Secret Identities: Three Wives and Three Lives


Before I begin, I just wanted to post this trailer for Season 4 of Big Love, which I found interesting because of the aesthetic parallels (and, I assume, similar conceptual bases) to the opening credits of Mad Men.  Basically, main character in suit falling – although this time it is Bill who is visible and the background black instead of an empty silhouette of a subject against the bright background of visual clips from the sixties ad world.  Perhaps these differences can be accounted for in terms of the characters’ relationships with their environments around them.  Bill is whole, himself only when away from the “real-world,” visually called to mind with the use of the vacuous background, while Don seems emptied and drained, yet simultaneously shaped and subject to the laws of the ad world (almost symbolized by the law of gravity acting with slow motion force upon him).  See for yourselves:

Now, down to business: secret identities.  Big Love, for those of you who don’t watch (and should!) is centered on a family of Mormon polygamists: patriarch Bill Henrickson, first wife Barb, second Nikki, and third Margene and all their many children.  Throughout the show, there are three portrayals of the life the family could lead: their current living situation (secretly living amongst mainstream society with three separate houses all connected in the back yard, the sister-wives working out schedules for who gets Bill on what nights, and giant family dinners, hectic breakfasts, chores lists, and errands with 11 people to account for) is juxtaposed with life on the compound (Juniper Creek, a community of Polygamists who live openly and freely under Roman, the Prophet, observing all the traditional tenets of Mormonism before polygamy was removed from the doctrine, including wearing long dresses, high necklines, and poofy hairstyles, and, of course, some serious multiple-marriages) and, described but never shown, Bill and Barb’s Mormon church-approved family life before they decided to take on Nikki as a second wife.

The questions the Secret Identities group was addressing were about how the main characters develop and justify their moral codes and how we as audience members accept them, despite – and even watch because of – their illicit activities.    The two alternate lifestyles (alternate to the Henrickson’s family life, I mean)  depicted in the show work as foils to the main pattern portrayed, and perhaps allow us to consider why we do or don’t approve of the Henricksons.

In short, Juniper Creek hosts the kind of polygamy that we as an audience don’t approve of.  The compound is run by Roman Grant, a self-proclaimed prophet that the residents follow on account of the fact that he is allegedly God’s messenger; yet when his son Albee takes over and claims the head role for himself, allegiances and beliefs switch seemingly without question.  Corruption abounds, the important patriarchs drive giant scary hummers, and girls are “sealed”to older men for marriage (the meaning of which may be inferred to be almost equivalent to marriage, though subtly avoiding statutory rape implications) at a very young age.  The residents, like the Henricksons, appear to believe that polygamy is the good and righteous way to live, that they are doing their families a service, and that by following “the principal” they will find divine salvation.  So what makes us respect the Henricksons’ moral code while writing off the compound dwellers as ignorant?  The difference seems to be that Juniper Creek is a bit like a cult; residents seem almost brainwashed by the prophet into believing in their way of life.  While for Bill and his family, living the principle is a struggle every day.  We respect their choice because it is not handed to or imposed upon them.  Though all the characters sincerely believe that they are following the correct moral code, we root for the Henricksons because they seem to have weighed all the options and rationally decided that their path is the correct one, and proceeded to build a life around that choice.

The one thing in the show that nervously chips away at this basis of rationality and strong belief, leaving us with a little doubt at the back of our minds as to whether we’re really rooting for polygamy, is Bill and Barb’s relationship.  Bill escaped from the compound when he was a teenager and swore never to go back; he saw the horrors of that lifestyle and made the choice to lead a “normal” life, starting his own business, marrying a school teacher, Barb, and going to legally and socially accepted Mormon church.  Yet, when Barb falls ill, both of their beliefs are shaken.  Bill  has a revelation, a calling from God to return to the principle of polygamy.  He subsequently marries Nikki, a daughter of Roman the Prophet and the first pro-compound member of their family.  The strained circumstances under which Bill’s decision to take on a second wife occur (I say Bill’s and not Bill and Barb’s as Barb admits to never having received a testimonial, but believes so strongly in Bill’s that she follows him) seem to trouble the waters when putting his moral code to the test.  This back story sets the stage for the day-to-day interactions between the four adults in the family.  There is always an inkling that while Bill finds Nikki a little psychotic and Margene a bit silly, he always has deep and unwavering respect for Barb.  Later in the series, the two even have an “affair,” sneaking around the other wives’ backs, meeting in hotel rooms, and breaking the rules of the carefully crafted family schedule the sister-wives debate over constantly.

Perhaps it is the “one man and one woman” society in which we live that has subconsciously ingrained this belief that true love can only be shared by two monogamous people.  While I am always rooting for the Henricksons as a family, I sometimes seem to falter against my best rational judgement and striven-for progressive viewpoints and wish that Bill and Barb could just run away from all the drama of their household and live happily together as they once did.  But I don’t think it’s just me, and I don’t think it’s just my a subconscious wish for “true love.”  I can’t imagine that the romantic undertones and meaningful glances between the two characters aren’t intentional, and if an audience member is feeling like the two should be alone together, I am sure the creators of the show are making it happen.

Big Love is a difficult show; it makes the viewer reconsider his beliefs about morality and virtue, but it also constantly challenges and manipulates the viewer’s thoughts on the the Henrickson’s particular situation.  Laying the compound way and Bill and Barb’s previous, “normal” life alongside the family’s mainstream polygamist lifestyle allows the viewer to both believe more strongly in their family’s views and question their situation.

I’ll leave y’all with this:

Merry Christmas!


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