Joseph Smith started the Mormon Church in 1830, but polygamy wouldn’t be practiced publicly for another 20 years. It was something of a slow rollout, beginning in secret with Smith floating the idea to some ‘o the fellas in his inner circle. Psst, hey bros, this just in from God: a whole new way to subjugate the ladies, can you believe it? They would periodically take plural wives from their pool of followers, all while denouncing the practice in public to avoid legal repercussions and harassment from neighboring communities. After Smith’s assassination in 1844, the church split into two groups, one of them under the leadership of Brigham Young, who took his followers out west, settled in Utah, and instituted polygamy as an official practice. This would place the Mormon settlers at extreme odds with the U.S. Government until 1890, when then-church president Wilford Woodruff, in order to secure Utah’s admittance to the Union, issued a manifesto officially denouncing and exorcising polygamy from the church’s ranks.
Since then, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has maintained a fairly consistent path of slow assimilation into mainstream America, with splinter groups retreating to fundamentalism and reclaiming shrouded teachings of the founding prophets, including the practice of polygamy and anti-federal government sentiment. True to its title, “Church and State,” Under the Banner of Heaven’s fourth episode hones in on this very dynamic, played out both literally and figuratively in the contrasting figures of Dan Lafferty and Detective Jeb Pyre.
We pick up right where we left off in the last episode with Pyre and partner Bill Taba en route to the home of the Lafferty’s Bishop, whose family may or may not be on Dan’s Blood Atonement list. The two detectives arrive at the Lowes home to find it empty. The place looks like it’s been trashed. Pyre finds a file with the Laffertys’ name on it, containing a letter written by Diane, oldest brother Ron’s wife, to the current prophet, asking for counsel over the Lafferty brothers’ “questionable behavior.” As Pyre observes, an LDS wife calling out her family to the church’s prophet would be taken as an extreme act.
Pyre gets hold of the prophet’s secretary and finds out that Diane’s letter was directed back to Bishop Lowe and one of his local counselors, a brother named Bascom. “The prophet is praying for your investigation,” the secretary tells Pyre, who smiles with palpable relief. “That’s all we’re gonna need,” he says. The church’s increasingly top-down corporate structure can be a great source of emotional comfort for members, especially in the face of nagging uncertainty. But as we’ll see later on, this may be the last time Pyre feels anything warm when met with the full force of his faith’s all-seeing eye.
Pyre pays a visit to brother Bascom, who just so happens to work at the bank where Ron Lafferty was trying to get a new business loan. We flashback to Bascom’s meeting with a visibly agitated Ron, where he tells him he can’t approve the loan because it’s too risky. Word’s got around that Ron’s family is dodging property taxes, and the church received a letter from Ron’s wife asking for intervention in brother Dan’s anti-tax organizing and campaign for Sheriff. Ron’s pissed, but as Bascom later tells Pyre, his anger was directed at Dan, not Diane.
Back at the station, Pyre and Taba question Robin Lafferty about his sister-in-law Diane’s letter, which Robin believes was written with Brenda’s help. But if Dan knew about it, he didn’t pay attention. He had bigger fish to fry, like riding a horse in the Fourth of July parade and spouting classic libertarian lines like “Don’t let the government steal any more money out of your pocket” through a red, white, and blue megaphone. After the parade, the Lafferty brothers are all hanging out in an alley where Dan is talkin’ shit, smoking cigarettes, and kissing a lady who he’d just called a gypsy. A very pissed Papa Ammon scolds his son to shut up about Man’s law and study God’s laws more diligently instead. Hmm, something tells me that’s gonna backfire.
Sure enough, as Robin tells it, Dan took his father’s words to heart, scouring the BYU library for every trace of the fundamentalist teachings from the early Mormon prophets. Growing frustrated with the fact that “too much of our history seems to have been purposefully removed from every library in Utah,” Dan takes Robin on a trip to Colorado City, Arizona, to talk to the enclave of fundamentalist Mormons there who still practice polygamy. Dan strikes up a conversation with a young man in the community and quickly broaches the subject of polygamy and how it was denounced only to keep federal troops from marching on Utah. “We do not change [the prophets’] beliefs to suit the fashion of the time,” he tells Dan. And should the law come around, “the faithful will be arranged under the banner of heaven against them.” That last quote is from early Mormon prophet John Taylor, and Dan digs it, man. Dan gets one last bit of recommended reading: a pro-polygamy pamphlet called The Peace Maker.
