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Recap: Big Love Series Finale, “When Men and Mountains Meet”

First, apologies on not doing a live blog, but in retrospect I’m really glad I didn’t.  I needed to let this episode marinate for a while before I was able to appreciate it for what it was.  Big Love has always done that to me, I need to let the episodes sneak up on me before I can truly appreciate what’s unfolded.

“When Men and Mountains Meet” illustrated many of my longest beefs with Big Love in general.  The dialogue can easily go from brilliant to over-the-top melodrama, to the point where I’ve physically cringed from time to time.  The show, as I’ve always kind of suspected, really does see Bill as a hero and a visionary, and now they’ve gone and made him a martyr. On closer reflection, however, I came to an important realization.  Bill, as we’ve established, is an Aristotelian tragic hero.  Aristotelian tragic heroes aren’t supposed to be likable, they’re supposed to be cautionary tales.  Hamlet was a whiny asshole, Oedipus is a dude you’d go out of your way to avoid and that Macbeth doofus bought into his own hype.  There’s not really a likable fellow in the bunch.   Thinking of Big Love, and by extension Bill, in this way helped me shift my paradigm, to the point that I found a lot to love about “When Men and Mountains Meet.”  Not the least of which was Honey Bee, Barb’s convertible Mini metaphor-mobile, with stylish piping.

Promo shot from HBO.com. The ladies and Honey Bee.

The first 45 minutes of “When Men and Mountains Meet” is very slow.  Not a lot happens, just a few subtle bits and pieces that come fully to light in the final moments.  I was convinced we were going to get a very ambiguous ending, with a closing scene at the Henrickson dinner table and no resolution to Bill’s charges or Barb’s journey or Margene’s need to spread her wings.  Touché, Big Love.  In the last few moments, we got all that and more.  Sarah and that kid from Breaking Bad returned for the final scene.  We even got a little Teenie, who, as a commenter on AVClub’s recap so eloquently stated, was “upstairs in the bathroom with Chuck Cunningham, putting mascara on Wayne.”

Let’s start with the earlier scenes, and work our way up to the ending, which I know is going to be a bit polarizing.  The comments I read as I was researching this post are split about down the middle, with half hating it and half loving it, which I guess in itself is a sign of success.

Heather – Heather’s brief scene before the final one made me laugh.  Ben had a star named after her, and tracks her down at college to give her the certificate.  It’s sweet and dorky, and apparently it worked because Heather and Ben were obviously married in the epilogue.  Oh, Heather.   In twenty years you’re going to be speeding down the highway in Sandy, Utah in a convertible with your hair full of wind, secrets and regrets.

Caralynn – She’s still pissed, and rightfully so.  There was a moment when I thought she was going to Baby Jane Nicki right down the stairs and out of her life forever, which isn’t totally out of character for either side of her family.  By the end, though, we see the relationship between her and Nicki begin to heal, and we have some hope that they’ll learn to appreciate each other, even if they’re never going to be an uncomplicated pair.  She has a nice moment with Bill, too.

Adalene – After spending some time in Stony Lonesome, Adalene’s only appearance in the finale is in a TV interview where she, as expected, praises Alby (who we don’t see at all, and only hear on the same TV program that he’s being held without bail) while she calls Bill a few unsavory names.  I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow.

Lois – Lois has a few really nice scenes.  Grace Zabrieske has really done a beautiful job of portraying Lois’ dementia.  She’s another hard-living, piss-swilling, slightly-murderous compound woman I’m going to miss a lot.  Her final moments, when Frank was cradling her and telling her all the things he loved about her, were some of the most beautiful on TV.  The show left it up in the air as to whether or not he went with her.  I don’t know what I think. On a related note, both times Bill saw a vision of Emma Smith, I thought it was Young Lois.  The actress playing Emma really resembles Zabrieski.

Promo shot from HBO.com. Frank and Lois say goodbye.

Margene – Margene, she of the huge heart and no impulse control, wants to go on a medical ship to Central America as a (I’m assuming) missionary.  She also has a great moment with Bill, where she talks about giving him the best years of her life.  Here, I have a bit of a problem.  Margene is at most 23 years old.  I know the age when we women cease to be of interest or value gets younger all the time, but I’m pretty sure it’s not 23.  After Bill’s death, we do see her get to bloom into the woman she wants to be, much like the other two.  Would she still have become this adventurous, charitable Margie if Bill had lived?

