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Big Love Recap: Safety Net

The writers of Big Love dipped deep into their anguish well to craft last night's crushing episode. Last week the Henricksons were all alone, and this week they sought solace outside the family only to find rejection and threats of dissolution. This center cannot hold.

Bill draws his polygamist pals together to form "Safety Net," a program that helps the compounds access educational and social services. Alby Grant defends the fine schools on the compound, but Nicki interjects that women on the compound are treated like chattle until their uteruses fall out. The meeting devolves into a polygamist interpretation of the South Korean parliament, including an attack from Charlie, a HomePlus employee disgruntled with Bill. "You're a liar because you lied!" he shouts. Alby peers at the chaos streaming on his shiny new Mac and sneers.

Barb turns to her mother for support, but Ellen Burstyn wants nothing to do with her. "I just need to be with you," says Barb, who wants mom to join her at a Sunstone symposium. "I need a community, Mother. I have become so isolated." Ellen Burstyn acquiesces, but not before she speaks the kind of line that mothers use on their daughters to make them feel horrible: "There's a vast difference between 'I need you, Mommy,' and 'I need something from you.'"

Back at home, Ana urges Margene to leave Bill and the nutty Henricksons. Bill walks in on the conversation and Margene responds by turning Jewel up to eleven. She does an awkward dance to "Don't You Want Me," making everyone uncomfortable. Bill appears to have never heard the Human League, but before Margene can explain she accidentally knocks a pregnant Ana to the floor.

At school, Cara Lynn proves that JJ was quite the math teacher. She wins a math competition and the deeper admiration of Gary Embry, who kisses Cara Lynn on the cheek. AND THEN ON THE MOUTH! Nicki steams. In retribution, she demands Cara Lynn quit her job at that Snakepit of Temptation, HomePlus.

Margene, at the halfway point of her nervous breakdown, goes to visit her old trailer park but instead finds only an empty lot. Her look of wistfulness is paired nicely with Dolly Parton's "Wildflowers." At home, Margene confesses her misgivings and regrets to a bewildered Cara Lynn. Barb drops by and offers to give Margene a blessing. Nicki walks in on the middle of this act to find Barb clutching a bottle of olive oil. Tattling Nicki scurries to Bill, who is horrified at this breach of faith.

Bill decides to eliminate some problems by bringing Ana and Goren two plane tickets and cash. Ana suspects his true motives, and given Bill's vacant stare and toneless, "No, Ana, I just want what's best for you," she's on to something.

At the statehouse, Bill pushes Barb to reconnect with a legislator she used to babysit for so he can find a new ally. Midge and her mother ("The Major") prove to be the best dinner guests ever. The Major brings up Barb's mom's brush with Betty Ford in what is the first of many unnecessary references to the former First Lady. The Major turns her disapproval toward Nicki, comparing her to Victoria Gotti. That's so mean even we feel sorry for Nicki. Midge the legislator declines to support Bill.

When Margene discovers that Bill wants Ana and Goren out of their life, she marches into his office at HomePlus for her official descent into misery. She doesn't want another baby, she doesn't want Ana and Goren gone, and what she needs is a "big time out."

Ellen Burstyn and Barb get into a fight at the Sunstone panel. (Barb refers to the organization as a "think tank," but Nicki calls it "a hotbed of malcontents and freethinkers and doubters.") Ellen Burstyn attacks Barb for becoming a polygamist and brings up Betty Ford again. Turns out, Ellen Burstyn didn't go to the Betty Ford clinic, which would have been a much more predictable cause for shame. Instead, she supported the Equal Rights Amendment and invited Betty Ford to speak to Sunstone. The LDS authorities opposed the ERA and quashed the visit. Barb's had about as much as she can take and goes straight for the liquor cabinet when she gets home. Bypassing the booze for pills, she's interrupted by Bill's mom, who says only, "Have I got news for you."

We don't hear Lois's news, but for now we'll assume that Lois meant Midge's proposed legislation to reclassify polygamy as a felony, an impeachable offense. Bill calls the bill "a knife to his throat," and Midge has a gleam in her eye she may well have learned from Marilyn Densham.

The sister-wives take a field trip to HomePlus, and it's there they turn on each other. Nicki criticizes Margene for dumping her insecurities all over Cara Lynn. Margene responds that Cara Lynn's adolescence must be frightening for Nicki, who was forced into marriage and sex at the same age. Nicki whips out a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (which she's clearly never read), demanding to know who gave it to Cara Lynn. When Barb fesses up, Nicki lashes out at her. "I will not have my daughter defile her body the way yours did," Nicki spits at Barb. Barb crumples, and hatred for Nicki washes over us anew. "That was cruel, insensitive, and horrible," says an anguished Margene. "You should be ashamed of yourself." The barest flicker of shame crosses Nicki's face, but it is quickly replaced with self-righteousness. She's the worst.

Barb seeks a blessing from her mother, who says only a priesthood holder can offer such a thing. Barb expresses doubts about that particular bit of doctrine, and even her liberal mother is aghast. "What you're saying goes against everything," Ellen Burstyn exclaims, before scuttling off. This time, their schism may be permanent.

By the end of the episode, his family's ruination is apparent even to Bill. He gives Margene an out, telling her she can leave the family if she's unhappy. This may be the most compassionate thing he's done the entire series.

Nicki tails Barb to her sinful dance class, but it's to apologize instead of scold. "I don't want Cara Lynn to turn out like me — scared underneath," Nicki confesses. "I hope she turns out more like you." Barb offers to teach Nicki the box step, kicking off a Montage of Despair. Barb's mom, tearful, watches old footage of Betty Ford. Adaleen injects herself with hormones and climbs into bed next to Roman Grant's inanimate suit, topped with a photograph and his white hat. Bill bathes one of his children and Margene looks at him with a tenderness that bears a strong resemblance to nostalgia.

Predictions
• Barb develops a drug or alcohol problem.
• Margene divorces everyone and gets the hell out of Sandy.
• The writers remember that Ben exists and give him some lines.

Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/HBO