Heading into the second episode of Under the Banner of Heaven, I’m feeling equal parts intrigued and, admittedly, a little underwhelmed — if only because of the overly efficient pacing and overall look and feel of the show. Not that there’s anything objectionable or poor about what we’ve seen so far. There is just something about it that feels more, I don’t know, utilitarian than lyrical. But that might be preferable while we’re still at the beginning, and the show is certainly doing a great job of juggling all the details of this true-crime story and laying out the greater context in a clear, entertaining fashion.
All the while providing context for how modern Mormonism came to its beliefs. Take the title of this series, and Jon Krakauer’s book, which comes from a quote from John Taylor, the third president of the LDS Church:
“God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven against the Government. The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife. God says different.”
From about the mid-20th century onward, the mainstream LDS Church has succeeded and grown by assimilating into mainstream American culture, but it definitely wasn’t always like that. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the early days, the church was much more akin to its modern libertarian splinter groups, in that it stood in direct opposition to the U.S. government, eventually settling in Utah to continue their way of life and practice polygamy. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons were as militant a religious outsider group as any the Wild West ever saw. It’s no wonder, then, that there’s this whole libertarian-focused wing of Mormon fundamentalism. It seems that’s the kind of group that the Lafferty brothers have gotten themselves involved with.
With a second Lafferty brother now in custody, Detective Pyre asks Robin why he fled from the officers leading up to his arrest: “Well, from 1795 on, the government began discarding our freedom, so I ran from wrongful prosecution for failing to follow wayward laws that harm our LDS families.” Jeez, RED FLAG, am I right?
Flashing back to the Lafferty-family saga, we find Dan and Robin living under the pressure of their father’s parting edict (“The Lord’s elect must never allow anyone to take what is rightfully ours”) and a floundering chiropractic business (compounded by Dan insisting on some new, more “spiritual” methods of practice on patients). They’re in over their heads, and Brenda wants to help. When she finds that Dan’s wife, Matilda, is struggling with her new post — billing and bookkeeping for the family — she tells her that all they have to do is listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, which, as Brenda puts it, women are better at doing than men anyway. Figuring Brenda’s a safe person to open up to, Matilda confesses she can’t hear the Holy Spirit anymore. She knows it’s supposed to be more of a feeling than a literal voice, but she says she used to hear the Spirit when it “told” her to move out to Utah and marry Dan. And it didn’t hurt that Heavenly Father had told Dan to marry her. But what if it wasn’t God that said it to him? “What if it was his father who told him that I was broken enough to say yes to a never-married 27-year-old Mormon who smoked and drank and fancied my sister?”
Since their marriage, Dan has shaped up his act, and now he’s head of the Lafferty household. With no option but to stay in a lane that was never hers and defer to the authority of her husband, Matilda is overwhelmed with a nagging sense of inferiority, and Brenda is probably the only person in her life who has told her that she’s closer to God than anyone else around her. Robin overhears this whole convo and he’s not feelin’ it, so he reiterates some of their dad’s advice to Allen: “When the exciting stuff wears off, what’s really important is that you find a woman who will help you build a family for eternity.”
As Brenda will be told in so many words time and again, a woman’s “rightful place” isn’t in her “worldly ambitions.” The more Brenda gets involved with the family, the more Allen wants to get her away. So he tries spending time with his eldest brother, Ron, and his wife, but that doesn’t go over too well either. Brenda is too observant for them, too, and Ron doesn’t like it when she asks for help on behalf of the rest of the family. She’s also clearly onto Ron’s shady business practices, aware enough of the oncoming recession to talk a little shop with him as he basically admits to being on city council so he can deregulate zoning laws and such for himself. As Allen puts it, Ron is his father’s eldest son, whether he wants to admit it or not, driven by the edict to “keep building no matter what.”
Things aren’t exactly peachy for Brenda at BYU either, having to ward off an inappropriate advance from a journalism professor. All in all, hers is a familiar story of a woman who is just too confident, capable, and correct about what’s really going on to be tolerated by her own people. She reminds me of so many of the women I grew up with — strong, intelligent, with chutzpah to spare, ready to take on the world and make a name for themselves in a big way, but also loving their faith so much it’s hard to see the fences it has placed around their heart’s desires (to be fair, that last part would also accurately describe my younger self).
“It’s not that extraordinary for Mormons to make sure folks are in their rightful place,” says Allen. “Mormons, non-Mormons, men and women, surely they all have their rightful place in the kingdom of Heaven, don’t they?” And killing those who step out of place, strange as it may seem, is “all over our history and our scriptures.”
Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief. —1 Nephi 4:13
Back to this mystery bearded-man group (I love that “dude with a beard” is enough of a profile to raise suspicion in 1980s Utah). With Robin still in custody, Pyre asks him if he has ever attended a group focused on tax issues. “You mean Patriots for Freedom?” He replies. It turns out those papers he was burning in his backyard might have been related. “My brothers and I were building something modern and holy but worried that others may not understand.” Well, the IRS certainly doesn’t understand, and when it comes a-knockin’, Dan sees it as a test from God and a sign to build a newer, better practice. As Robin tells it, the Patriots for Freedom were just helping them navigate their “unjust tax burdens by filing lawsuits to relieve all citizens of unconstitutional tax laws,” not to mention the burdens of “Jimmy Carter, socialism, and haughty women who don’t know their place.” You know, all the godless stuff. [Raises Devil horns.]
Back to the present. Taba is checking with Forest Services for any sightings of three bearded men in the woods. A ranger brings him out to a spot where a strange group of folks were firing weapons like mad. Taba tracks them down to a cabin hideout, and Robin’s ominous words score the showdown to come: “Nothing can stop the political kingdom of God from rising in glory.”
• Seeing how this isn’t a documentary, I’m a little wary about the way all the Joseph Smith and early LDS Church flashbacks will play out. Not sure why, but for some reason, I assumed the show would resist spending as much time in that part of Krakauer’s book as it already has. At the same time, most of what we’ve seen so far has felt too quick, like a reenactment in a documentary. Since they are doing these flashbacks, I hope they go all the way with it down the road. Lots of rich material to be mined from that.