The endowment is the central Masonic ritual performed in Mormon temples. Once you’ve been “endowed,” the idea is you’ve got the necessary “signs and tokens” (a series of symbolic handshakes and gestures) to enter the Celestial Kingdom of heaven, provided you live up to the covenants you make. One of those covenants is to give everything you have to build up God’s kingdom, the church. Another is never to divulge what you see and experience in the temple (which is why Mormons tend to feel disrespected over depictions of temple ceremonies in film and TV). Before the church made updates to the ritual in 1990, there was a part where you promised to never divulge, “even at the peril of your life,” capped by a symbolic throat-slashing gesture. It’s an effectively chilling moment, then, when we see Brenda Lafferty making this gesture in the temple on the day of her endowment in this episode’s first flashback.
“A woman older than Jesus’s sandals just put oil very, VERY close to my private parts.” Brenda says to her sisters-in-law (that’s the initiatory “washing and anointing,” another ritual that’s since been updated to be, uh, less weird and invasive). “It took me by surprise, too,” Diana tells her. “I thought they kept me in the dark because I didn’t grow up LDS, but I guess they don’t tell any of us.” The secrecy around the temple can be quite distressing for the newly initiated (for me, it was just sort of weird and confounding, seeing how there’s really nothing like it in any other aspect of Mormon life). You’re supposed to be making these, like, heavy promises to God, and you have no idea what they are or what’s going to happen until you get there.
Pyre has also been through the endowment and has made those same promises, but it’s only now that he’s being confronted with their violent implications. At the top of the episode, our guy, with backup in tow, comes to his partner Detective Taba’s rescue at the cabin in the woods, where it’s discovered that Sam Lafferty (Rory Culkin) is hiding out with his wife Sarah (Britt Irvin) and their children. Having apprehended Sarah, Pyre questions her about her sister-in-law Brenda’s faithfulness. Heavenly Father’s law is black or white, she retorts, and Brenda is “an ugly shade of gray.” She then relays the day of Brenda’s endowment, how Diana and Matilda, both converts to the church and therefore not “real LDS women,” in Sarah’s eyes, encouraged her to support Brenda as another sister and ally in their private coalition of strong Lafferty women. But Sarah wasn’t having it, taking Brenda’s irreverence in the temple as a sign of gross dereliction.
“According to prophets Joseph and Brigham, there are some sins beyond repentance,” she tells Pyre. And the only way to forgive these sins is through the doctrine of blood atonement. Pyre says he must’ve missed that lesson in church, to which she replies, “It means to cleanse one of their sins by spilling their blood out onto the ground, brother.”
When I was growing up in Utah, blood atonement was the stuff of hushed rumor, usually brushed off as an “anti-Mormon” lie. More on that later. For now, Pyre has to get Sam and his sons out of the cabin unharmed, so he appeals to a shared sense of mythology around early Mormon history. “You have every right to feel angry. I know how the authorities have treated our most faithful. When they slaughtered our kind at Haun’s Mill, did our prophet Joseph ever fire back? Did he resort to violence? No, he surrendered, he ensured the future of our faith.” Haun’s Mill was a bloody massacre in Missouri where a militia attacked a Mormon settlement to drive the religious fringe group out of the state, killing multiple children and young men.
And here’s where the rubber meets the road. Every branch of Mormonism — mainstream, fundamentalist, whatever — manifests some version of a persecution complex derived from the Haun’s Mill Massacre and similar stories from the Mormon pioneer days. It’s the reason so many Mormons “honestly feel so attacked right now” whenever there’s a public spotlight on the church. From outside the cabin, Pyre tells Sam that he could do the same as the prophet Joseph, surrender so this can end peacefully. But Sam is more of a militant, Brigham Young-style Mormon, so he refuses. Luckily, Pyre and his deputies are able to infiltrate the cabin without harming anyone.
Back at the police station, with three Lafferty brothers in custody, Pyre finds out from Sam’s daughter that there was a bit of a scene the morning of Brenda and Allen’s wedding. Papa Ammon is in town and he’s pissed to find out that Dan has run his business into the ground and risked losing the family home due to unpaid taxes and licensing. “Hands on the rail,” he says, whipping off his belt to administer some lashings in front of the whole family. Older brother Ron tries to intervene, but Ammon ain’t gonna have it from his wayward eldest. “There’s only room for one patriarch in the family,” he protests before raising his fists like a turn-of-the-century boxer; you’re almost waiting for him to put on a bowler cap and big fake mustache and start saying “bully, bully.” Anyway, the following morning Dan prays with his wife and daughters and starts getting hysterical, shouting that God has appointed him the leader of the family and all that. “I will do anything and go anywhere!” he repeats and repeats.
