The linchpin moment of “Revelation,” Under the Banner of Heaven’s strange, fluid, and ultimately moving penultimate episode, comes in quietly at about the halfway mark. Jeb Pyre is helping his ailing mother with her bath. As he washes her hair, she says that she’d been belligerent with Jeb’s wife Rebecca earlier because the devil made her do it. “[God’s] testing me before I can join your father,” she says. “He needs to know my worth. So give me your blessing.”
All “worthy” priesthood-holding men in the church are charged to give priesthood blessings, some for healing the sick, others for relief, protection, guidance, or deliverance through difficult times. The idea is you’re acting by the authority and power of God when you give a blessing, which makes it a frequent source of comfort for members of the church — especially for faithful LDS women who have no direct access to God’s power or approval under a religious order that’s strictly patriarchal.
In the throes of an all-consuming crisis of faith, brought on by an all-consuming murder case, Jeb Pyre has seen the other face of the priesthood and what men are capable of when they feel empowered to raise a banner of blood in God’s name. Now he sees, all too clearly, how his own mother, in the throes of advancing dementia, still relies on a priesthood authority to feel worthy of God’s love. Pyre will later tell Detective Taba that he faked his way through the blessing just so his mother would rinse her hair out. “It’s pretty easy,” he says. And that’s what scares him.
At the top of the episode, when Pyre and Taba are at the Lafferty home questioning Mama Lafferty, she tells them, “you’ve taken my sons from me, but if they were here, you would see their innocence, the way Heavenly Father resides in them.” In his head, Pyre be like, girl, Heavenly Father “residing in them” is the fucking problem! And as the weasely brother Brady points out, “there are examples of God’s killing orders all over our scriptures.”
Perhaps most comparable to Catholicism in its theological reliance on an exclusive, authoritative hierarchy to act in God’s name and lead his “one true church,” Mormonism finds itself in a perpetual state of confusion between its own doctrines of personal and apostolic revelation. Only the prophet or current president of the church is authorized to receive revelation for the world, while stake presidents and bishops are the only ones authorized to receive revelation for their congregations, and only priesthood-holding fathers can receive revelation for their families, and so on. But under this system, the whole concept of revelation quickly devolves into, as Allen Lafferty puts it later, “men listening to their own selfish desires and calling it God so they can justify … anything.”
Ron Lafferty desires a couple of things — to reclaim his family and hear God’s voice moving through his own. In other words, he wants to feel like a man again. With his father out of the picture, he sets out on a “journey of truth” to find a purer Mormonism. His first stop is in Oregon, at the polygamist compound of John Bryant, the acolyte of an earlier polygamist who was excommunicated for being “too liberal.” At first, Ron is pretty cool with this whole hippie-commune version of Mormon polygamy. The Bryants offer him some wine with dinner, explaining that the Word of Wisdom (Mormonism’s strict dietary code that forbids, among other things, alcohol and coffee) was written during the temperance movement and never intended to be a hard rule (this is true, and incidentally, was my justification for smoking weed while still a practicing, believing member). There’s also a lot of weird flirting and polyamorous vibes up in this place, which culminates in an impromptu naked hot-tub excursion where Bryant gives Ron a blessing and starts kissing him as the wives look on lovingly (damn, have Mormons ever been this groovy?). But this kind of experimentation proves to be a bridge too far for Ron (masculinity fragile as it is), so he returns home, only to find a whole new sect of rogue Latter-Day Saints waiting for him.
Here’s where we meet this prophet Onias we’ve heard about. His real name is Bob, which like, yeah … you can’t really go around saying “I’m the prophet, Bob,” ya know? Anyway, this bizarro Burl Ives-lookin’ motherfucker has got all his followers and the Laffertys’ school of prophets holed up in the Lafferty’s basement, typing up his revelations into pamphlets and shit. “I’ve waited a long time to meet you,” he says to Ron. He fancies himself a John the Baptist of sorts, preparing the way for the “one mighty and strong” that was prophesied to restore the church to its racist, polygamist Brigham Young days. Ron accompanies Onias to the Dream Mine in Salem, Utah — built in the 1890s by a group of Mormons who believed it would offer up financial support for the church in the final days before the second coming of Christ. “I will teach you to receive his revelations,” Onias says, “and in this way, we may confirm that you, Ron, are our one.”
