A polygamist family navigates moral dilemmas, social codes and expectations for TV audiences
By Jocelyn Bell
Big Love Created by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, starring Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin and Harry Dean Stanton
As if marriage between two people weren’t challenging enough, try a marriage of four. Big Love is the HBO series about a modern polygamous family living in Utah.
Protagonist Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is a hardware store owner and husband of three who struggles to balance his unusual lifestyle with his all-American aspirations. But try as he might, Bill is unable to shake his upbringing in the nearby polygamist compound of Juniper Creek, where 15-year-old girls are assigned to husbands and everyone bows to the unscrupulous prophet Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton).
As Bill flits in and out of his three households — and his three bedrooms — the “sister-wives” jockey for position, and the children grapple with their identities as members of this curious clan.
Once the viewer learns the rules that make this arrangement possible, polygamy starts to feel weirdly normal. The Henricksons are just a big family trying to navigate moral dilemmas, social codes and expectations.
What sets them apart is the isolation and tension that stems from being caught between the old world of Juniper Creek and the modern world of Salt Lake City. Neither world accepts them as they are, and ultimately they have only each other for love and support. While endless lying is required to keep their secret hidden from the outside world, they strive to have no secrets between them.
Of course, because the Henricksons are human, secrets abound and often drive the plot. Bill is overdosing on Viagra; first-wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is cheating the husband-sharing schedule by having “an affair” with Bill; second-wife Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) has a mounting credit card debt; third-wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) risks exposing the family secret by befriending a nosy neighbour.
As the Henricksons work out their four-way marriage, they reveal an important truth. What makes a family successful is not the number of husbands and wives, but the degree of support, sacrifice, forgiveness and love.
Big Love’s first two seasons are available on DVD. The third season will begin on HBO this month.
Sign up for our free e-newsletter now!
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.
Founded in 1829, The United Church Observer is the oldest continuously published magazine in North America and the second oldest in the English speaking world. It has won international acclaim for journalistic excellence and garnered more awards for writing than any other Canadian religious publication. Read more...
Editor/Publisher: Jocelyn Bell
Managing Editor (Print and digital): Kristy Woudstra