(Big Love, 2/1/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro
HBO series Big Love is not for everybody. In a time when mere
gay marriagethat is, between just two peoplequalifies as
a white hot issue, asking an audience to sympathize with a family of
fundamentalist Mormon (FLDS) polygamists in suburban Salt Lake City
takes a certain amount of faith. The gamble seems to be paying off so
far: the series began its fourth season last month.
The show is the saga of the Hendricksons,
an outwardly ordinary Utah family where small businessman Bill (Bill
Paxton) has no fewer than three better halves. Wife number 1 is eminently
presentable but passive-aggressive Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn); number
2, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), grew up on the compound of a hardcore FLDS
sect and, with her belligerent self-sufficiency and taste for prairie
skirts and ruffled blouses, had trouble fitting into suburbia. Number
3 is Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), a live-wire whose sunny disposition
is undermined by the indignities of being the most recent to arrive.
The quartet, surrounded by its penumbra of kiddies, lives in three adjacent
houses that look separate from the front, but share a common yard in
the back. Together they uphold the "Principle" (that is, of
plural marriage), but in the face of the mainline Church of Latter Day
Saints official disavowal of polygamy in 1935and Bill's public
profile as owner of a chain of home improvement storesthey don't
make their lifestyle too obvious.
Big Love is unique, but like
any other soap opera, it is overloaded with events and crises, many
of which seem ripped from recent headlines from Texas and Arizona. Suffice
it to say that over the last three seasons Bill, who began as one of
the surplus "Lost Boys" cast out of his FLDS compound, has
risen to the role of benevolent patriarch, protecting his domestic ark
against assaults from without and within. One of the best aspects of
the show is how it portrays the four-way politics of plural marriage
as complex, but not as hopelessly fraught as critics of polygamy assume.
Like the members of any family, the Hendricksons test each other, disappoint
each other and, on occasion, support each other without conditions.
It helps that their faith is unshakeable, but pragmatic: one of the
current plot strands follows Bill and Barb's travails in starting up
a "Mormon-friendly" casino on a nearby Indian reservation.
Fascinating as it is on its own
terms, Big Love raises uncomfortable questions for people on
all sides of the current culture war over "traditional marriage."
In their zeal to defend customary (straight) monogamy, conservatives
too readily forget that ancient Israel was full of polygamists, including
Abraham, Esau, Jacob and Solomon (who, you recall, had no fewer than
700 wives and 300 concubines). All of these Biblical sister-wives were,
by necessity, also married to people of the same sex. So what qualifies
as real traditional marriage?
For those who want to support expanding
the legal definition of marriage, the implications are also provocative.
For if consenting adults of the same sex have a right to marry, what
about the rights of three or more adults who likewise wish to plight
their troth? Who are you and I to tell such people that their arrangement
is illegitimate? And as long as the persons concerned are of legal age,
why should the government have anything to say about it? The constitutional
stakes are even higher when religious beliefs areFLDS members,
after all, believe that having multiple wives and legions of children
are necessary to enhance their afterlives in Heaven.
Critics of plural marriage tend
to argue that however difficult the union of two people can be, holding
three or more people together is even harder. But this is a practical
argument, not a moral onenobody has the right to bar a couple
from marrying because they think they're bound to divorce. And indeed,
the affairs of human beings can be wilder and weirder than our imaginations
suppose: sometimes, with the right combination of personalities, three
or four actually is more stable than two.
For now, we have Big Love.
Tomorrow, the fight over legalizing the Principle may not be confined
to Culture Blog