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|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Thursday, 25 February 2010 00:00|
Big Love. The name says it all, really. We have this man, Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton), and he has a big family. At last count, there were eight children (plus the occasional runaway or stray that tends to end up in the Henrickson homes), but more impressively, there are also three wives. Yes, Bill Henrickson is a polygamist. It is kind of hard to describe why this show is so great, but I am going to give it my best shot here. Let's break it down.
The emotional center of the show is Bill's three wives. An essay could be written about each of them, but here are the cliff's notes.
Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn): The first wife (also known as the head wife). Barb married Bill long before he was a polygamist. She is the mother of the oldest Henrickson children, Sarah, Ben, and Teeney, and acts like a mother to her sister-wives as well. Barb's children are the only ones who get screen or story time (mostly because the other children are aged eight and under). Sarah, Bill's oldest child (played by Amanda Seyfried), questions the legitimacy of not only polygamy but also Mormonism. Barb is the public face of the marriage and accompanies Bill on his business ventures (Bill owns a hardware superstore and later in the series, he opens a casino). Barb fell ill with cancer sometime before we met the Henricksons. That's when Nicki came into the picture.
Nicki (Chloë Sevigny): When Barb became very seriously sick with cancer, Bill appealed to the compound for someone to help him take care of his family. Nicki was sent along and that is when Bill decided he would undertake "The Principle" (the principle of polygamy). The details of how Bill convinced Barb to live a polygamist lifestyle are unclear because it happened before the show started, but we know that Barb is not always a fan of the plural marriage thing and that she questions the validity of "The Principle" on more than one occasion. Barb's cancer made it impossible for her to have more children, which also played a role in Bill's decision. I don't know the details of the Mormon religion, but, from what I have learned on the show, it seems that having children increases the number of souls that end up with you in eternal life.
Nicki was raised on the polygamist compound where Bill grew up (Juniper Creek), and she is the daughter of the prophet Roman Grant (played by the awesome Harry Dean Stanton). Nicki's compound beginnings make her the least . . . socialized . . . of the three wives. She often wears "prairie clothes" and is attached to the unfortunate hairstyle of the compound. She is handy with power tools and is often found doing maintenance on one of the three Henrickson homes (the three homes are next to each other on the street and share a communal backyard area). Nicki is mother to Wayne and Raymond.
Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin): This brings us to the third wife, Margene. Margene was a babysitter for the Henricksons when Bill became romantically involved with her (I know, ick!). Margene wasn't raised in polygamy but comes from a broken home and loves big families. She is the least religious of the family and is often caught swearing (the most off-colour thing that Bill says is, "What the H happened?"). Margene is the low woman on the totem pole and is tasked with having children. She is also much younger than Bill. (Bill's oldest son, Ben, who was 16 when the series started, is closer her in age than Bill is.) Ben has harboured an attraction to Margene throughout the series. Margene is the fun wife, with whom Bill has a lot of sex (and because Big Love airs on HBO, we get to see most of it). Margene is mother to Lester, Aaron, and Nell.
All together, these are the wives of Bill Henrickson. Their relationships with each other are what make the show worth watching. They are called sister-wives, and they are as close as any sisters I know of. Barb and Nicki are the decision-makers, often forgetting to include Margene on important decisions. Nicki is at the same time a peace-keeper and a shit-disturber, using her position as go-between to get her way with Bill and with each of her sister-wives. Margene supports the family because it is her job (although in the most recent seasons, Margene has started to assert her independence).
Watching Bill trying to have a simple discussion with his wives is hilarious because he is constantly balancing the emotional needs of three different women. Even funnier is when the three wives gang up on Bill during a debate or discussion. As the "priesthood holder" for the family (the man is responsible for the eternal salvation of his wives and all of his children), the man is supposed to have the final word in the relationship, but it so doesn't work out that way. These women run Bill's life, and he is just along for the tumultuous ride.
The other half of the show takes place on the compound where Bill grew up, Juniper Creek. Run by the prophet Roman Grant, the compound is under scrutiny from state and federal police for charges of childhood marriage and abuse. Grant has 14 wives at the start of the series and is ready take on a 15th. Roman has 31 children, which actually seems low considering the number of wives he has. Roman's first wife, Adaleen, is played by the outstanding Mary Kay Place. Adaleen is Nicki's mother, and we get to know her pretty well as the series progresses. Adaleen is Roman's right hand in his business endeavours and controls who gets in to see the prophet. Her relationship with Nicki is interesting to watch, as all Nicki wants is the love of her father and mother and all Adaleen wants is to use Nicki in whatever way she can to help Roman get out of legal troubles.
Bill's family still lives on the compound, and they are the reason he is sucked back into compound problems so often. His brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) and Joey's crazy wife Wanda (Melora Walters) are generally being harassed by Roman for some reason or another (like when Wanda tried to kill Roman by poisoning him). Bill's mother, Lois (Grace Zabriskie), and father, Frank (played so creepily well by Bruce Dern), also cause problems for Bill. Usually, Lois gets into trouble over some business scheme that goes awry (Lois is physically, though not legally, separated from Frank and tries out different business ventures so that she can move from living in absolute poverty to just regular poverty). Bill is often called on to protect Lois from Frank when he decides that he needs something from Lois (although Lois is pretty good at defending herself -- her go-to reaction is to try to kill Frank).
Given his complicated home life, his complicated family, and the fact that his polygamy must be kept a secret from the Utah business community, it is no surprise that Bill is fairly stressed out most of the time. The demanding sexual schedule he keeps with his wives forces him to face impotence at the beginning of the series. Without the traditional escapes of alcohol, caffeine, and swearing that the rest of us rely on, it is amazing that Bill survives it all.The show is currently airing its fourth season, and the first few episodes have been outstanding. Because the show airs on HBO, meaning that fans have to wait forever for the next season to come out (sometimes over a year), I recommend just buying or renting the DVDs and watching at your leisure. It is a truly unique show set in a world most people know nothing about. The show is openly critical of the kind of polygamy practiced on the compound but invites us to consider what more "normal" polygamy looks like in Bill's life. It's funny, smart, and extremely well acted. Put Mary Kay Place in a giant braid and great things happen, I am telling you.
Tags: big love, bill paxton, chloã« sevigny, foundation, ginnifer goodwin, jeanne tripplehorn, mary kay place, mormons, polygamy, tv, what the h happened?