Sunday, 1 July 2007

The end of the affair

In tonight's episode of Big Love (on SBS) Bill Henrickson had an affair. With his wife. Which was an affair because he is a polygamist, with two other wives who had rights to him on the relevant days, as part of their agreed rotation. Except of course that they are not legally his wives, the Mormon church (and thus Utah) having ditched polygamy in the process of making peace with the rest of the United States. So was it still wrong?

Pretty clearly yes, but to say that without also making some comment about the Henrikson family's wider behaviour is plainly inadequate. The show's writers dramatise this by depicting Bill having the affair with his first wife, rediscovering the extent of his love for her through (get this) a display of her maturity and accomplishment at an official function. "Rejoice in the wife of your youth" says the Scripture (Proverbs 5; specifically verse 18, but context is everything) and that is exactly what Bill is doing. His exhilaration with his wife is the realisation of an ideal, too little matched in real life, and this is what makes the wrongness of his behaviour so hard to admit --- what makes it something to be admitted through gritted teeth. If the affair had been with the gorgeous, immature little third wife Margene, it would instead have been "natural" in a more depressing sense.

This is intelligent drama of a rather high order, the Mormons' moralising gripes about the program notwithstanding. (It's easy for me to say that, of course: it's not my ox that is being gored.) The situation is naturally dramatic; likewise the marginal nature of most of the characters, given the strong conventions within which they are living. Bill is an independent polygamist, rather than a member of an organised group, having been turfed out of the (fictitious) Juniper Creek compound as a teenager; first wife Barb is a regular Mormon by upbringing, and has been dragged semi-willing into this lifestyle after about 10 years of regular marriage; second wife Nikki is the daughter of the compound leader, and a true believer in this sense, but has acquired an uncontrolled taste for the wider world; and Margene by her background is a stranger to any kind of settled family life, and has been sucked into the family almost by accident. One of Bill and Barb's teenage children is old enough to have critically watched all of these events unfold, and is openly opposed to plural marriage. And so on ... it's even more complicated than that, but the complexities have been rather clearly dramatised. It's well executed, in addition to being well-conceived.

I cannot speak to whether the circumstances are in any way credible, even by television standards. I have only ever been acquainted with one Mormon; with no polygamists, to my knowledge; and with only one fan of polyamory (the current secular analogue), and that rather slightly. And as a Christian rather than a Mormon, it is not as if I have a dog in this fight. There was polygamy in the patriarchal period, of course --- that was how it was --- but the Jewish Scripture narrates it with one eyebrow firmly raised, and the Christian church has never felt the need to second-guess that judgement.

But this is yet another example of the new golden age of series television in which we live. Three cheers for HBO. And if I have to pick out anyone from the stellar cast (another notable feature of these times), it must be the exquisitely odd Chloë Sevigny, who seems to know no fear whatsoever. I would not choose to be locked in a room with her, but she deserves some kind of award for the nuance that she brings to her portrayal of Nikki.

(I cannot establish a stable URL for the official response to Big Love on the website of the Mormons, or [their own name for themselves] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But if you go to their website, click on "Newsroom" on the right-hand side, and then do a search on "Big Love", you'll find it.)

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