Last week, Nadine Smith wrote a great piece for GQ that would serve any fan of this show to read. Tracking, from an ex-Mormon perspective, how Under the Banner of Heaven gets Mormon culture right, Smith addresses the show’s perceived flashback problem, or the recurring refrain from reviewers that the flashbacks to Joseph Smith and the early Mormon settler days feel “wedged in.” These flashbacks, Smith argues, not only act as “footnotes to the constant quotations and citations that […] believers make to their own scripture” but “capture the way in which to be a Mormon is, in many ways, to live in history.” As we see in the show, “Mormons use history almost like Jesus used parables,” and the LDS church’s cleaned-up version of the past, filled with mythologized biographical tales of the early Mormon prophets, represents a “form of storytelling that communicates a moral and tells us which path to walk.”
History becomes an origin myth that eventually calcifies into collective memory. But when that shared memory is built on a weak foundation, shit gets weird. For Detective Jeb Pyre, unraveling the mystery of the Lafferty murders means unraveling the foundational (and false) memory of his faith. For both Dan and Ron Lafferty, the Mormon origin myth is a Pandora’s box to be opened and wielded to justify, and even make holy, their most violent impulses. Violence, after all, was a key ingredient in the recipe for Mormonism’s (and, more broadly, America’s) Wild West patriarchal order.
At the top of “One Mighty and Strong,” Pyre is back in the interrogation room with Samuel, arguably the most unhinged Lafferty (I love how much Rory Culkin dials it up), quoting a “prophecy” from John Taylor, third president of the LDS church and successor of Brigham Young: “The almighty will lay his hands upon the nation. There will be more bloodshed, more ruin, more devastation than they’ve ever seen.” As Sam proclaims, Taylor foretold that the church would go into bondage, and “one mighty and strong” would appear to put things back in order. That’s why, he claims, he spilled the blood of his sister-in-law and niece. But the blood found on him wasn’t theirs, and Pyre and Taba know Sam is lying to protect the real culprits. From brother Robin, also still in custody, Pyre learns that the Lafferty boys had a “school of the prophets,” which Robin claims was just a scripture study group where they and a few others would explore their “areas of interest.”
But just as Pyre gets a couple of new names of school-of-profits attendees, word gets in that Bishop Lowe and his wife have been found. At the Lowe home, Pyre and Taba inquire why their names would be on the Laffertys’ blood-atonement list. Turns out both Dan and Ron were excommunicated from the church, and Ron’s excommunication had as much to do with his brother’s actions as it did with him getting physically abusive with his wife, Dianna. Bishop Lowe is hesitant to dish the deets, citing ecclesiastical responsibility but also clearly untrusting of the Native American detective in front of him (side note: This particular brand of institutional racism derives from the Book of Mormon–originating belief that Native Americans are descendants of Abraham, cursed with dark skin for the wickedness of their fathers). Though experiencing a transition away from a simpler faith, Pyre can speak the language of his faithful peers to get the story out of this bishop.
We cut to Matilda Lafferty milking a cow in a pioneer dress (first sign things have gone south fast) at what appears to be Dan’s fundamentalist compound in the woods. She goes inside and walks in on Dan with his stepdaughter Cora, where he claims at first to have been giving her a back realignment. He drops that pretense quick, though, and straight up tells Matilda he’s been “prompted” to take her adolescent daughter as his second wife. This is some fucked-up shit, and the truth is, something like it could happen in any LDS congregation at any minute. That’s not to say that every nonfundamentalist Mormon man is out there scheming to start his own polygamist sect.
So Matilda helps her daughters escape in the middle of the night and offers sex to Dan to distract him while the girls leave the compound. Truly horrific. I gotta say, Matilda must’ve been a tough role to inhabit, and I give Chloe Pirrie all the props in the world for imbuing this woman with a complex interior life that comes out in the performance. Anyway, Matilda’s girls ran straight for their old church, and their account led to Dan’s excommunication.
For Ron, the path to excommunication began at the church blessing of Allen and Brenda’s infant daughter. Here’s where we see Ron accosting and all but threatening Bishop Lowe over his brother’s church court, while Brenda and Dianna hold a separate council with Sister Lowe. Brenda suggests that maybe the threat of excommunication would be enough to zap Ron “back into the 20th century,” and Sister Lowe says it’s not their job to interfere in things that fall under the authority of the priesthood. “It’s not always easy, but it is our calling,” she tells Brenda. It isn’t until Dianna comes back to the Lowes with more bruises on her face that they give her some money and tell her to find somewhere safe.
