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Big Love Recap: Barbed Ire

Barbara Henrickson long seemed like the only sane member of her family, the only one who wasn't damaged goods from the start. On last night's Big Love, we saw her stand up for herself at last. Never have we cheered at a divorce announcement.

She starts small, of course. Just as she stood next to Bill at Home Plus and then was his right hand at the casino, here she is groveling for access to the copier as Bill's "intern," perhaps her most demeaning role yet (besides that of first wife, of course). But still, she sucks it up in support of her man. That is, until he suggests that they get a "paper divorce" so he can legally marry Nicki and adopt Cara Lynn. "We'd still be spiritually married," Bill explains, ever the pedant.

Nicki could not be more pleased, considering she's always wanted to be a legit wife. Even Bill, who often ignores Nicki's craven mean streak, sees the nuptial gleam in her eye. Nicki wants Bill to decide, in her favor. But Barb resists his total control over the family. "Maybe I can make a decision," she tells an appalled Nicki. "Maybe I have the priesthood."

Nicki's outrage is disproportionate to our knowledge of the show. Big Love's writers have done a nice job instructing the audience on Mormon history, but precious little about the exact tenets of the faith. We've learned through context clues (and some fascinating Google searches) about being "sealed" and the Mormon notion of the afterlife, but writers have only hinted at the symbolic power of the priesthood holder. Priesthood holders have a power and authority granted by God. They are only, ever, men. Bill illustrates the power structure nicely in one dismissive line to Barb: "Maybe you're seeking my role because you feel yours, as child-rearer, is going away." The power of the priesthood is "passed down," Bill insists, a convenient way to ensure that only men will ever have it. His rage is frightening and suggests that nothing — not exposure, not new wives, not the Compound, not Alby, not the Utah legal system — is as big a threat to his family as the notion of Barb being a priesthood holder.

That's a significant thematic shift for a show with only five episodes left.

Later, when Margene suggests Bill just grant Barb the priesthood already, he reminds everyone that Barb was never down with the Principle. "If Barb had been our priesthood holder, you wouldn't even be in the family," he seethes. "Nicki wouldn't be in the family. Six beautiful souls you've both given this family wouldn't exist." Take that, Barb. Since you never believed in this whole thing anyway and you've already been excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, perhaps you are eternally screwed.

Barely competing for our attention are the machinations of Alby Grant, who hires Rhonda's husband Verlan to be a hit man. Alby's plans to destroy Bill (and start his own cult of Albyites) results in Don Embry being stuffed headfirst into an ice-fishing hole. Poor Anne Murray–loving Don. No matter what he does, he's always Bill Henrickson's punching bag.

Finally, Bill — who is always at his most sinister when trying to flatter his way out of the dog house — takes Barb to the stone bench where he proposed to her long ago. He backs off the divorce request, but it's not enough to win her back. "We have to respect the subtle ingredients that have give us our rich blessings," he counsels, meaning that he isn't about to mess with a power structure that favors him. "We need to get divorced," Barb says, and when Bill agrees they both look as confused as ever.

We just wish Sarah were around for all of this.

Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/HBO