With this Onias guy and his Dream Mine and whole apocalyptic fundamentalist bent, you really get the creepy, crawly True Detective vibes coming back into the show — if there’s a Yellow King-type in this show, he’s it. The narrative also shifts its focus back around to Brenda, whose grounding presence as the Lafferty narrative’s POV I’ve sorely missed in the last couple of episodes. Unfortunately, seeing how this is the mystery of her murder, there’s not much left for her to do other than help her sister-in-law Dianna get to safety and get royally owned by the church. After a moment of true shitheadery where Allen goes full Lafferty on Brenda, striking her when she says enough’s enough with him and his brothers, Brenda’s dad and sister Betty show up for some (hopefully) reparative heart-to-heart conversation. Brenda’s dad throws on a little pop music at the house and offers Allen chocolate (sweets are far and away the most popular vice in mainstream Mormondom), telling him it’s not only better but Godly to live a modern life within the Mormon framework than it is to retreat to fundamentalism. Meanwhile, at one of those glorious all-brown ’80s McDonald’s joints, Brenda’s sister tells her it’s her responsibility to make her marriage work and go directly to church authorities with her problems.
“You can’t blame yourself for this,” Pyre tells Betty over an evening sitdown at the Pyre home. “I would’ve guided her back to the church too.” Betty gives Pyre all of her letters from Brenda, from which we learn that Brenda did indeed go back to the church for help. Having gotten a meeting with some general authorities in the church — including a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, the sort of mid-tier leader between the prophet and his counselors, and the local volunteer clergy — Brenda explains the whole situation with her in-laws. Allen is at her side, but he’s not in a position to accept platitudes from church leaders who present a whitewashed version of their history and doctrines (the fundamentalists have a more accurate picture of the history, but they take the teachings of the old prophets as literal and fuckin’ run with it). He leaves the meeting in a huff, and Brenda stays back to get a priesthood blessing from her leaders. Standing around her with their hands on her head, these elders direct Brenda, in God’s name, to stay with her husband and “shepherd the Lafferty family back into the fold. Their eternal salvation is in thy hands.”
Allen Lafferty’s story is one of tragic failure. He failed to take the heed of his partner when he clearly should have, failed to do the work of being a good partner himself, and ultimately failed to be there for her when the church shirked responsibility and laid it at her feet. As Allen puts it to Pyre, he does carry some of the blame for his negligence. “You must despise me,” he tells Pyre, who by now is far more peeved with the church for putting Brenda on a collision course with Ron and Dan. After a failed attempt to get her sisters-in-law to come back to modern life by sending the missionaries their way with store-bought food, Matilda shows up at her house and delivers a blood atonement threat from Dan. So Brenda teams up with the Lowes to help Dianna and her children get out of Utah but stays back to fulfill her prophetic calling.
Still unsure whether or not Ron knew where Dianna was hiding or whether he had got to her already, Pyre goes back to Allen to ask if there’s any way that Ron would’ve let her go. “He wouldn’t move on from her, ever.” Allen says, which bears out in a quick flashback to Ron reciting a “revelation” to “remove” Dianna if she does not repent and return to her husband. For a minute, Pyre lets his guard down and tells Allen he’s got a distracting new voice in his head. “It’s not new, and it’s not a distraction,” Allen replies. “It’s what happens when you’re taught your whole life that you need God to guide you. It’s frightening, being alone with your own mind.”
Pyre asks Allen what he should do next to quell this new voice. Allen directs him to a book of his in evidence called Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? a critical overview and summary of the church’s history and teachings. Unable to sleep that night in the face of mounting threats beyond the walls of his home, Pyre sneaks out to the garage and sits in his car, opening the book and becoming more and more distraught as he turns the pages. When Rebecca walks in on him, he can barely hold it together. In response, she tells him she needs him to bear his testimony in front of the congregation at the next testimony meeting. “I need our girls to see and hear their sweet father, our priesthood holder, that he still believes.” Rebecca doesn’t realize that, for her husband, being a “sweet father” and a “worthy priesthood holder” are now mutually exclusive propositions.
As for the investigation, Taba has tracked down the prophet Onias’ at his trailer near the Dream Mine. “Terrible what happened to the woman and her child,” Onias says at their initial encounter. “But I do understand that murder runs in your people’s blood, must seem ordinary to you.” (I once had a co-worker in Utah who said pretty much that same thing about Latinx folks, implying that they were also descendants of the cursed Laminates in the Book of Mormon). “If you want to speak, you’ll have to leave your gun,” he adds.
The episode ends on another True Detective–esque note of pseudo-supernatural dread, as well as personal, spiritual annihilation. From week to week, it’s been hard to keep track of everything going on at times, but Andrew Garfield’s stellar performance was firmly at the center this week, which made everything more legible through the lens of emotion. As things stand, the show is teed up to end strong on what’s sure to be a thrilling, thoughtful, and devastating final chapter.