Love me three times

I have to laugh whenever opponents to same-sex marriage use the slippery-slope argument, “If we let gays marry, what’s next? Polygamy?” I always want to say, Maybe. What would be so terrible about that?

No, I hear you. Think of all the cultures that have practiced polygamy, and specifically polygyny, from the ancient Mexica to the Meriam of the Torres Strait to the welfare-dependent fundamentalists of southern Utah. These cultures are/were lousy with the harshest patriarchal systems and big, gooey doses of misogyny. But what if we imagined a polygamy that actually benefits women, even if it still drags along the usual baggage? What would that polygamy look like?

HBO veterans Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer imagine a modern, liberated polygamy in their new drama series, Big Love. It is interesting to note that the creators are real-life partners. Perhaps this drama is as much about pushing the envelope on sexuality, family, and lifestyle (where do we go after Queer as Folk and The L Word?) as it is a meditation on the question of what boundaries for marriage our own culture can accept.

Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) lives a lot like his suburban Salt Lake City neighbors. He runs a growing chain of home improvement stores, Home Plus (get it?), has six kids who keep him busy with basketball games and diapers, and drives an SUV. His house looks like any Western-American tract house, gray-painted wood with white trim — except that it’s actually three identical semi-attached houses. Each house has a swimming pool and a wife: the first wife, Barb (Jeanne Triplehorn), and her two teenage children, the second wife, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), and her two elementary-aged sons, and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, who played Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian, in Walk the Line) with her toddler and infant.

Barb presides over the other two wives, trying to maintain a spirit of order, openness, and cooperation. But even in this little utopia the dream of a modern polygamist family is continually foiled by human nature. Spendthrift Nicki lives for the daily UPS delivery of catalogue goodies and flirts with financial ruin. Margene is overwhelmed by her babies and despairs that she can’t measure up. Barb wants Bill’s soul, Nicki his money, Margene his affection, and all want the prestige and security won through sex with Bill; it’s no surprise when we see him popping Viagra just to keep up with everyone’s demands.

Olsen and Scheffer deliver on the most obvious promise of a show about polygamy. It’s the same thing we want when we watch The Bachelor: female mud wrestling. Yes, the women compete amongst each other for Bill’s attention, affections, and especially his resources. They conspire against each other, spy on each other, betray each other. It’s all there. The writers use that old convenient plot device: wherever there is a trio, two can conspire against the third.

What is surprising is how similar the themes in Bill’s marriages are to any other traditional marriage. Many couples feel the strain of competing demands from spouses, children, career, and social life. Those of you in committed, long-term relationships may notice how much you can relate to in Big Love.

This attempt to normalize polygamous life saves the three wives from becoming mere mud-wrestling spectacles; so do good writing and complex characterization. We see Margene’s aching loneliness, Nicki’s gnawing, all-encompassing hunger, Barb’s struggle to maintain her position of leadership and to make sense of what she calls her “mature marriage.”

But Big Love throws in another plotline that is potentially even more intriguing — and inflammatory — than the polygamy: early Mormonism’s relativistic positions on the sanctity of human life. Mormonism began as a frontier religion with strong ties to Freemasonry. Its early leaders mapped out a theology that sanctioned murder in certain circumstances, “blood atonement” for those who harm church members and their cause. This language has since been written out of modern LDS theology, but some fundamentalist Mormons still claim it (as recently explored in Jon Krakauer’s controversial book, Under the Banner of Heaven).

In Big Love, we learn that Bill grew up in a fundamentalist polygamist sect in southern Utah called Juniper Valley. When this community exiled Bill at 14 he entered secular life, marrying a former LDS woman (Barb) and starting his own business. Family obligations keep Bill tied to Juniper Valley; so do financial ties. The community’s sinister “Prophet” (Harry Dean Stanton) has been extorting Bill for a fortune for years. When Bill tries to release himself from this bondage we know that the Prophet and his Mafioso goonies (this is an HBO series, after all) are not going to let go without a fight.

This second plotline of organized crime and blood atonement add dimension to what might merely have been Desperate Polygamist Housewives. But near the end of the second episode we see a hint of what could turn the series into an epic — a distinctly American epic. Bill returns from a family drama in Juniper Valley to the domestic dramas closer to home. After a fervent prayer in his truck Bill marches into Margene’s home to reassure her of her valuable place not just in Bill’s family but in the human family. He speaks of sacrifices, generations, and eternity. “Our family wasn’t complete before you. I wasn’t complete before you.” Margene nods and then sends us crashing back to earth: “OK, but I still need a car.”

This is the magic, seduction, and tension of polygamy, of cults, of religion: the notion that you are part of something great and awesome that will transform you beyond — and yet with — your earthly, body-bound self. Polygamy for a true believer is not about the sex. It’s about immortality. It’s about becoming gods and goddesses. It’s about future celestial worlds beyond number. The creators of Big Love grant their characters’ spiritual yearning a certain dignity and respect that raises the stakes in the drama. Will the frail human beings of Big Love find a way to reach their own cosmic goals? Will Bill be done in by all that binds him to this earthly existence? Olsen and Scheffer are banking that you’ll stay tuned to find out. My last two questions are: Do you have HBO? Is there room in your home for one more?

Big Love premieres on HBO March 12. Check your local listings for times.

7 responses to “Love me three times”

  1. Missy says:

    Great review, Adriana. I can’t WAIT to see this–I’ll have to shoo all my lesbian friends home after the L-Word on Sunday night, so I can watch it in peace. They might enjoy the show, but it’s too close to home, to freaky to see something even kind of close to our culture represented on tv to share it with them. But how did you get this sneak preview?

  2. Lori says:

    Ah, nice!

    But you don’t mention Bill Paxton’s overly exposed heinie.

    “Is there room in your home for one more? ” you ask.
    “Can she cook?” I ask.

  3. Missy says:

    Nevermind, A, I just read Brooklyned’s very different response to the show. I’m so disappointed that they don’t know how to say celestial, for chrissakes. When they show Bill Paxton’s behind, is it in garments?

  4. Adriana says:

    A good journalist never reveals her sources — unless, of course, her source outs herself. Yes, I got my scoop from Lori (though I missed episodes 3 & 4 last night). As for Paxton’s behind, no garments. The first time we see his bum it’s in threadbare whitey tighties. The next time they’re al nudie. He has nothing to be ashamed of in that department.

  5. G-Lock says:

    Great review! Robbins and I just watched the premiere. Eh.

  6. Saw this in the Times today. For what it’s worth, I like the show so far. Creepy, but I like it.

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