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Critic's Notebook: Farewell to 'Big Love' [Spoiler alert!]

[SPOILER ALERT: Key plot points of the "Big Love" series finale are discussed below, so if you haven't watched the episode and don't want to know what happens, come back later!]


It was always about the women.

Polygamy may seem like a man’s game — a different bedroom every night, never having to do a dish — but what kept HBO’s “Big Love” from becoming a sexual and marital farce was the more-than-kin, less-than-kind relationship between Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the three wives of hardware store magnate turned state senator Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton).

So it was only fitting that the show, which concluded its five-season run Sunday night, would end with the women, now a trio of widows, standing together almost a year after the strange and unexpected murder of Bill marked the finale’s climax.

In the end, nothing else seemed to matter, as if the hectic spree of plotlines that filled this season almost as crazily as it did the last were somehow just a distraction. Although death lurked in the corners of the last few episodes — the moody light, the ominous soundtrack, the references to the afterlife — the moment came with silent, sudden swiftness, a distillation of the show’s disdain for convention. Bill was murdered not for being polygamous or a politician or even an often supercilious husband but because he re-sodded his neighbor’s lawn, and his death was not played as tragedy. Having made his stand in the Senate and brought the oppressed of Juniper Creek to freedom, Bill dies surrounded by his wives in a state of spiritual ecstasy.

It was a perfect finish to an astonishingly ambitious show that often careened through genre, narrative structure and believability like they were false walls on a stage. To have remained a “perfect” show, “Big Love” probably should have ended two seasons ago, before the action began moving away from the original nexus of family drama, spreading voracious tendrils of subplot all over the place like so much bougainvillea.

But “Big Love” was never much interested in perfection, and that was the unexpected beauty of it. Creators Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen set out to explore the sticky, tantalizing mess of love and marriage, family and commitment in a way that seemed patently absurd — through middle-class polygamy. While audiences, captivated by the smart writing and stellar cast, struggled with the idea that any modern American woman would willingly share a husband, “Big Love” patiently and consistently explained that to try to confine the myriad ways in which the human heart experiences enduring love to one narrow definition of marriage is far more absurd than the idea of polygamy.

And after much Sturm und Drang, including gun-slinging showdowns and Mommy Dearest moments, Bill’s death finally brought that home.

Sunday night’s season finale felt, at times, very much like the end of days. For weeks, relationships, finances and plotlines had been collapsing all around, and it seemed impossible that the writers, much less the Henrickson clan, could dig themselves out. Bill may have ended the corruption of Juniper Creek by taking down Alby (Matt Ross) in a gunfight  that literally rang through the corridors of the Salt Lake City capital building, but he still faced charges of statutory rape after it was made public that Margene had been 17 when they “married.” Meanwhile,  Barb, suddenly called to the priesthood, prepared to leave Bill’s church for a more modern (i.e., polygamy-rejecting) church. Margene, having given up her various attempts to be a businesswoman, realized she needed to see more of the world via a missionary cruise and Nicki struggled to prevent her 15-year old daughter Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson) from continuing the affair she was having with her high school math teacher.

It was all totally crazy — Bill uses his final moments as a sitting state senator to propose a bill legalizing polygamy and all his wives put in their two cents — except for when it wasn’t. As with “Lost,” it became easier to experience things emotionally than intellectually: Grace Zabriskie’s heartbreaking depiction of Bill’s mother’s descent into dementia; Barb’s lovely, honest moment with Nicki — ”I’m spiteful and mean,” says Nicki; “I know,” answers Barb, before embracing her; Nicki’s revelatory reconciliation with Cara Lynn; the wives’ brief Thelma and Louise top-down moment; Bill’s maddening mixture of sanctimony and loving humility, which made him one of television’s most infuriating and compelling characters right up until the moment he dies.

And when the action returns to the Henrickson home 11 months later, we see the family altered but still together, the marriage still holding, because real love rarely looks like what you see on TV. Especially now that “Big Love” is gone. [For the record at 10 a.m. on 3/21: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said the action returned 18 months later and has been corrected.]


Show Tracker recaps and coverage of "Big Love"

Review: "Big Love" Season 5 premiere

Critics Notebook: Disillusioned but still smitten with "Big Love" Season 4


-- Mary McNamara

Photo: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Bill Paxton, and Chloe Sevigny. Credit: Chuck Zlotnick.

Comments () | Archives (26)

Nice article. I agree that Bill was one of the more infuriating characters ever. I think he wanted the best for his family, but he did a lot for his own self worth and mostly at times when it put his family at risk. I think his death was just about all they could do at this point. Those 3 women can now grow and do more with their lives.

I believe it was only 11 months after Bill's death did they have Sarah's baby's christening, not 18.

