'Big Love' creators discuss the finale: 'We didn't want it to be a downer'
"Big Love," after five seasons, multiple wives and more plotlines than you could shake a stick at, finished out its run with an extended, emotional episode Sunday night on HBO. We got “Big Love” creators (and real-life couple) Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer on the phone shortly after the finale to talk about its shocking conclusion, their love-hate relationship with the blogosphere and whom they’ll miss the most. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
Why did Bill have to die?
Mark V. Olsen: Once we made an assessment and talked to HBO and said we’re thinking of wrapping it up this year ... Will and I were talking generally about the arcs of our characters and what would be the greatest arcs we could give them. And we were looking at the character of Bill, and we thought, after all the trials and tribulations that this guy brought his family through, as a kid growing up on the compound, and struggling to make his way in a secular world, what would be his greatest accomplishment? And we didn’t feel it was going to be as a successful Home Plus owner, or a casino owner. It was being a guy who created a marriage and a family that endured the test of time. And we started asking ourselves what would be the best way of enabling that. And we actually thought by far the strongest dramatic expression of that was having created a family that endured even after he’s gone.
Why did he have to die at the hand of disgruntled neighbor Carl? Why not Alby or Adaleen?
MO: We felt that it was Alby, to tell you the truth. Believe me, we went through all the likely suspects, because in this world, everyone is a potential murderer. But Alby seemed like it made a statement that we weren’t comfortable saying. If Alby did it, it would be the triumph of darkness. … Oddly enough, even though Bill was murdered, Will and I are very optimistic guys [laughs]. Even though Bill’s death was there, we didn’t want it to be a downer. We didn’t want it to be evil prevails over goodness. That Alby won that battle. So we removed him from the table. And then there was the truly anonymous stranger, you know. The guy that comes out of the woodwork. The kind of idiot who would attack [Congresswoman] Gabrielle Giffords at a campaign rally. That kind of motif. And that felt like a cheat. What does that say? That says nothing. That truly is a random card. At least with Carl, it is thematically of our world. It is the poor guy who is suffering so much with the pressures of expectations that are placed on men in this culture -- it felt like it had some resonance to the material. And then, on a sheer storytelling level, we felt like we could build it in a way where it was a surprise (hopefully), and yet it was also built-in.
It seemed like some viewers really wanted Bill to get some sort of comeuppance, go to jail, be punished for his actions or have his wives leave. Was there any sort of thought to this when approaching the finale?
Will Scheffer: No, because we always essentially wanted to dramatize a family that works.
MO: So much of the blogs focused on this, for a couple years now, have been, who’s going to leave? Is Margie going to leave? Is Nicki going to leave? Is Barb going to leave? And it’s true, these wives have all suffered, as has Bill. But you know, Will and I would look at each other and go, maybe we should tell everybody: No one’s leaving. This is going to sound almost absurd at this point, given the darkness of the last two years of the series, but it has always been our intention to dramatize a family that works and a marriage that works. That was very easy to do in the first three years. You could just stack the decks in a certain way, and you could give just enough conflict that enabled everyone to be able to find the kind of compromises that made them a deeper person. But we really wanted to explore what it’s like for change in a marriage. And can a marriage change when one party -- in this case, it was Barb -- was no longer agreeing to the fundamental DNA of that marriage. Let’s take this as deep as we possibly can and then explore whether at the end of the day it’s a family that works and a marriage that works and what’s the price that has to be paid for that. So we never, ever looked at the season in terms of who’s going to leave. We always looked at it in terms of the struggle of finding ways in which that marriage could redeem the characters.
WS: Yeah, and we never felt like Bill’s death was all of a sudden, oh, now the women could finally be free of that patriarchal jerk. Now they get to finally live out the life they wanted to live. Even if he didn’t die, we knew that he was going to have to change, if Barb was going to really be fulfilled in this marriage. It wasn’t that she was going to leave if he didn’t change. We felt that she would find a way, finally, to make this marriage work for her, whether he lived or died.
The closing scene, which showed the wives in an embrace, seemed to refocus the show more on the wives.
MO: [There was] that sort of subversive feminist core at the heart of this patriarchal material, absolutely. However … they are the surviving spouses of a marriage that was forged over this five-year period. And I think that’s the comment that we want to make: But for their struggles in this marriage, and but for Bill’s insistence on this marriage, those three women wouldn’t be standing there in an embrace in the end. So it’s a very complicated landscape that got them there, a very messy journey that got them there, but at the end of the day, this marriage, it worked.
Do you think this marriage would work had Bill not died? Because it seemed like he was the martyr, and the wives were brought together through him, but they wouldn’t be able to be the people that they wanted to become had he not died.
