It’s just the start of season four, and already we’re thinking, Calgon, take us away. Barb, Margene, and Nicki are feverishly working to help Bill pitch a tent — a temporary space for his casino with the Blackfoot Indians, what were you thinking? — with the FBI in the rearview and individual demands coming up fast. Meanwhile — locked in a potentially hip-busting death grapple that looks something like senior sex — Bill’s parents give a bitter (and awesomely absurd) taste of what might lay far down the road. At least the youth, including Nicki’s heartbreaking daughter-avatar Cara Lynn, aren’t yet in revolt — although Ben’s new career as a (Christian) rocker gives us pause. It can’t be a good thing that “Home” by Engineers is playing over the new Mad Men-esque credits, can it? (By the way, here’s a guide to everything that went down last season.)
Bill, with his dangerous ambitions, may be his own worst enemy, but in classic form he’s declared himself his own personal Jesus, leading his new mini-sect in song and doing his best to fill the power vacuum left behind by Roman. Also true to form, Roman’s defining the game from beyond the grave. Stashed in the deep freezer by his wife, who doesn’t realize he was murdered by Joey, the prophet’s more unyielding than ever. But it’s our now-official new villian, Alby, who puts his pa to good use, dropping him into the middle of Bill’s casino construction site and alerting the FBI. If that’s not evidence enough that Alby’s become truly unhinged, we see him at the park, in khaki shorts, cruising for men by subtly ogling them with binoculars. Who does he inadvertantly follow into the woods? Bill’s colleague Dale, the square-jawed lawyer hired to administer the compound’s assets. This feels a mite like a math equation, but given Alby’s near-death experience in the men’s bathroom last season, seeing him pick up what Dale lays down is a bracing few moments of drama.
If only Alby’s sis could find a little satisfaction. Nicki, clad in sexy nightie under a silky robe, overhears Barb demanding to know when Bill will “repair” his relationship with his second wife. Bill might as well reply that he has a headache. Nicki sures brings them on, with the feds demanding info about deposits by Roman to an account in her name. Still, she’s suffering under some Kill Bill conditions, first forced by her mother to discover her father in deep freeze, then made by Bill to stay with the body on the casino site. (Heartbreaking moment numero uno: Seeing Nicki lug daddy to the van, then utterly break down as they return the body to the compound.) More ominously, she has all her high hopes and big ambitions pinned to Cara Lynn’s education, while creepfest baby daddy J.J. lurks in the background, demanding visitation and saying things about Nicki like “I don’t know what it is, but she still gets me going.” (Heartbreaking moment two: hearing proud Nicki tell Cara Lynn she’s “a math whiz.”)
If Nicki’s all impending tragedy, Barb’s verging on farce. Bill warns her to be careful “not to step on anybody’s moccasins” when she preps crab legs instead of salmon for the casino opening — she also calls the Indians “sexist” before being forced to admit that they just don’t like her — and Margene sees fit to tell her she’s “blossoming” as a way to manipulate her into doing chores that Marge can’t fit around her lucrative new gig hawking costume jewelry on television. (Marge, for once, also gets in a terrific dig at Nicki, saying, regarding sex with Bill, “I have been picking up your share, believe me!”)
But the true (and we have to say brilliant) farce plays out between Bill’s parents. Lois — who, with Ben’s help, is flipping birds, picked up at swamp meets, to pet stores — meets Frank for ice cream, and he brings along three goons with ropes. Luckily, she’s packing a pistol. Later he comes to her apartment, and as the birds make their cacophony, the two enact the greatest elderly fight scene we’ve ever witnessed, a messy, lurching match that’s as hilarious as it is pathetic. It’s a sideshow, to be sure, but if you insist on doing more than simply enjoying it, take it as a wry comment on a show that knows it might just have to go off the tracks. Just don’t ask us to explain why Lois calls her birds “worthless clitorises.”
Amelie Gillete at the AV Club takes a hard line on Bill, saying he’s “greedy to the core, although somehow he manages to convince himself that it’s a virtue.”
Allysa Lee at the L.A. Times refers to Dale and Alby, respectively, as a “dashing peregrine and the brooding chicken hawk.”
Ken Tucker at EW says, “the irony ran high” this episode, but he doesn’t elaborate on this curious idea.
Alan Sepinwall has completely given up on recapping the show.
Related: Everything You Need to Know About the Must-Watch Big Love
Husbands and Wives: Emily Nussbaum Reviews Big Love [NYM]