I have written on some boards that I had wish Bill died and I wouldn't have cared, but, when it happened was hard to watch. The ending was "epic!!!" and I take my "hat" off to Olsen and Scheffer (creators and writers)..
The show at the end was really all about women. Everyone got what they wanted: Barbara got the "preisthood" and is now the Bishop of the Church that Bill built. Margene: gets to go out in the world and help others. She has truly found her "own" way in life. Nicki: Realized that she has no communication skills and is hard to deal with, but at the end of the day; she has her Family, her Sister-wives. ....Genius! The only very sad part is everyone got what they wanted and Bill had to be "dead" to make it possible. :(

I am going to miss the show. I've been a devoted fan since the beginning. But I have to give special shouts to Sevigny and Tripplehorn for being so good, so consistently.

I think it was 11 months later.

It was clear all season that the focus on Carl (absent from at least one previous season) was for a purpose. And interestingly enough, it was Bill's first exchange with Carl (who was pretty mellow back before Christmas) would come back to haunt him.

Of interest, was the fact that with Alby in jail, Bill apparently released the security detail outside the Henrickson home. So, as it turns out, Alby in jail actually made Bill more susceptible to an attack.

I was certain for weeks now that Carl would be central to the end, but held out some hope that he would be a friend, not a foe. So much for that.

"Members Only" (the Capital elevator) and the Oranges ("Godfather") was all the premonition we needed.

Excellent post and recap. I loved the moment when the wives were all saying there goodbyes and Bill was there in the background, to the side of center. I had been rooting for Barb to walk away, but...in the end after everything they had been through...I doubted she would, and in the end her staying was true to character. I will really miss this show.

Hey Mary,

It was 11 months later, not 18. Perhaps an important detail, perhaps not.

If nothing else, with Scheffer and Olsen insinuating in the epilogue that these women may finally go their separate ways, it's important to note that this was 11 months, and not 18. It means something, just not exactly sure what, yet.

Perfect comment on Bill- sanctimony and humility.
Couple of factual issues: margene was 16 when they married. And the final scene said it was 11 months after his passing, not 18.

Very nice review. It was 11 months later though, not 18.

It was actually 11 months later, not even a year after his death.

although i'v never been a polygamist or gay what gives anyone the right to say what a human being can do in life As long as there not hurting anyone ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????//

Ending not perfect -- was lame. Very unimaginative. After all the great twists and ideas they had for five years, all they could come up with was "let's kill Bill"? Come on!

I might be sorry to see Big Love go too...if I had even remotely considered watching it even once...

I really enjoyed the season, but I thought it wrapped up kind of soft. Bill dies, but everything else ended up a little too perfect. It almost benefited them that Bill died. Sarah came back, Margene got to do what she wanted, Barb became a priestholder and even Heather stayed with Bennie. -- where were the characters who got the bad end of the stick through polygamy?

As pointed out by Genevieve's post, I also had lost all respect for the character of Bill and found the weave of the story to be a bit too distant from the original base story of relationships and family. By the end of the show, I had tears in my eyes. After the scene of Bill's death, intense in a simple kind of way, seeing how the wives maintained the 'Big Love' of the what made them a 'family', non-traditional as it was, brought it full circle for me. I enjoyed the article and found your description of the show very accurate (yes, the 2 numerical errors, but not important to the point of the article) .

The HBO shows are all so enjoyable and entertaining, and I miss each one every time they end. My heart still breaks seeing the last episode of Six Feet Under and nothing topped the ending of The Sopranos. I'm sad that they have all had to end, but knowing the track record of HBO for astonishing shows, I anticipate the next crop of shows to come. They are often consistent high-quality shows, with that little dab of controversy that gets people talking at the water coolers on Monday!

Nice write up, but you are too accepting of seasons 4 and 5. The first three seasons were really top rate, and the last two were just plain nonsense.

Margene was 16, not 17.

Given the cost of raising a family today (or even just paying the mortgage) I'm suprised we don't see more polgamy.

And of course it's really none of the government's business what consenting adults do.

Anyway great show...

I sure am going to miss the show. wish they hadnt of killed Bill, then they could come out with the big love MOVIE....

I was disappointed in the ending. It seemed ludicrous that the neighbor shot Bill. It would have been more believable if it had been someone from Juniper Hill. The only smart one in the entire show ended up being Margene. She figured out how to get away from all of them, including her 3 children by Bill and find a new life; whereas Barb and Nicolette just stayed true to old ways. The first year started out with a bang, caught my attention even though I hate polygamy but as the years went on, especially the fourth season, the show seemed to lose its way. My opinion is that once Harry Dean Stanton left the show, the show died. He seemed to keep the excitement going.

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