MO: I think that’s a totally fair point to be made. A marriage can only work when it serves the core and the growth and the spirit of the participants of that marriage. And this was really pulling at the distance. Would Barb have stuck out that marriage had Bill not had his vision in the church, had Bill lived and been the same fundamentalist guy that he had been all season, hewing to fundamentalist principles and not listening to his heart? I don’t know; I doubt it. I think she probably would have been forced to end this marriage. But at the end of the day, Bill did [have his vision] … so had Bill not been shot, but had he received that vision that he had in the church, and received her in the church, then yeah, I think that marriage would have continued quite successfully.
Can you talk about that vision that Bill had in the church? What did it mean? Did he become a prophet?
MO: No, that was the personal revelation about the whole nature of his belief system and religion. Before he invoked those words and had that vision, he was still fundamentally a fundamentalist. But as he was saying, “This is the place where we gather for meetings and deaths, and marriages and sealings,” the emphasis [was] family, eternal family forever. And his vision in that moment became that. And it was, as he describes to Ben, in that moment of grace that allowed him to receive and embrace what Barb had been saying all along. It allowed him to have some breathing room between him and his traditionally fundamentalist beliefs.
What was he writing in the legal pad in the backyard?
MO: It was all this stuff that he had encapsulated to Ben and Don: “Guys, I just got it. You know what? Religion is not there to dictate the form of a family. Religion is not there to cram our emotions into. It’s just the other way around. I just had this profound vision of eternal loving family, and anything that’s inconsistent with that is bad. That’s where religion ought to come from. Not the other way around.” He’s feverishly trying to capture all that down in that moment.
Did Frank die alongside Lois?
MO: No, that was just Lois. Frank was honoring that pledge that he gave Lois, I believe in Episode 6. So even though there’s several bottles of the medicine, there’s just that one syringe that he had used. And she’s the only one that closes her eyes and drifts off.
Did you feel like you said everything that you needed to say, or did you feel you could go 10 more episodes?
MO: There were tons of stories that easily could have gone 10 more episodes. But in terms of the themes that Will and I were interested in exploring, I feel like we really got that this year. And we really got closure on that this season. One of the profound things that we were trying to dramatize was, can a family fundamentally change what it believes in, or does it always have to pass its dysfunction into the next generation? And I think that’s what we were really trying to dramatize this year in this family. On the most fundamental level, can a family change? And we wanted that message to be yes, it can.
What happened to some of the supporting characters, like Joey and Wanda?
MO: I think it was addressed at the end of last season, that Joey, on the heels of Bill leading him in Mexico, wandered off in Mexico and kind of never came back. We actually had an episode, I think it was Episode 3, our Christmas episode, where we had a scene with Wanda at the house, [but] we were so over budget on that episode, so overextended, we had to lose two or three scenes, and that’s one of those, unfortunately, that we had to lose. So we lost that little bit of narration as well. Those are some of the regrets that you do have.
Has it hit you that it’s over, aside from the fact that you’re still talking about it? Have you been able to have closure in this process?
MO: We’ve had so many levels of saying goodbye and closure. Months of it. With the cast. With the crew. With the production. The last table read. The last day of shooting. You know? The last day of post-production. And I, you know, Will and I have both been very emotional about it, but oddly enough, tonight’s the night. It’s the airing of the episode that’s that final, oh my gosh, it’s really over.
Do you have a character that you’ll miss the most?
WS: I’ll miss them all.
MO: I, I … oh, God, don’t quote me on this, but Nicki. Oh, OK, quote me. You know, she’s awfully fun to write for. Both the character and the actress.
Is there a scene that you love that encapsulates the show?
WS: The scene I’m kind of feeling right now is the three women in the car, driving. There’s just something about that scene that sort of feeds to all the glances and moments that the series tries to do without words, tries to do with looks, and was so full of joy and sadness, and kind of encapsulates everything.
MO: I think maybe one of my favorite scenes in the series, and it’s absolutely my favorite Nicki scene, was in episode 8, when she found out that Cara Lynn was having the affair, and she went to Greg Ivey’s apartment, and she went with Cara Lynn in tow, and she went there with righteous indignation, and fury, and had the upper hand, and at the end of the scene, she was just a savage, wild animal, and then a beaten women. What Chloë [Sevigny] did with that scene was stunning, horrifying, heart rending.
Are you hoping for Emmys, or is that something on your radar at all?
MO: No … I mean, look: Every year you hope for an Emmy, and every year you hope for a Golden Globe. You hope for good criticism and you hope for good blogs. All that stuff. But I think we just really wanted to write it well this year and go out strong. We wanted to write every character as true and as good as we could …
WS: And I think we wanted to land the series. There’s so few shows that really land that series in the finale, and I think that was our goal, our ardent discipline for the entire year, and I really feel like we did that. And for us, that has to be the best revenge, or the best reward. I think we hit the themes we wanted to hit, we said what we wanted to say with the series, we created a finale that I’m really proud of. I think our last year is really going to be remembered as our finest year. Whether we fete it, celebrate it with awards -- that’s up to other people.
