‘Big Love’ Series Finale Recap: “God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You”

Although I haven’t been recapping this fifth and final season of ‘Big Love’ here in the blog since the premiere episode back in January, don’t take that as a sign of disinterest. It’s just that there’s been too much to write about. It’s overwhelming. Each single-hour episode of ‘Big Love’ contains as much drama and story complexity as any three episodes of a regular show. I just couldn’t keep up. I’ve certainly been watching, though – and ‘Big Love’ really had one hell of an eventful season. The series finale aired this past Sunday, and that really needs talking about. (Major plot spoilers after the break.)

Looking through the little notebook that I use when watching shows that I plan to recap, I found that I took four times as many pages of notes for this episode than I normally do for any other series. I don’t plan to recap the entire episode here, however. I don’t see the point in that, since I haven’t been writing about the show consistently. If you don’t watch the series, and haven’t seen the finale itself, you’d be hopelessly lost no matter how long I make this post. Instead, I’m just going to assume that you’ve already watched the episode if you’re reading this. I’ll hit on the major plot point resolutions, and we’ll discuss from there.

What Happened:

Here’s a rundown of the bare basics of where things stand at the end of the series:

Alby is in jail, presumably on his way to prison – for murder, human trafficking, and countless other crimes.

Bill was arrested and spent two days in jail. He was on the verge of being formally charged with statutory rape. (Margene dropped a bombshell this season when she revealed that she had lied about her age and was only 16 when Bill married her.) All signs pointed to Bill going to prison, possibly for as long as 20 years.

Barb stopped attending Bill’s church over a disagreement about whether women can be allowed to hold the priesthood. She started attending and was about to be baptized into the Reformed LDS church (which is anti-polygamy but willing to tolerate Barb) against Bill’s wishes. However, she backed out at the last second. Bill later had a revelation and was seen writing some notes that were likely a reformation of his church’s doctrine on this issue.

Margene quit Goji, but had a strong desire to travel and do charity work abroad. She backed down when the rest of the family objected to the timing of this.

Nicki and Carolyn had a huge falling out over Carolyn’s affair with her teacher. They appear to have conveniently reconciled by the end, though. (The resolution to this storyline felt particularly false.)

Bill’s mother Lois continued to deteriorate mentally. She finally convinced Frank to assist her suicide, and died in his arms.

Ben was on the outs with Heather for sleeping with Rhonda.

Bill lost the Home Plus stores when the banks pulled out the last of his financing.

On the last day of the session, Bill presented an Amendment in the Senate to legalize polygamy. A firestorm of controversy erupted. The bill was unlikely to pass, but it forced the start of a discussion on the issue. As a result, polygamists from across the state flocked to Bill and began attending his church.

In the climactic scene, on Easter Sunday, Bill walked out to his car to pick up his mother (unaware that she was dying right at that moment). Neighbor Carl, who’d felt emasculated and blamed the Henricksons for the dissolution of his marriage, walked up and shot Bill three times. In his dying moment, Bill asked Barb for a blessing, which affirmed her authority to hold the priesthood.

An epilogue picks up eleven months later. The family is still together, minus Bill. Barb leads the church. Margene (in a new cropped pixie hairdo) is about to embark on that charity mission to South America she wanted. Nicki seems as content as she can be. Daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) is visiting and has a new baby with her husband. Ben and Heather seem to have patched things up and are together again at the end. The final shot shows Bill’s spirit smiling as he watches over the family.

Thoughts:

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the finale, especially about Bill’s death. My immediate instinct is to say that this feels like a cheap cop-out – like the writers didn’t know how else to get Bill out of the corner he’d painted himself into, and the only thing left was to kill him.

More than that, however, I’m bothered by the fact that Bill has been martyred for his cause. One thing the show has done very well over the years (and especially this season) is carefully tread the line about how exactly we the audience are supposed to feel about Bill. We know that Bill certainly believes himself to be a good man always trying to do the right thing, but is he really all that different than Roman Grant? He’s an unyielding religious extremist with some pretty nutty beliefs. There’s something uncomfortably predatory about his seduction of 16-year-old Margene. He claims that he thought she was 18, but is that really any better? Even Barb casts doubt on whether she and Bill both turned a blind eye to the age issue when they should have investigated further.

Obviously, the show only works if we care about and sympathize with the characters. Yet it’s always left us with some ambiguous feelings about Bill. Until the very end, where everything he’s done is validated and he’s turned into a saint. That doesn’t feel right.

On the other hand, killing Bill answers the question posed in the show’s original theme song (reprised at the very end here). What will the wives do, and what will they be without Bill? We get to find that out, and it looks like they’re still holding together as a family and making lives for themselves. There’s a nice poetic resonance to that connection.

Amusingly, if anything, it looks like the wives are better off without Bill. Wasn’t he really the main cause of all the strife in their lives? Yes, the wives have always had their share of issues and misdeeds (especially Nicki), but all of the worst things that happened to them (the blood feuds with Roman, Alby, and the Greens, the criminal charges, etc.) were all Bill’s doing. The wives all seem to be coming into their own with Bill finally out of the picture.

Question: Can Margene remarry in their religion, or is she fated to forever be Bill’s widow and a Henrickson sister-wife? If she was 16 when she married Bill, and they’ve been married for six years, that would make her 22-years-old (or possibly 23 in the epilogue). I’m sure that Barb will feel fulfilled enough with her new calling, and Nicki seems particularly well-suited to widowhood (I think she’ll quite enjoy it), but poor Margie’s got a long life ahead of her without male attentions.

I have to say that I’m also annoyed by Bill’s sudden turnaround on the issue of Barb holding the priesthood. His last-minute vision of Joseph Smith’s wife seems like a pretty big deus-ex-machina. And I really don’t like Frank’s redemption in the last half of the season. Why does that rotten, abusive bastard suddenly get to be a nice guy? That ain’t right at all.

With that said, I recognize the difficult task that the show’s writers faced in going into this episode. Series finales for shows like this are incredibly tricky propositions. How do you tie everything up without coming across too pat or alienating the audience? Was there really anything that would have satisfied every viewer? Damn few shows have ever pulled off perfect series finales.

This episode isn’t perfect. I have my issues with it. But I don’t think that it ruins the show. The finale has a lot of powerful scenes – and that sequence where the wives go driving in Barb’s new car is an odd, lyrical, and wonderful little moment in the middle of so much sturm und drang.

Unlike a certain other famous HBO series, this one at least gives us real closure, without a gimmick trick ending. That deserves some measure of credit too.

Favorite Dialogue:

Nicki: “It’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
Lois: “God save me.”
Don: “It’s the end, Bill.”
Bill: “We may be going down, but if we are, we’re going down in flames.”
Nicki to Barb: “I don’t have one ounce of the milk of human kindness within me.”
– Barb to Nicki: “I know.”
Bill: “We’ve stepped out of the shadows and demand our day in the sun.”
Barb: “I’m not Barbara Dutton. I’m Barbara Henrickson.”
Bill: “I felt a grace descend upon me.”
Barb: “We’re strong. We’ve been forged. We endure.”

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