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Big Love Series-Finale Recap: Good-bye to All That

Big Love concluded its five-season run last night, with a bang and then a whimper. The closing moments of the show addressed pretty much every plot thread from the last season, but in a way so pat it took some of the fun out of the finale. Heather married Ben in spite of his naming a star after her. Barb leads the church, Sarah returns to have her baby blessed, and that pixie Margene takes off for yet another medical-relief cruise. So, yay, for the Henricksons.

All except Bill, of course. Bill may not be a prophet, but his murder by irate neighbor Carl ensures his martyrdom. Bill, paternalistic and patronizing as ever in this episode, has a true testimony during Easter in a church crowded with polygamists looking for a spiritual home. He sees his forbears, including Mrs. Joseph Smith, approving of his church and his crusade. "I felt a grace descend upon me," he later explains to an awestruck Ben. Following the Easter themes permeating the episode, Bill — and polygamy — are redeemed.

Not so much Nicki, whose resolution was unsatisfying. She confesses her own failings to an unsurprised Barb: "I don't have one ounce of the milk of human kindness in me. I'm spiteful, jealous, and mean." Barb says only, "I know," and gives her a hug. But since everyone is in agreement that Nicki is such a horrible person, we're even more confused by her presence in the family. Could somebody please explain why exactly Bill married her, and why Barb went along with it? Nicki may be a great villain, but that seemed to be her only role.

Margene's delight at Barb's Mini-Midlife Crisis reminded us again why she was our favorite wife. She is the character who changed the most over five seasons, beginning as a kind of a bimbo who matured without losing any joie de vivre. Marge feared isolation throughout the series, befriending Pam early on and always trying to go out on her own. And why not? She's no older than 23 in the finale, the time when most young people find and forge their adult selves. We're not sure Margene Without Borders (good zinger, Nicki) will make a permanent home with the Henricksons again, but she's probably the happiest member of the family.

Though Big Love was about plural marriage, the relationship that mattered most was the one between Barb and Bill. Their marriage was the one we could relate to, one that buckled but never broke. They grew apart from each other as couples do, but always returned to the pull of their sealed union. Bill's seemingly irrational fury at Barb's new car was because she was trading in their past, the past that existed before polygamy. In his last moments, he sought Barb's blessing. He believed in her priesthood and redeemed their relationship.

It's not often that supporting characters so dominate a show, but Frank and Lois lit up every single scene, and the finale was no different. Lois, no longer afraid of a lonely eternity, ends her life in the arms of her cantankerous lover as he remembers for the both of them. Frank and Lois got the great conclusion they deserved.

No TV drama (not even the megachurch theology of 7th Heaven) has ever put faith at its center like Big Love. The writers never mocked its characters' beliefs, and avoided the potshots regularly fired at Mormons. Struggles of the spirit were respected, like poor Dale's agony over his sexuality and Barb's grief over excommunication. Yes, Big Love got silly more than once — several times in the finale alone! But it was never ironic about religion. The show's greatest achievement was its compassionate, complex portrayal of faith and the doubt that comes with it.

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/HBO