Just looking over the scope of the whole series, it seems like Season 4 has gotten a bad rap. Do you think that’s unfair?
MO: That’s such a complicated question. Do we feel, at the end of the day, that there was too much story for nine episodes? Yeah, we do. I think now we feel that as a fact; it’s no longer an opinion or a series of opinions. We bit off more than we could chew in nine episodes. That’s just the long and the short of it. But at the same time, I have to tell you, we’re extraordinarily proud of that season. Extraordinarily proud of that one particular episode that is perhaps the most singularly reviled, which is Episode 7, the Mexico episode. Gosh, there’s so many things that we could comment about this. But I do think the criticism was fair. And yet, I still think -- well, I don’t still think. I firmly believe that the season has more merit that people are giving it credit for.
WS: I think that it’ll be looked back upon with a kinder aspect than it was received by the critics and some fans during the course of the series. And I understand that. I think that we did something different with the tone of the show. We wrote it more like a novel or like a movie. If you go back and you watch each year now, they are very different. … They look different, they feel different. Each one has very particular and peculiar characteristics that the year before didn’t have, and I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do for a television show. And looking back on the whole sweep of it, I understand why some people fell out of favor with the year, because so many things changed, and I don’t think with a television show --
MO: -- you can do that.
WS: People get upset, they get angry, they’re like, "Wait a minute: This is not the show I signed up for, and you’re changing things too much," and they rebel. And I think that’s understandable.
MO: I think subjectively, between the two of us, were we to do it over, we would prune some stories and would have reined it in a little bit and spent more time on character than plot points.
WS: And not go overboard with how many things are changing.
MO: We were five years into our marriage and Will came home with a henna. I had a fit that he had changed completely, and I couldn’t even look at him. So I could only imagine how our viewers felt during our fourth season.
So did that criticism influence the way you approached this final season?
MO: It did. Because we could see the truth of the excess storytelling. And we were both in the writers’ room, we were trying to crack the stories for the fourth season in the last few episodes, and it was hair-raising. We had so many balls in the air, and it just became a succession of plot points, and we were very frustrated at what we had wrought. We kind of knew it, but boy did the audience and the critics, you know, confirm that for us. So we wanted to make that correction, slow it down a bit. But more than just slow it down, get into the family and those relationships. That was literally and figuratively our money in the bank. That’s where our characters are. That’s where our heart is, and that’s what we wanted to embrace this final season.
So does this mean you’re going to troll the message boards and see what people think of the finale?
MO: Oh, God, we do that every day. [laughs]
WS: I try and stop him from doing that.
MO: Yeah, if you want to turn off your tape recorder, we can have a talk about our favorite bloggers and whatnot...
WS: It’s interesting, though, because I’ve learned a lot about the blogosphere, especially this year. I think Mark has learned a little bit more too.
MO: Mark is a masochist and will take any criticism and revel in it. And what I have learned this year is to be a little bit more select about the criticisms that I let enter my heart and enter my soul. Because I go out there and search for any sling and any arrow that was shot at us, and it would wound me for a couple days. And Will would be like, “Stop giving your power to these people. Stop it.” It was only until finally, we won’t name the blog, but one of our more persistent critics, I did a Google image search on. I saw what they looked like, and was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve been giving my power, my well-being, my happiness over to this putz?”
WS: And he wasn’t just a putz. He was like 16 years old.
What message were you hoping to convey with this series?
MO: It’s kind of personal. It kind of goes to our marriage -- our own marriage, which is strong, it’s not necessarily easy, but it informs our lives. It’s more than popping in with the Bickersons every week. We’re dramatizing these people in a way that really does go toward asking, what is a good marriage? What is not a good marriage? And I think all of our audience has answered that. Some have a different answer than we might wish they would have had. Some just think, well, patriarchy is bad. ... And OK, OK, if that got a discussion going about what is a valid marriage and what is a valid institution, then that’s good. Again, we had a different message in mind, but that’s OK. That’s largely, for me, what I hope the takeaway is. It’s just a discussion about marriage and family.
What’s next for you?
WS: We have a nice exclusive relationship with [HBO] for the next two years, in television and television films, so we’ll be developing some series for them and looking at our options in features. But mostly focusing on the next series, because we’ve fallen in love with episodic television.
MO: Yeah, that’s also the real takeaway as well. This medium is incredible. It’s just an incredible opportunity to do things that you can’t do in a novel, that you can’t do in a feature, you can’t do in a play. They’re all different art forms, but boy, what you can do. If you have great characters and great writers and four or five years to tell a story that you’re passionate about … it just doesn’t get any better than that.
— Allyssa Lee
Photos, from top: Ginnifer Goodwin, left, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Bill Paxton and Chloë Sevigny. Tripplehorn, Sevigny and Goodwin. Credit: Chuck Zlotnik / HBO