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

March 20, 2011 |  8:05 pm

[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.