Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dispossessed Daughters in the Land of Big Love

If all the women in a plural marriage are mothers, where's the matriarchy?

Big Love’s (HBO) current trio of polygamous wives almost reflect the three aspects: Maiden, Mother, Crone (Child, Bride, and Widow). Each of these characters contends with the family they have created, and the family they have lost. As disparate as these women seem, each has been scorned and abandoned by her mother.

It’s hard to think of Barb (played by the luscious Jeanne Tripplehorn), the first wife in both seniority, age, and power, as a crone, but it’s easy to cast her as a widow to her original (non-polygamous) marriage to Bill, the patriarchal maypole around which his wives dance. "I sacrificed our love for the love I have for this family," she says.

Nicki (ChloĆ« Sevigny, wife #2) is a multitasking, sublimating, organized, and tired-looking mother type with a few flaws (compulsive spender, gambler, oral sex hater). The daughter of the fundamentalist sect leader, The Prophet, on the sequestered compound in Juniper Creek, she believes in the ‘principle,’ the covenant of plural marriage. She rarely smiles, unless her dad is coming for a visit or she’s gloating over her latest purchase or managing to subvert her sister-wives’ influence in some way. Not looking the least bit joyous, much less contented, she gives Barb this bit of advice: "I know how to submit, and that’s why I’m so happy." Nothing turns her on more than stroking her white marriage dress and the fleeting pleasure she felt when she first wore it, fulfilling her destiny — marriage to a righteous man. Besides, she thought Barb was dying and she’d be first wife, a dream for every woman on the compound.

Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin, wife #3) seems to be truly happy with her marriage(s) — she’s married to not only Bill, but to both Nicki and Barb — in the innocent manner of all truly happy people. Her character manages, with two children and a bun in the oven, to exude youthful innocence and exuberance (not to mention a gung-ho, it’s-all-natural sensuality). She’s capable of getting angry, but she doesn’t plot against her sister-wives, like Nicki does, nor seek to manipulate them as Barb does. Margene is content with her marriages because she has found what she always lacked — a family.

Barb’s birth family are white-bread Mormons (non-polygamous members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or LDS for the short-winded). The LDS disdains not only The Prophet’s followers, but polygamy in all its permutations. Barb’s sister and mother don’t return her calls; the break with her family is so complete that she has to read about her mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) plan for a second marriage on the society page. She didn’t get an invitation, but shows up anyway, thereby creating the scene her birth family had sought to avoid — they’re ashamed of Barb and the life she’s living. But more importantly, there are status issues. They equate her choices to the shadowed lives at Juniper Creek. Barb worries that there’s not much difference, either, and hence her agony. Plus, she believes in love, not only her love for Bill, but for her sister and mother. That it’s not being returned from them is a continuing source of torment for her.

"There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to be a part of my family," says Nicki. But which family? The one she was born into, or the family into which she married (Bill and Barb and their three kids), and where she has borne children? Her allegiances are constantly tested, and the ties that bind snake their way from the compound into her new family. She can’t stay away, she’s daddy’s little girl, but it’s Adaleen (Mary Kay Place), her ambitious, strictly business mother, and sixth wife to her father, with whom she must contend. There’s something Adaleen detests about her daughter — we’re not told precisely what but Nicki’s father-adoration is not only cloying, it verges on incestuous. It would be typical of someone like Adaleen to blame the daughter, and not the father, if such a situation existed. "Your name is dust," she tells Nicki, disowning her.

Margene was raised by a single mother, a lush with the serial, abusive boyfriends who are part of the alcoholic package. She didn’t receive much guidance growing up and is used to a lot of time alone. It’s easy to see why Margene would fall for Bill and his wives. She probably feels safer with Barb than she ever did with her own mother. Her greatest fear is that Barb might leave the family. "I don’t know if I can be married to Bill and Nicki if I’m not married to you," she tells her.

In tense situations between the women, they rush to say, "I love you," thereby initiating a round-robin of identical responses.

Back to love again.

"I don’t know that a marriage based on love can go the distance ... how do we survive the bad times with just love?" Nicki asks. This is a question many a monogamist has asked. In this instance, she’s talking about faith in the sacred holiness of the institution of marriage, and specifically referring to and pitying the couples — most of us — who only have each other, and no other spouse to lean on.These women are separated and isolated from their mothers. Because they live a closeted existence, keeping their polygamy secret, they are also shut off from developing new friends outside of the family. Who else do they have?

This article originally appeared on BlogCritics

Big Love - The Complete First Season


  1. I watch very little television. I watch this show. I didn't start it at the very beginning but a few weeks in.

    I am not sure why I like it at the same time it gives me the creeps.

    I'm a sucker for HBO and SHOW though.

  2. I don't have cable but your interpretation of the show and its characters was very interesting.

  3. Love the way you write & interpreted the show Big Love. I've watched a couple or three of the episodes & was fascinated with they dynamics. Interesting to say the least.