by Chloe Sevigny, who manages to make you despise her for half the episode, and love her for the other half. Every. Time.) And then there’s Margene, who’s suddenly realized she’s in her early 20s and now won’t have a husband in her bed for 20 years. She’s got three children, but she’s worried that her sister-wives will resent her, because it’s her lie that will put Bill away to begin with.

So what will happen to them? It’ll be interesting if the family ends up entirely broken by the end of it. Part of me wonders if Bill will end up with only Nikki and her family, and Barbara will finally venture out on her own, which I would love to see. That leaves Margene on her own, but something tells me that no matter what she said about her age, Barbara won’t abandon Margene. Perhaps they’ll decide to stay together, as sister-wives without the intrusive husband. Now THAT would be an interesting step in a new direction.

Big Love airs tonight on HBO and HBO Canada at 9pm.


Megan said...

Now that Lost is over, Big Love is the only show I watch. I need to find a new show: my favourites keep ending!

The politics storyline was ridiculous. It has never made sense to me, and it had better pay off tonight.

Jazzygirl said...

Sobbing. Shock (sort of). And here again I run to find comfort in the one place and person (people) who will understand. I'm so so sad on so many levels. And again my stomach is in knots just like it was last year because of the death of a show that I've invested my heart into. :(

Lisa(until further notice) said...

Received a phone call right at the critical moment...the blessing. AGH!!! It just wasn't the same after that. I am going to have to rewatch so I can take it all in again. I'm with you Jazzygirl... sigh.

Nikki Stafford said...

Wow... I SO did not see that ending coming, did you guys?? Wow. I think I'm still in shock. Even as the neighbour was talking to him I didn't see it coming.

Does anyone know if that was Ginnifer Goodwin's real hair in that final scene? Because I LOVED it.

But... wow. First I'm crying trying to get over the scene with Bill's mom, and then... that. Still trying to process that ending.

Nikki Stafford said...

By the way, I wanted to add that I adored the ending. I had said in my post that what I really wanted was some sort of proof that Barbara and Margene could endure without Bill, but I thought that would be because he'd be in jail and Nikki would continue being his wife. Seeing the women a year later STILL TOGETHER (amazing and awesome), with Barbara being the priest of the church and Margene going off to do her missionary work, and Nikki... happy. Grumpy and complaining, but we know that's what makes her happy. She appears to be OK with her daughter, and seeing Sarah was wonderful, too (I was hoping we'd get a glimpse of her at the end).

Though when her hubby walked in I wanted him to say, "Yo, bless this kid, BITCH!!"

So I was happy.

Lisa(until further notice) said...

Nikki: That is Ginnifer Goodwin's hair. I read that she has a wig clause built into all her contracts so that she doesn't have to change own her hair for a role...she always gets to wear a wig instead. Interesting fact number 4 8 15 16 23 42.

Megan said...

Yep, that's Ginnifer's real hair.