Next, Pyre and Taba pay a visit to Bernard Brady (Nicholas Carella), one of the two new characters from the school of prophets (the other is some dude, probably one of the fundamentalists with the beards, who calls himself “the prophet Onias” LOL). They’ve got a warrant to search his home, and immediately this guy comes off shady as hell, acting way too bubbly and friendly with our detectives while clearly trying to keep something from his wife. Together, the Bradys reveal that Ron had stayed with them for a while after receiving his excommunication letter and violently lashed out at Dianna. Eventually, though, ole Brother Brady asks his wife to make a batch of fresh-squeezed lemonade so he can talk the real shop (apparently he doesn’t want his super-chill Mrs. to know he was in a polygamy study group, go figure). See, this guy knew about the Laffertys’ blood atonement list but never came forward with it. All he did was notarize a letter to himself for plausible deniability in case the group ever went through with any of their sinister plans. When Pyre and Taba ask if Dianna might’ve been on that list, Brady reacts with something between “Who knows” and “Well, duh.” “Our greatest loss,” he says, “can be traced back to the words written by a wife who thought she knew better than her husband.”
It’s a bit of an awkward transition, but it takes us back to the Joseph Smith days, where Joseph’s brother Hyrum is overseeing the destruction of a publisher’s printing press who dared write about Smith’s practice of polygamy. Fearing an invasion of their settlement, Joseph would eventually go to Carthage, Illinois, to stand trial, where an angry mob would invade his jailhouse and kill him. But as Allen Lafferty will later tell Pyre, someone must’ve convinced Joseph to surrender willingly. When Emma sends a letter with the party who’ll be meeting up with Joseph while he’s in hiding, brother John Taylor conspires to add a few sentences to it: “My sweet Joseph, you must surrender now in order to save our church.” Both Taylor and Brigham Young already had multiple wives at this point. Maybe they didn’t want to risk losing them for the only other voice who had power over Joseph. Or, as Allen posits to Pyre, was this a chance for Brigham to become the sole leader and take the church where he had to in order to survive? In any case, Joseph took the so-called words of his wife to heart and turned himself in. After his death, the church split into two camps — Brigham Young’s polygamist camp and Emma’s monogamous one. It was Brigham’s camp that went out west and grew into the LDS church we know today.
Here’s where I should probably point out that this theory about Brigham Young’s involvement in Joseph Smith’s death is just that: a theory. But in the context of this semi-fictional show, it does serve as a prophetic mirror of Ron Lafferty’s journey to the Mormon heart of darkness, which takes up most of the Lafferty run time for the remainder of the episode. After his church disciplinary hearing and excommunication, Ron goes home “to reclaim his rightful place,” actin’ a fool, freaking his kids out, and adorning the temple garment top his daughter had just cut the sacred markings out of (this is standard Mormon practice anytime a temple garment is worn out or ready to be retired). Any Mormon will tell ya this is a particularly shocking and definitely cursed image. As one of his young sons cowers in fear behind a piece of furniture, Ron leaves him with a watch, broken so it is stopped at the hour of Joseph Smith’s death — a potent image signifying Ron’s path to claiming his “rightful place.” After sufficiently terrorizing his wife and kids, Ron goes home to his mom. Call me crazy, but I am sensing some Oedipal tension between these two when Mom looks deep into Ron’s dreamy Sam Worthington eyes and tells him, “You’re one heartbeat away from your rightful place as the head of this family. You’re the one.”
Though Under the Banner of Heaven continues to bump up against the weight of all the pieces it’s trying to fit into each episode, it remains consistent in its form and message. As Nadine Smith points out, the show, flaws and all, manages to capture a vivid world “filled with so much guilt and shame, in which the expectations of your ancestors are used as a reminder to keep you in line.” Like Smith, my own family history is steeped in early Mormonism. My third great-grandfather joined the church in its earliest incarnation, was an apostle to Brigham Young, and played a major role in the early development of southern Utah. His ghostly presence in my life was a background constant until I left the church, but the pressure to “serve God” and lead others with the fervor of my influential ancestors never did much more than alienate me. For Ron Lafferty, the call to “serve” is a resonant call to gnash one’s teeth and raise hell as a “new lion of the lord.”
And for detectives Pyre and Taba, the search for the Laffertys just got a helluva lot more urgent. With the help of Brady and Allen, they track down Dan’s compound and find it deserted, save for a few stranded young girls from prophet Onias’s FLDS settlement. They also find the blood atonement list, which, as Pyre asserts, Ron left on purpose because he believes he’s a latter-day Brigham Young. And that means there will be more blood.