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Friday, March 25, 2011

Big Love: First. Last. Home.

Sunday night - from 9 PM to 10 PM - is my time.

Don't call me. Don't knock on my door. Don't plan to stop by for visit.

I'm not watching TV. I'm watching HBO.

Whether it's The Sopranos or In Treatment, True Blood or Treme, Boardwalk Empire or Big Love, I'm watching it. It's the one luxury I allow myself.

Last Sunday night, the final episode of Big Love aired. After five seasons, the show has ended. I've found myself reflecting, these past few days, on what this show has had to say about marriage and family, politics and power, faith and love.

I suppose I should first get everyone up to speed on just what Big Love is all about. Very, very briefly, the show is about a fictional fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah that practices polygamy.

The Henricksons are just your typical American family of typical patriotic values, with a very typical American subscription to "family values". Except, while Bill Henrickson is the only husband, there are not one but three wives: Barbara, Nickie, and Margene.

Big Love stars some of my favorite actors: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloƫ Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Bruce Dern, and Mary Kay Place.

The show was co-created by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, who also served as executive producers. I suppose I should also tell you that Olsen and Scheffer have been in a faithful, monogamous relationship for the past 20 years.

Are your tracking this? A gay couple created a program about polygamy which explores the themes of faith, religion, marriage, family and love.

Just wanted to make sure everyone was on board, here, so you can bail if you want to.

Olsen and Scheffer spent almost three years researching the premise of the show, with the intent of creating a fair portrayal of polygamy in America without being judgmental.

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the show and may someday want to - OR - if you haven't yet seen the finale, you'll want to stop reading now. There's simply no way for me to talk about the show without talking about the surprising ending.

Here's a clip about the series in general and the final episode in particular which will help get you up to speed, but you don't have to watch it to 'get' what I'm about to say. In fact, it may make more sense after you've read my piece.

Okay, let me be clear: I do not support polygamy. Neither do I cotton to the idea of 'Open Marriage', which seems rather an oxymoron to me.

Yes, I am perhaps more conservative than some who read this blog might imagine. I really am just an old fashioned girl who loves Jesus and the church and continues to believe in romance and love and marriage.

So, shoot me.

That being said, "Big Love" challenged even my firmly entrenched ideas about love and marriage and what constitutes a family.

It also challenged my equally entrenched ideas about patriarchy and freedom of religious expression and the role of the state in very surprising ways.

Yes, I understand. This was a fictitious family. It wasn't TV, it was HBO, with the usual excellent presentation of fine script writing, superb directing, and powerful acting.

Let me see if I can try and explain.

The theme song in the first three seasons was, "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys.
If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me
The world would show nothing to me
So what good would living do me
God only knows what I'd be without you.
The song caused quite a stir when it was first released because, other than "God Bless America", no other song had had the word "God" in the title.

The song itself, however, expresses pretty traditional, romantic ideas and ideals, which calls up notions of love - life-long, called-together-by-God, fulfilling, making-you-whole - love.

Except, as you hear the theme song and watch Bill skate along with Barb, Nicki and Margene, you begin to realize that in this situation, this "old fashioned" idea of love involves one man and three women.

Indeed, 'round about season three, the "family" considers taking a fourth wife.

In the Henrickson polygamous family, the decision to have a 'sealing', or spiritual (verses a 'legal') marriage is a family decision. The 'sister wives' consider themselves married or 'sealed' to each other - and not just in this life but for eternity.

You see, it's their faith that brings them together. "Faith first, family second," is one of the creeds of their faith. And, their faith tells them that "The Principle" of polygamy was ordained by God as the "natural order" of things.

Isn't it interesting that Rome also seems to have determined the "natural order" of things as well? I don't see how a celibate priesthood fits into a "natural order" any more than polygamy, but then again, I'm neither Roman Catholic nor Mormon.

Which, I suppose, is part of the point.

I should point out that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - or Mormons - no longer practice "The Principle". There are, however, many people who consider themselves Mormons who do practice polygamy, having more than one but less than three or four wives, mostly so they might stay under the radar of the law which, of course, prohibits polygamy.

In this last episode, Bill, who has been elected Senator from Utah, has proposed a piece of legislation to legalize polygamy. He believes so much in "The Principle" - and in the goodness and holiness of his family - that he wants to bring polygamy out from the shadows and into the light of every day life.

