Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Big Love Tuesdays: Season 2, episode 15, "Reunion"

Midway through Monday night’s episode of Big Love, “Reunion,” Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) sits in front of a video gambling machine and pokes at the screen, paging through the various games offered. Bill has made a point to the leader of the Juniper Creek compound, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), of how immoral he finds gambling, but Roman claims that this is the way to go. By using the machines to profit from others’ sins, the United Effort Brotherhood can pour money into its own way of life. Bill sits before the machine, glasses perched on his nose, and imitates the little beeping noises it makes (Paxton’s performance is probably the weakest among the leads, but he and the writers understand the earnestly dorky and law-abiding way the character engages with the world, and show it in little moments like this). Bill, in his own way in this moment, confronts one of the central conflicts of the whole series.

The central question facing most members of fundamentalist religious groups or sects is how deeply they want to engage with the world. To what degree are they going to follow that old commandment from the Gospel of John to be “in the world but not of the world”? In some ways, the whole of Big Love is about how anyone who professes to believe in a creed or code that goes above and beyond themselves can function at all in mainstream American society, which is built on a long-standing series of compromises designed to guarantee everyone certain rights and freedoms. At one extreme lies the Juniper Creek compound, where those who practice polygamy live in relative seclusion from the rest of the world and carry on in a strange amalgam of 19th century rural life and 21st century intrigue. At the other “extreme” lies what those of us who are not fundamentalists would think of as the normal world -- one where The Newlywed Game coyly hints at sex and one where premarital sex is all but expected of teenagers. The Henricksons espouse the values of the Juniper Creek bunch, but live in the world of the suburbs, all sharply contrasting colors and bright, green backyards. Look past the polygamy and the plight of the Henricksons is the plight of any modern mega-church goer; you can’t serve both God and mammon, but don’t you really want to? That the series plays all of these ideas so unironically is one of the factors that seems to keep some from embracing it fully.
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