Big Love: The Gospel According to HBO 

The first three seasons of Big Love—HBO's take on modern polygamy—brought us infidelity, teenage pregnancy, underage drinking, blackmail, extortion and more blackmail. A husband and wife take turns trying to kill each other, an adopted Chinese girl is kidnapped by a roving gang of murderous, androgynous, false-prophet worshiping heathens; a mother hires a hitman to pose as a gay cruiser and take out her own closeted son in a public restroom. But this is not what's most upsetting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), an unwitting subject of the quietly controversial one-hour drama. If internet murmurings are true about what's in store for the new season, which premieres on Sunday night, we can expect the controversy to get a little bit louder.

The LDS Church has long been bedeviled by its polygamist (and by some accounts, violent) origins. In 1890, the "Principle" of plural marriage was offered up as the sacrificial lamb of an exhausted struggle for Utah to be granted statehood by a federal government that placed the Mormon practice alongside slavery as one of the "twin barbarisms" that threatened to engulf civilization. Church officials never looked back. But the policy reversal, which came in the form of "revelation"—as politically-charged procedural changes within the Church are wont to do—was not embraced by every follower of the faith. Splinter factions that continued to uphold the Principle were quickly established and have remained in existence until today, in Utah and elsewhere. These factions—along with independently polygamous families—are rejected by the Church and are not considered to be Mormon in any sense. But however ostracized polygamists might be, it is not difficult for them to justify their lifestyle: Support for the practice is right there in the Mormon scriptures (Doctrines and Covenants 132:19-20), and Joseph Smith himself, the religion's founding father, had six wives and 48 children. LDS and fundamentalists both participate in ceremonial "sealings" that bond families together for eternity: Among Mormons there is no such thing as "till death do us part."

While polygamists believe that they are acting on a sacred "testimony" by entering into plural marriage, it is easy for an outsider to see the practice as deeply misogynist, sexually gluttonous, or simply bizarre. Both dissenters—those who have a stake in how Mormonism and polygamy are portrayed in the entertainment media—and the genuinely disinterested have accused HBO of using a bygone religious tradition as an excuse to showcase unseemly bedroom drama that might come with the territory of plural marriage. Though it is shadowed by the critical and popular success of The Sopranos—its stylistic progenitor—Big Love closely follows the formula of a string of premium cable hits that have earned HBO and Showtime (its earnest, imitative competitor) street cred among couch potatoes and eager cinematicos alike. The success of The Sopranos and Oz wrought The Wire, Dexter, Weeds, Hung, and even Curb Your Enthusiasm: Critical favorites that explore deviants and criminals from the inside out, and offer a deliciously indulgent elixir to the law and order favored by primetime network television.

Technically, Big Love's Hendrickson family are outlaws, and they are certainly societal outcasts; but they are cast from a peculiar society that itself exists in the margins of mainstream popular culture (although it's gaining ground). The Sopranos were fighting against The Man; the Hendricksons are fighting against the Quorum of the Twelve. Both the heroes and the villains are something of an alien entity to the majority of Big Love's viewership, but certainly not to the show's writers and producers, who know what they're talking about. And that's what LDS probably doesn't want you to know.

For the first two and a half seasons of Big Love, HBO and LDS pretty much stayed out of each other's way. When the show premiered in 2006, LDS headquarters released a statement expressing concern that the setting a show about polygamists in Salt Lake City "is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the program's subject matter and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes." In the same statement, LDS acknowledged that HBO promised to make it clear that Latter-Day Saints do not practice polygamy. In keeping with this assurance, Big Love makes a clear distinction between active, tithed members of LDS and practitioners of the Principle—whether they are the compound-dwelling polygamists of Juniper Creek or plural families like the Hendricksons, practicing in secret.

Barb Hendrickson, Bill's first wife, struggles desperately to reconcile her "testimony" with her former life as a shining star of LDS; her mother and sister bear a heartbreaking and wrathful burden, respectively, of having their celestial sealing to Barb broken by her decision to enter into plural marriage. The word "Mormon" is uttered almost as infrequently as the word "mafia" was spoken on The Sopranos, and images of the Salt Lake City Temple all but disappeared after the first few episodes, where it loomed in the background of some key establishing shots.