If there’s a recurring lesson to be learned from all the Lafferty flashbacks, it’s that the family unit exists to serve an industry or organization (and, by extension, the patriarch in the seat of power) and not the other way around, no matter how much they teach you otherwise. It’s also the lesson to be gleaned from Pyre’s daughters’ baptismal interview with their bishop, where they must pay a full tithe to the church, in addition to professing that it’s God’s one true church and Joseph Smith was a true prophet. Clearly still reeling from Allen Lafferty’s words (that he’s committing his daughters to a faith that would tell them to obey men at all times), Pyre hangs back for a one-on-one with his bishop. He relays his struggles taking care of his ailing mother, then moves the conversation to the doctrinal concerns that the Lafferty case is bringing up for him. He asks about the concept of blood atonement, if it’s true that it comes from the founding Mormon prophets, as Sarah had told him. Now, a Mormon bishop is a lay clergyman, meaning he’s just some dude in the ward who’s called on a “volunteer” basis to lead his congregation. Most bishops are moderately successful businessmen or just, like, regular guys, a.k.a. not theologians who have a firm grasp on nitty-gritty church history or doctrine. “I don’t go digging into the past, and neither should you,” Pyre’s bishop tells him. “You put your trust in today’s prophet, you leave these things on the shelf, and you trust that the prophet will never lead us astray.”
In leading with the whole blind-obedience schtick, Pyre’s bishop unwittingly raises the same red flags that the Lafferty case has raised, which spurs him to want to postpone his daughters’ baptism for the time being. Meanwhile, back at the police station, Pyre confronts Allen about his police record of unpaid traffic violations and contempt of court. What else are you not telling me? Who are you protecting? Your typical cop line of questioning. Allen says he had listened too much to his brothers about trying to beat these traffic tickets (honestly, speed traps in Utah are fucking bullshit, so this is an example of weird libertarian zealotry I empathize with. Solidarity, brother!), which got him arrested the morning after his wedding (incidentally, the same morning Brenda graduated from BYU). From here, we cut to Brenda confronting Dan about the whole thing, warning him that they’ll impound Allen’s truck that their father gave him if something isn’t done. “Obeying unholy laws for daddy’s sake is not going to make anybody happy, here or in the next life,” Dan replies. “Honor your priesthood holder,” says Robin, “Dan says if Allen gets arrested again, he will not go to jail.” See, Dan’s getting on the ballot for Sheriff, per his last heavenly vision, following in the footsteps of Joseph Smith, who ran for president to stop Mormons from being persecuted. (Joseph Smith ran for president at one point. Imagine if, like, Jim Jones or L. Ron Hubbard had run for president.) “If a sheriff can convene a common-law jury and the court is where we’re headed, imagine how helpful it’ll be if I am the courts.” As Allen explains, Brenda’s position in the family was eerily similar to Emma Smith’s, who raised objections when her prophet husband started taking the advice of his eventual successor, the militant Brigham Young, to build up an army and spill the blood of their enemies when necessary.
Allen also explains that, after his arrest, he decided it was time to distance himself and Brenda from his family, cut out on their own like Ron did. But to do that, he tells her, they’ll need to start a family of their own. Brenda’s just accepted a job at Channel 11 News, but Allen wants her to give that up, for now, to have a bunch of babies. “You have your degree; people are always going to want to hire you.” My brother in Christ, that’s not how degrees work! Anyway, looking back on it, Allen tells Pyre that he unwittingly put Brenda in a new cage rather than break her out of one. “Our sweet wives, all being told that by having dozens of children that would somehow make them more holy, more righteous. Isn’t that another surrender we push them to in the name of God?”
But surrendering to God is the whole idea, as we remember from our temple covenants. And as we learn from Sam, the Laffertys have a literal list of people who must surrender their blood to the ground to atone for their “sins.” From Robin (whose shocked and dismayed reaction to the news of Brenda’s murder seems legit), Pyre and Taba learn that, if there is a list, the names of the Laffertys’ local church leaders would be on it. They cut out in the police car to check up on these families, and the episode ends with a quick flashback to Brenda finding out she’s pregnant. She’s changed by the news and wants to fight to keep the whole family together. For her trouble, she’ll be met with the full wrath of the male-ego God that presides over the most American of religions.