It’s the central question of Under the Banner of Heaven’s powerful 90-minute finale. Detective Jeb Pyre finds himself in a real babe-in-the-woods situation — unmoored from his foundational beliefs in his church and, by extension, his God just when he’d otherwise lean on them most. When you’ve been taught your whole life to keep your ears open for God’s “still, small voice,” what do you listen for when the chips are down and that voice is no longer in your head? What remains, and where will it take you?
As the puzzle pieces of this murder mystery fall into place, the action takes Pyre and Taba on an interstate manhunt, hoping against hope to catch the Lafferty brothers before they “blood atone” more folks on their holy hit list. We start at Onias’s trailer outside the Dream Mine, where he tells our detectives he parted ways with the Lafferty brothers after a string of revelations from Ron didn’t work out so hot. One was the blood-atonement list. Another was a revelation to Robin to take all the family’s money and bet it on a horse in Nevada, which ended in Robin “receiving his own revelation” to make different bets and losing the whole bag. From Onias, our detectives also learn that Ron knew Dianna was hiding out in Florida with their kids. And because Dianna came before Brenda on the list, Onias assumes Dianna and the kids are dead by now.
In True Detective fashion, this case is playing a cosmic joke on our guy, bleeding into his world through avenues he could never have predicted or prevented. As what he thought were his core beliefs begin to evaporate before his eyes, Pyre is losing touch with his Mormon sixth sense along with his internal spiritual compass. So right on queue, a general authority from the church (the one from the previous episode who presided over Brenda’s diabolical “blessing”) shows up to talk to Pyre just as he’s wrapping things up with Allen. They face off in a theological cage match of their own making, Pyre and Allen in one corner and the nameless, ominous church elder in the other. As the elder puts it, the church is in a bit of a bind, public-perception-wise, and they don’t need any more bad press now. He makes veiled threats to Pyre, pressing him that it’s not just the church’s reputation at stake but his own family’s salvation. After the elder’s intimidation tactics fail and he leaves the police station, Allen offers up some parting words of wisdom for Pyre, who’s about to come face to face with a similar spiritual void. “When my testimony died,” he says, “I thought I’d die with it. But … I knew then that I belonged to [Brenda] and to Erica. Not to my brothers, not a church, but to them. My family became my faith.” Don’t turn a blind eye, he continues. Finish Brenda’s calling to help Dianna and her children.
And on the Dianna front, things are looking up. Having found the return address from Ron’s son’s letter, Pyre tracked her down to an apartment in Florida. Unfortunately, she has bolted by the time local police arrive. Security footage has surfaced of Dianna and her kids in the area four days ago or less, which increases their chances of being alive. Another avenging angel shows up in Jacob Lafferty, who brings Dan’s journal to Pyre after he’d heard Brenda had been killed on the news. From Dan’s journal, written in the cadence of someone trying to “write a sequel to the Book of Mormon” (or like Joseph Smith when he successfully wrote a sequel to the Bible), Pyre deciphers that Dan had threatened Brenda before the actual murder took place. The next journal entry is from Reno, where Ron and Dan went hunting for converts to start a new school of prophets. The entry was written ten days ago, providing a timeline that confirms Dianna might still be alive. He’s also able to confirm the identities of Chip Carnes and Ricky Knapp (great detective-story names), the two other “bearded men” who repeatedly popped up throughout the case but remained largely a mystery. Turns out their beards aren’t fundamentalist beards but the beards of two “godless” potheads from Wyoming who hung out with the Laffertys for the … good times?
And with that, our interstate manhunt begins. The first stop is Wyoming, where we find Chip and Ricky hiding out at Chip’s brother’s house. Once in custody, Chip and Ricky confirm they were with Ron and Dan when the two brothers killed Brenda and her infant daughter. We flash back to the events leading up to the murder and witness Brenda recite scripture from her heart with righteous fury: “The selfish, the cowardly, the murderers and liars, their portion will be in the lake that runs with fire and sulfur, which will be your second deaths. God will make me whole again, and send you both into everlasting darkness.”
As for Chip and Ricky, they left Ron and Dan in Nevada four days ago at a motel room just over the state line. The brothers had their sights on Reno, where they could get some quick cash and finish their list. At the Nevada state line, Taba and Pyre find the tracks that lead them to a suitcase with the “consecrated” straight razors in them. These aren’t the murder weapons (Ricky and Chip said they used something long and crude), so they function as a threat to any cop who dares to pursue God’s warriors. What if this is just another story, Pyre wonders? “A wrong turn here, Bill, and a lot more people die.” But Taba is unfettered from the “allergy to the facts” that seems to plague Pyre’s “sporadically compassionate people,” so he keeps his composure and finds the actual murder weapon in the brush.
That night, our boys find themselves in Reno, where they’ve tracked down Sandy, Dan, and Ron’s latest confirmed “female acquaintance” to her job at the Circus Circus casino. Later on, Pyre is awakened (from a Lynchian dream of Dan slitting his throat) by a phone call from their detective contact in Florida. Dianna and her children are alive, but she has disappeared — spurred to action by a letter she received from Brenda. Dianna is en route to Utah to rescue the sister she can still get to.