Back in the present timeline, Pyre and Taba get the police files on Dan from Salt Lake City, and that’s where we learn how well it went over when Dan broached the subject of polygamy with his wife, Matilda. While driving home, Dan pulls a copy of “The Peace Maker” out of the glove box and hands it to her to read aloud, which she finds confusing and disturbing. This is essential LDS theology printed by Joseph Smith himself, Dan warns, and it also says a man needs at least three wives to enter the highest kingdom of heaven. Matilda ain’t havin’ it, so Dan gaslights her with the old “don’t you want me (and God) to be happy” schtick. Eventually, they get pulled over for speeding, which sends Dan on a conspiratorial rant about the police sabotaging his campaign. He bolts from the scene until traffic stops him in the middle of town, where he’s arrested in the street, shouting, “witness the tyrants!” Nice, bro.
Anyway, Pyre and Taba go to Allen for more info on this whole “Peace Maker” thing, and we see a flashback of Dan telling the brothers about the need for spiritual alignment via polygamy. When Allen asks if the whole multiple wives thing is mandatory, Dan says it is if you want to get to the Celestial Kingdom. This sets off Ron, who’s already under enough pressure without Dan suggesting his family get involved in more illegal shit. But all it takes is the suggestion that Ron should lead the family while Dan’s on his “spiritual cleanse” in prison to get him to brighten up. Starting to think maybe this guy’s about as unhinged as the rest of his fam.
Later, Pyre becomes rattled after his confrontation with Robin’s stake president (a “stake” is made up of several wards, with a stake president at the head, kind of like an Über-bishop, ya know?). Under the veil of civility and spiritual counsel from a church elder, this fucker shows up at the station and asks Pyre to release Robin into his custody. He comes in hot with veiled accusations of Pyre’s lack of faith, admonishing him to avoid embarrassing the church. Evoking the temple oaths, the stake president reminds Pyre that they’ve all made covenants to protect the lord’s kingdom, even unto laying down their lives.
Pyre’s reaching a breaking point. The line between Mormon fundamentalism and the modern incarnation of the religion he thought he knew is quickly disappearing before his eyes. Later on, he’ll learn from Allen that Diane’s letter to the prophet was for sure written with Brenda’s help. He’ll also learn from Robin and Bascom that Ron was convinced to come over to Dan’s side before he was denied the loan and did get pissed at Diane for writing the letter, which brings the chronology of events into full perspective. Looks like the Lafferty brothers were more united than previously thought, with only their father and wives standing in their way. When a press conference rolls around, the police chief demands that Pyre and Taba keep mum about the Laffertys’ fundamentalist connections. He, too, is primarily concerned about the church’s reputation, hoping to maintain a distance in public perception between mainstream Mormonism and its fundamentalist offshoots. But Pyre’s done hearing about negligible differences between the covert patriarchal orders that loom over this case and his own life, respectively. So he tells the press he suspects fundamentalist Mormonism to be at the root of it all.
As for the missing Bishop Lowe, we’ll have to wait until next week to see what insights he might share. “Church and State” ends with a rookie cop tracking Lowe down to a fishing spot up Grandaddy Mountain (great name for a mountain), and the vibes are way off, as they frequently are in Heavenly Father’s country.
• Just when I thought Under the Banner of Heaven had really found its groove, it comes in with a bit of an “info dump” episode where the pieces don’t all fit together so neatly. Don’t get me wrong, this show’s spinning a lot of plates, and even when one or two of them are teetering, none of them have stopped spinning altogether or fallen yet. It’s just that there was a LOT of information on everything from Mormon history to the inner workings of the modern church to simply tracking the investigation and new characters at hand. Honestly, it was hard for me to keep up with all of it. As I said, I remain impressed with this show’s ability to balance all those things while maintaining a strong emotional core, I’m just hoping the stage has been set for a smoother run in the last three episodes.
• The most jarring change from the last episode to this one was the absence of Brenda, who up until this point was largely the main character of the Lafferty flashbacks. Not that they should’ve done anything differently in this episode as far as that’s concerned, but I am hoping that the perspective shifts back her way soon if only to effectively ground the events that led to her murder.
• I’ve seen recurring concerns that the dialogue in the show is a bit stilted. I think that’s true, but it’s mostly because the show is using dialogue to get in some necessary shorthand on Mormon culture and history. Take the scene where the Pyres go to church and are confronted at the doors by a sister in the ward who’s been “assigned” to help get them back on the right track. It’s not that what she’s saying wouldn’t actually be conveyed in a situation like that, it just wouldn’t be put so directly. But in cases like these, the underlying emotional reality is pretty much always accurate.