He has also started his own store front church and discovers, to his amazement, that 480 people are in attendance on Easter Day. Those 480 people are those who practice "The Principle" and believe in it.

"Faith first, family second."

Except, Bill has a moment in the midst of that Easter Day service, which is completely transformational. He has believed, all his life, that if faith is the primary force in your life, it will become the rock on which your family is built. And, your family will be solid.

"Faith first, family second."

Later that day, just before Easter dinner, he explains to his best friend Don and his son, Ben, that he has come to understand that love comes first. Love is the foundation of faith, he says. Love comes first, then faith and family. Indeed, faith and family flow from love.

There is something deeply profound in that idea. Love as the font and foundation of faith and family.  That would certainly be something the co-creators and executive producers, Olsen and Scheffer, would understand.

As two gay men who have been in a 20 year committed relationship, they would clearly understand that it is love that makes a family.

Norman Rockwell would never have painted my family for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, but he might have if he had come to know us.

We are every bit a "real" family as any other constellation of people who are "legally" related to one another, and bound together by the bonds of Holy Matrimony.

So, does that mean that I think polygamy should be made legal? No, I'm not saying that. What I am saying is that no one has the right to narrowly define - or sit in judgment of - anyone else's family.

Even me.

As I think about Bill Henrickson's last words, I would venture to say that faith is a gift that flourishes in the presence of Love. He's right. It begins with love. And, ends with love. And, continues to eternity with love.

The Word that was made flesh was Love Incarnate, Love Divine. And, from that love, faith grows.

Pretty profound for television, eh? Then again, as they say, "It's HBO".

Okay, if you haven't watched the clip above, I suggest you do it now - that is, of course, if you haven't seen the program and you don't care if you know about the ending even before you begin.

The last two scenes of this episode tie everything together very powerfully. You need to know that, for the past two seasons, Barb and Bill have been having marital difficulties, none the least of which is prompted by a calling Barb feels she has to the priesthood.

Bill is horrified and angry, saying (yelling) at one point, "It's not natural!" Barb feels so strongly about this, she ventures away from Bill's church to join a Reformed Mormon Church which accepts the priesthood of women - BUT - does not accept polygamy.

Bill is enraged by this and sees it not only as a double affront to his religious beliefs, but a betrayal on every level by his wife.

In one of the last scenes of this last episode, as Bill lies in the street, mortally wounded, he looks at his three wives with great love and does an amazing thing. He asks Barb for a blessing. It's his last gift to her - and his family.

He's only able to do this because he now knows that love comes first. Then, faith and family. And, not just love - Big Love - for one's present family and the connectedness to families of generations past.

Anything that gets in the way of that love has to be changed. The religious paradigm has to shift in order to accommodate and make room for love so that family and faith will flourish.

It's a morality lesson in the midst of that which many consider immoral. It's a secular lesson for the church about that which is essential and why so many are leaving the church across denominational lines.

The last two seasons had a different opening theme song, "Home" by the Engineers
Is this my home
Been starting over
Bathe in the water
It's a powerful way to talk about Love and Faith and Family as gift and vocation.

Big Love. Called. Bathed in the water. Always, starting over. First. Last.

And always - everywhere, no matter where you go - home.


barbara said...

have truly missed Big Love this year! What a supurb series and the ending was awesome

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm a total HBO addict. Well, maybe except for "Curb your enthusiasm" and "Entourage". Too New Yawk - and LA - even for me.

kenju said...

I watched Big Love faithfully for the first several seasons and then something else caught my eye. I did see the last show and it was just as good as ever. I think I will watch all the ones I missed. It is so well written and acted.

We love Curb, but Entourage and Treme have not caught our attention. I love Boardwalk Empire!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kenju - I thought Season 3 was a bit overly-dramatic and therefore the weakest, but, in retrospect, provided the foundation for the last season.

I love Treme. Can't wait for it to begin again. Boardwalk Empire totally rocks.

Fran said...

I know you loved this show and I was thinking of you as I watched that last episode on Sunday.

I think you really captured it all in this post... I myself was taken with Barb's take on the priesthood.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fran - I think Barb grew in grace and peace as she grew into her call. It was amazing to watch.

Lindy said...

Thanks for the spoiler alert. I stopped, just as instructed. We got a few episodes here last year, and then the schedule changed. I can't wait to get caught up when I visit the US, though. It was a great show.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think you can catch it on "HBO On Demand".