Based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book, Under the Banner of Heaven is the true-crime story of a double murder in Utah in 1984, perpetrated by one of Mormonism’s many fundamentalist splinter groups, that’s juxtaposed with the early frontier-justice days of the LDS Church. For your humble recapper, a lapsed Mormon born and raised in Provo, Utah, this miniseries is sure to be one helluva prolonged “TRIGGERED” meme, so let’s get right to it, eh, brothers and sisters?
Right off the bat, the show hits you with the True Detective–mids vibe, opening with an ominous montage of the greater Salt Lake area (including a prominent shot of the LDS temple in Provo, my old stomping grounds). We home in on Andrew Garfield’s Detective Jeb Pyre, a faithful Latter-Day Saint and all-American family man who’s woefully unprepared for the double murder he’s about to be called in on.
Dressed in a suit that’s just as fit for church as it is for detective work, Pyre caps his nightly prayer with his wife, daughters, and ailing mother with a poignant plea before heading out to the crime scene: “Heavenly Father, may we be instruments in thy hands, and to help fix what we find broken.” But what he finds is beyond repair: the bodies of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, throats slashed and blood hideously pooled on their kitchen floor. Pyre emerges from the house to find Brenda’s husband, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), standing in the street covered in blood, and that’s where our mystery begins — real David Lynch–type shit, unfathomable darkness veiled behind a white picket fence and whatnot.
After Allen is brought in, there’s a bit of a hubbub at the police station. Anyone who knows he’s a Lafferty is aghast, seeing how the Laffertys are a prominent Mormon family in the valley (“highly regarded”). There’s some version of a big, multigenerational, highly regarded Mormon family in every ward in Utah (“ward” is the Mormon word for a local congregation), often filling out a chunk of the “prestige” church positions and running a family business together. Big, enmeshed families that “provide for themselves” remain an elite social currency in Mormondom (for example, wealthy, public families like the Romneys, the Coveys, etc.). Anyway, Allen claims that about a year ago, “peculiar men” with beards were taken with his family and that they might still be in danger. Pyre’s partner, Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) — resident non-Mormon, Native American detective and fish outta water, with the added burden of communitywide casual racism to contend with — seems convinced, at first glance, that Allen killed his wife. Pyre is less sure, competing with his own biases and familiarity with the Lafferty family. But they switch positions when it’s revealed that Allen has fallen from the faith (Pyre catches him without Mormon temple garments when he’s changing out of his bloody clothes). Pyre gets testy, equating what he perceives as a loss of faith with a loss of morality (something I wish I could say I’d never done as a Latter-Day Saint), bursts into the interrogation room, and starts quoting LDS scripture at Allen and throwing cuffs on him. It’s the weirdest version of good-cop-bad-cop you’ve ever seen. “You’ve turned your back on Heavenly Father,” Pyre says. “I’m confident that forensics will have proven your guilt by tomorrow morning.”
But Allen Lafferty knelt with his wife in the temple and brought her to church with his family. “You look at these as signs of innocence,” Allen reminds him, “but they aren’t.”
From here, we flash back to Brenda’s idyllic pre-Allen life in Idaho with her family, led by a bishop father who keeps the faith while supporting his daughters in all of their life’s pursuits. Her family and their moderately progressive approach to gender roles is incidentally much more representative of your average modern LDS family, providing a much-needed contrast with the Laffertys, who we’re introduced to when Brenda is taken to meet them for the first time.
Immediately, the vibes are off as hell. Like, we just saw this nice gal telling her worrying parents she’s going to Salt Lake City, a “big city with values,” to study broadcast journalism at BYU, and she’s going to be on television. Now she’s in Utah meeting her boyfriend’s all-star LDS family, which is bussin’ with creepy-ass brothers and an insane dad who walked right out of the 18th century to stand at the head of this Rockwellian nightmare of a dinner table. Raw deal, man.
But I’ll say this much: Brenda certainly gets the lay of the land among the Lafferty clan real quick. And even though, as Allen relays, everyone in his family was looking for fault in Brenda, she comes out on the other end seemingly undeterred from making a place for herself in the family. She also observes older brother Ron (Sam Worthington) being passed up in favor of his younger brother Dan (Wyatt Russell) to take on the family chiropractic business and household while his parents go away on a senior-couple mission for the church. Excellent casting with those two, by the way. The second Worthington and Russell showed up on the screen, I was like, Hey, I know those actors, and, Eesh, I know those guys, know what I mean? See, Ron’s on his own path, financially at least; he’s got his own scammy construction business and everything. “As much as they had their eyes on her … she had her eyes on us,” says Allen.
Back in the “present,” Pyre asks Allen if he misses going to church. Yes, he says, but what he misses most is the days when he believed God was love. It was love, after all, that drove Joseph Smith to create his one true church. “With their love,” Allen says, “God would share hidden truths.” That’s the church he misses, and what stands in its place is a faith that breeds dangerous men, as he’ll say later.
On the investigation front, Detective Taba heads to the address of Allen’s brother Robin, finding an abandoned house and a bonfire of documents burning in the backyard. This piques their suspicions of Allen, who still swears that men with beards infiltrated and corrupted his family and every second they spend focused on him is a second another man of God is inspired to shed more blood. That night they get a call from a hotel manager with eyes on a suspicious man with a beard, matching the APB description he heard on his police scanner. It turns out it’s Robin Lafferty, the next key witness in this unfolding mystery. “What if evil found its way here?” wonders Pyre. “What if tonight is just the first edge of a bone that’s finally working its way out of our own desert floor?”
• Damn, TV got my ex-Mormon ass feeling like the Pacino meme. Just when I thought I’d gotten to a healthy distance from (and acceptance of) my former religion, TV decides to have its own mini “Mormon moment.” I just finished recapping Tokyo Vice, a show in which my favorite character turned out to be a former Mormon, and I happened to catch up on the latest season of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, where the great Angela Kinsey guest-starred as, like, a lapsed Mormon from Utah with a son named Brigham (LOL). And now FX is running Under the Banner of Heaven. So when the opportunity came up to recap this show, I wasn’t about to question it; time is a flat circle and all that. It is better to take these things as they come, lean in and answer the call, and see what nuggets of revelation rise to the surface.
• I haven’t read the book, but from what I understand of Krakauer’s dual-narrative approach, the idea was to connect these modern-day murders with a tradition of violence, frontier justice, and crackdown patriarchy that continues to ripple out from Mormonism’s origin point in countless ways. As I recap this show, it could be really easy for me to get lost in the weeds, pointing out every little discrepancy or inaccuracy I may see in every bit of dialogue, location shooting, costume design, etc. But setting aside the fact that, from what I’ve seen so far, this show is pretty darn accurate in its portrayal of the larger Mormon world, I’m much more interested in tracking the underlying truths about Mormonism (and America, for that matter) that emerge from the series at face value. In other words, we’re not watching a documentary here.
• Garfield immediately presents himself as the ideal choice for a character like this, emanating a comforting movie-star familiarity for the audience while embodying the earnestness, arrested innocence, and genuine sense of duty that defines the modern Mormon man. His previous experience playing a man of faith beset with overwhelming doubt in Martin Scorsese’s Silence is sure to come in handy in this joint.
• A note on the True Detective comparison: that really only goes skin deep, whether you see it as a selling point or a criticism. On a compositional level, there’s definitely a generic-brand True Detective style going on, but I don’t think it’s trying that hard to be an HBO show or anything. Sure, there’s the small-town, generational-dark-cult stuff, but this is also a true-crime story, not a lyrical genre-spinning one, so its concerns are necessarily different.