But accurate reflections of the Mormon faith are recognizable in every episode. The opening sequence is a visual homage to the uniquely Mormon conception of the afterlife that is a core belief of traditional LDS and fundamentalists alike: The Celestial Kingdom is a physical location where sealed family members will find each other and remain together for eternity once earthly life has ended. Bill Hendrickson and his three wives ice skate together, hand in hand, to the musical accompaniment of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," exchanging loving glances. This is life on earth. The presumably thin ice cracks beneath them, breaking their grasp momentarily—death. The sequence ends with the four of them wading through a sea of white gauze, searching and quickly finding one another behind the veil. Their faith has been affirmed in the afterlife.

Some of the scenarios confronting the relatively upright Hendrickson family might be a touch over-the-top. But more often than not, they can effectively be traced back to a scriptural or historical precedent—although the writers often boldly exercise creative license. The season three episode titled "Outer Darkness," which aired on March 15, 2009, is one such case, and prompted LDS officials to speak up again after a nearly three-year silence. In it, Barb, on the brink of excommunication, begs her mother and sister to lend her a "temple recommend" (the LDS equivalent of a membership card) so that she might "receive her endowments" in a sacred, Fellini-eqsue temple ceremony. I don't presume to understand precisely what an actual endowment ceremony entails or represents, but I'm confident that such a blessing would not be available to inactive members of the church, and certainly not to suspected polygamists. As Barb's mother reminds her, as she is begging for help to get inside the temple, "It was just a few years ago that we stopped promising to disembowel and slit the throats of people who were monkeying around (with church procedures)."

One way or another—it's never made explicit how—Barb is granted entry, and the endowment ceremony is portrayed with supposed accuracy, save some minor factual errors. But it is the realism of the portrayal that prompted a vocal response from the Mormon community, which takes very seriously a commitment to keep sacred practices and rituals secret from the outside world. LDS headquarters released a statement titled "The Publicity Dilemma" that chastised HBO for its portrayal of the ceremony but maintained that the perpetually expanding church was unthreatened by "extreme misrepresentations in the media that appeal only to a narrow audience."

Less attention was given to Barb's disciplinary hearing portrayed in the same episode, despite the fact that it could be considered far more damaging to the LDS' public image. To the uninitiated, the language of the endowment ceremony is barely discernible; but the discussion that takes place in the hearing —or "love court"—is an explicit indictment of the church's habit of rewriting history to serve political ends. Faced with the decision to repent for the sin of polygamy or face excommunication—no small matter in the Mormon faith—Barb chooses to stand by her testimony. "I believe the Church and its leaders are in grave error on polygamy," she says. "And on the kinds of marriages and families it creates. I can't forsake my family." The stake president is unmoved: "We all know that there is a temptation to tell everything. Whether it is worthy, or faith-promoting, or not. Some things that are true are not very useful." While visibly shattered at the prospect of losing her eternal salvation, Barb is indignant: "You openly disparage my family but you hide the truth about our history." At this, Barb is cast into outer darkness.

In all variations of Mormonism—from backwards fundamentalist sects to modern LDS—marriage is mandatory for entry into the Celestial Kingdom. Lonely hearts and homosexuals are out of luck. But fundamentalists (a term LDS roundly rejects) feel that they are furthering the sanctity of this faithful obligation by multiplying their prospects for procreation: The size of your family is seen as a measure of devotion to your faith, as Mormons believe it is their duty to rescue souls trapped in "preexistence" by providing them with mortal birth. In this respect, second wife Nikki's egregious violation of the Principle—she's been secretly taking birth control pills for four years—represents the ultimate betrayal of her family and her faith. Between this and Barb's excommunication, it is no surprise that teasers for the new season suggest deep, dark trouble for the Hendricksons, who are seen floating, untethered, in a black abyss. The tag line: "Hold on."

Trouble may also lay ahead for relations between HBO and LDS. Spoilers have surfaced that Alby Grant, a Juniper Creek prophet hopeful, who has already displayed homosexual leanings, will take up with another closeted compound dweller. If there is any other issue that is as unsettling to Latter-Day Saints as polygamy, it's the gay question—a fact that is surely not lost on the show's co-creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, or Dustin Lance Black, the show's ex-Mormon consulting producer and vocal gay rights activist. Stay tuned, indeed.


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