But Pyre and Taba don’t know this for sure, and they’re still not sure whether Ron and Dan are in Reno or on their way back to Utah to wait for Dianna to arrive. “How do you do this?” Pyre asks. “Walking through life with no compass?” And that’s when Taba pulls off the road to teach Pyre a thing or two about what it really means to walk through life with the only real compass there is. Surrounded by the serene, desolate, quiet Southwest desert landscape, Taba smiles. “Just take a moment. Look out,” he says. “I’m not sure why folks need to call such things a sign from God. Why not just appreciate it?” If there is no God, isn’t the world and us being in it all the more miraculous?
The lesson isn’t over. Taba continues, “What I’m saying is be here and listen. The gut is wiser than most people think.” It’s a compass, and it’ll give Jeb Pyre all the wisdom he needs. Pyre looks out, takes a breath, hears the wind, and remembers the Lynchian dream he had the night before of Dan Lafferty slitting his throat. In the dream, Dan said he was his one. After the Mormons massacred the wagon train back in the day, U.S. troops started to advance on the Utah territory. It was clear to the third prophet, John Taylor, that the saints had to “beat the devil at his own game,” so they publicly abolished polygamy while keeping it alive in private. Invoking the words of Joseph Smith, Taylor claimed that “one mighty and strong” would restore polygamy to the church, setting “the likes of Onias and Ron and countless men on quests to prove they are God’s one.” And it’s one, not two, meaning only one of the Lafferty brothers would be making it out of Reno alive. After all, the “singular seat” is the ultimate manifestation of the male-ego God that Smith gave his followers, and no male-ego God would split a singular seat at his right hand for two dopey dudes.
As Pyre and Taba head back to Reno for the final chase in the “belly of the beast” at Circus Circus, Dan and Ron are deep in some bathroom in the casino’s backstage labyrinth. Ron has received another revelation telling him Dan is a false prophet and must perish. But Dan’s deceptions are so wicked that his blood cannot be spilled (preventing him from being atoned and entering the kingdom of heaven), so Ron attempts to strangle Dan to death as Pyre and his backup crew is able to locate the brothers and stop the Lafferty cycle of bloodshed for good. With detective stories, fictional or nonfictional, there’s always at least some inevitable sense of anticlimax when the mystery is solved or we finally “catch the bad guy.” There’s certainly a bit of anticlimax at play here as the action isn’t overly fraught or complicated (the cops essentially move from point A to point B without much resistance other than Pyre having to navigate the boiler-room back alleys like that scene in Spinal Tap). But the visuals make for an incredibly potent and satisfying conclusion, pitting the Lafferty brothers in an ultimately fruitless wrestle to the death at the end of a long road, the stage a dim bathroom stall about as far from any heavenly throne as you could get. Ron fails to come out the last “one” standing and Dan fails to die a martyr to his own cause. Guess that’s what happens when you recreate God in your image.
With the case wrapped up, Pyre returns home to his wife and kids and joins them in a family prayer. The future of his faith is uncertain, but Taba’s parting words provide exactly what he’ll need on the other side of a journey like this one. Making peace with the lies and violence of the past is a perpetually challenging endeavor even long after they’ve lost their ability to control. For my own journey out of Mormonism, I can say that being in touch with my own internal compass is still a tough proposition. For so long, I was so sure about the things I believed. Now that I don’t believe them, it’s hard to trust any of my own instincts or feel confident in any of my thoughts or feelings. But I was never just my faith, and my gut is still intact. And as Jeb Pyre tells his mother in the glow of a beautiful sunset, being present in the miracle of simply living and breathing can be enough to keep going.
• My compliments to directors Isabel Sandoval and Thomas Schlamme, respectively, for aptly affirming the emotional core of this series in the final two episodes. Decisively and explicitly framed within the procedural trappings of the detective genre, this episode and the previous one, “Revelation,” feel like a strong, emotional whole — connecting the respective heart-of-darkness journeys of Jeb Pyre and Brenda Lafferty across time, space, and the universal ether of “violent faith” (to echo the subtitle of Jon Krakauer’s source material).
• In their final moments together in the show, Taba treats Pyre to a series of prayers: one from his catholic upbringing, one that sounds like a Mormon prayer (“Bless Jeb’s return home to his family and my return home to TV dinners, midnight Marlboros, and endless Diet Cokes. In the name of Jesus Christ amen” — king shit), and an old Paiute song of hope that one day the colonists would vanish and the buffalo would return. “Do you think that holds some power?” Pyre asks. “Nope,” Taba replies. “But it reminds me of home. We all need a home, Jeb. So I think it’s okay to sing it now and then, even if I don’t think it has power anymore.”
• As the boys close in on Dan and Ron, the action switches back and forth to Dianna, who manages to rescue Matilda at the Lafferty home. While filling up at a local gas station, Samuel Lafferty appears and starts dragging Matilda violently back to his truck. Dianna begs several male onlookers to intervene, but they’re stunned, embarrassed, and immovable, so it’s up to her to knock Sam down to size. “You are not chosen!” she testifies with the same righteous scorn that animated Brenda before her death. “You and your brothers simply failed. This I know to be true.” Sam is sufficiently chastised, and Dianna and Matilda escape together. We last see Dianna and Matilda crossing the Utah state line, which is sure to be a potent image for those of us whose physical departure from Utah also represented a much-needed spiritual one.