The Beneficent Patriarchy of “Big Love” Loses Its Luster

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The Beneficent Patriarchy of “Big Love” Loses Its Luster

Sarah Seltzer

The "heart" of Big Love has been in the question of how women survive in patriarchy, zooming in on the three wives struggling with the fundamental inequality of their relationships. But the show has lost its way.

I began writing about Big Love because a character appears to have terminated a pregnancy this season. The story is this: an embryo was implanted in the not-exactly-young Adaleen by JJ, who is trying to create a pure polygamist race. Or something. Adaleen at first thinks it’s natural and her “treatments” are merely fertility treatments. JJ is the ex-husband of Adaleen’s daughter, Nicki. Nonetheless, Alby, who is Adaleen’s son, and Nicki’s brother and the “prophet” of the compound has handed his mother in marriage to JJ, and they’ve consummated it. In sum: she’s been forcibly wedded to her ex son-in-law and she thinks their baby is legit.

Once Adaleen realizes what’s been done to her, however, she acts out and kills JJ by burning down his lab with him inside it. But she’s kept the pregnancy through the help of constant hormone injections until ordered to stop by the “prophet” of her polygamist compound–Alby again. And so finally she flushes her pills down the toilet and declares herself “pure.” Presumably, the pregnancy is gone.

I tried to piece together all these rather ridiculous occurrences in the course of writing about the significance of Adaleen’s body being manipulated by men to create and then end her pregnancy. Indeed that’s just one of two major feminist plots this season: first wife Barb now believes that women can hold the Mormon “priesthood,” shocking everyone around her. But both of these plots are hamstrung by the vengeance and melodrama arising from principal character and “principle”-embracer Bill Henrickson’s dealings with extreme polygamists and the corrupt senate. Adaleen’s demon-baby story is in fact a pretty minor subplot–and an overly soapy one at that. And therein lies the problem with a feminist critique of the show. So instead of just writing about Adaleen’s womb, I’m writing about what happens when a feminist show loses its way.

Last year, I wrote that Big Love is a soap opera with an embedded critique of patriarchy. But in its final two seasons, the show has allowed that critique to get watered down as it plunged into a kidnapping plot ending with a limb getting severed in Mexico (yep!), and a series of improbable dramatic turns which explode not just its credibility as a feminist show, but as a believable one.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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But oh, for what might have been. The series reached its artistic and its feminist climax in Season 3,  particularly in a memorable “road trip episode”: “Come, Ye Saints.” In the course of this episode’s hour-long family “pilgrimage” across country, two family secrets were aired and both had to do with women’s bodily autonomy. First it comes out that holier-than-thou wife Nicki has been taking birth control, shocking her family which believes constant birthing earns them a spot in heaven. Second, oldest daughter Sarah–assumed to be a virgin–is revealed to be pregnant by her boyfriend and is in fact having a miscarriage on the trip. She has, by their standards, “defiled” her body. Throughout this tightly-plotted episode, the religious message that “you are not allowed to do what you want with your body (if you’re a woman)” was contrasted with the characters’ desires to personally empathize with each other. These conflicts over women’s bodies were an apt metaphor for sexual politics in the United States.

In the same vein, Adaleen’s bizarre pregnancy plot this season was assuredly meant to reflect on patriarchy: she wanted to have a baby to reaffirm her value as a woman–the only kind of contribution she could make in her misogynist world. But unlike the road trip episode, which expertly contrasted the weirdness of this family with the typical family dynamics of a car trip, the zigzagging plot undermined the message. Adaleen wanted to keep the pregnancy–even after learning of its weird origins–because of the “woman’s worth is in her womb” idea. Still, when her son-the-prophet told her she was impure, she got rid of the much-desired pregnancy to obey his wishes. Adaleen is the ultimate example of the woman who is utterly compliant with patriarchy–to her own doom. But this concept gets garbled in the web of violent revenge and lies (and arson) that are ultimately more numbing and dull than a more subtle exploration of Adaleen’s feelings might have been.

As “Come, Ye Saints” showed, Big Love always succeeded when it left behind all the feuding Utah factions, the twisted, violent politics of the ultra-polygamist compound where Bill grew up. Although all the political wheeling and dealing is ostensibly quite realistic for Utah’s political scene, it’s not the heart of the show. Instead, that heart has been in the question how women survive in patriarchy, zooming in on the three wives and Sarah struggling with the fundamental inequality of their relationships and finding coping mechanisms that range from independence to outright denial.

Bit by bit over the first few seasons, the fabric of this family life had begun to unravel–and been patched up just in the nick of time. One wife after another, in shifts, became unhappy and then grew appeased by her own task, or friendship, or attention from Bill–who, let’s face it, was a compelling expert at smoothing ruffled wifely feathers. Occasionally the wives have banded together, but more often they’re prone to jump on each others’ weaknesses and doubts to attain supremacy with Bill and enter into his confidence. Last season, Margene and Barb grew frustrated as Nikki finally confronted the trauma of her youth on the compound (sold off to marriage at 16 and essentially raped) and began acting out. In the current season, as Barb begins to question the male supremacy at the heart of her religion–essentially spouting sacrilege–the other women are ready to pounce. Again, this is a great metaphor for patriarchy, and the way women are forced to accept concessions or jockey for position within its strictures.

But it doesn’t work dramatically on Big Love these days, because it’s a constant drone rather than a provider of narrative momentum. While all the vigilantism and killing and politics provides motion for the storyline, the more compelling angle of how these women navigate their lives is background noise. One wife is unhappy. Then another wife is unhappy. But they always come back.

We’ve also lost some  sympathy for Big Love’s “better” patriarch Bill. The question that the show danced up against–is he a good man trying to make his way despite believing in a misguided system or is he no better than the cruel polygamists he shuns?–has lost its tantalizing quality. Bill’s recent decision to run for office and then to expose his family’s “alternative lifestyle” to the jeers of everyone around him make him seem less megalomaniacal than stupid. With this guy as the “priesthood holder” it’s hard to see the pull of polygamy. And indeed Barb, the only wife with grown kids, has started to espouse the belief that “women can hold the priesthood” which is genuinely threatening to sever her from her family, perhaps permanently.  But at this point, if she leaves Bill and the other wives, it won’t seem like a great victory for womankind. Instead it will be a “she should have done this back when” moment. Because the squabbles of the wives as they chafe at their position now sound more like whining and less like women in a genuine dilemma.

Instead of seeking so many storylines outside of the family circle, the truly interesting (and feminist) choice would have been to keep the momentum centered on the four hearths of the Henrickson household.