Nicki – In the first fifty minutes of the show, minus about 30 seconds each with Barb and Caralynn, Nicki is just as Nicki as she’s always been.  In the epilogue, though, and in those two brief moments, we see her heart grow, just like the Grinch.  With Caralynn, after making a really un-thought-out apology at the dinner table, Nicki opens up to her a little, and lets Caralynn know she understands why she fell in love with DullSkeeve, because she’s been there.  With Barb, Nicki has run off to the shelter to get deal with the fact that she’s discovered she’s incapable of being kind or warm.  (Barb’s best line ever – “I know.” She totally Solo-ed her.) Barb ends up pulling her into a hug, which is much like pulling a cat into a bathtub.  In the epilogue we see her mothering Margene as Margie gets ready to go off on a mission trip with really cute hair.  She’s still Nicki, but she’s softer around the edges.  Again, would this have ever happened if Bill was still around?

Barb – In the beginning of the episode, Barb is planning to be baptized into the reform church.  She ends up not going through with it, saying that if her family wasn’t with her in the new church, the new church would never be home.  She sneaks into Bill’s Easter service, right after he says his job is to be a caretaker until the next prophet arrives.  My heart skipped a beat, is Big Love implying the next prophet is *gasp* Barb? Was Emma Smith in all her finery nodding at Bill to let him know that maybe the reform he was wanting could be just as easily brought about by a woman?  Bill didn’t get that message until the last possible minute, but to quote S. Seaborn of The West Wing, “Let’s not dwell on your being late to the party, but rather celebrate that you showed up at all.”  Barb also trades in her beat-up station wagon for the cutest fucking car I’ve ever seen, which she names Honey Bee.  Barbara Dutton Henrickson is a Persephoneer, readers.  In Bill’s final moments, he asks Barb for a blessing.  While I’m celebrating and everything, I still can’t help but think that poor asshole could have saved himself a lot of trouble had he opened his eyes a little bit previous to his last moments on Earth.  In the epilogue, we learn that Barb is running Henrickson Church Plus, and that makes me feel good.  She’s so serene and lovely in the last moments, which we got a hit of as she was driving along with Margie and Nicki in Honey Bee.  One last time, just to continue the theme; would she be here if Bill lived?

This oft repeated question brings me to a thought that hit me while I was scrubbing cheese off my stove burner.  This season was deliberately structured to fall between Christmas and Easter.  Bill, born into his new role as leader of the polygamists, was crucified by those who stood against him (and his gifts of sod) only to be reborn into the Celestial Kingdom.  Bill is Mormon Martyr Jesus with a side of Harvey Milk, and three hot wives.  And Bill had to die for either his sins or his cause, depending on which camp you’re in, in order for his wives to bloom.  Pardon my lady-as-flower metaphors.

Aristotle, a Greek dude with opinions on fucking everything who lived millennia ago, wrote a list of rules for tragedy in Poetics.  These rules have influenced characters from Oedipus to Tony Soprano.  Essentially, Aristotelian tragedy boils down to defining both the structure of a tragedy, which isn’t terribly pertinent to our discussion, and defining what makes a tragic hero.  The main character must be larger than life.  Kings, gods, prophets, mafia dons – tragic heroes, by Aristotle’s definition, are not your average fellow.  He also must have a tragic flaw which ends up bringing him down and killing him in the end.  In most tragedies, this flaw is pride, or hubris.  Bill, clearly, had hubris in spades.

I was angry at this episode for a good two hours after I watched it.  What the hell had Bill done to deserve a martyr’s end, or to be heralded as a visionary or a hero?  Why did the show insist on making this asshole out to be a Big Damn Deal?  The post-finale video on the HBO site compares him to Martin Luther King Jr., for heaven’s sake.  But then the little details started to creep up on me.  Bill did end up paying for being able to glide through most of his life consequence-free.  Barb did turn out to be the capital-P Prophet these characters have been searching for since the first season, instead of him.  We see that his three wives were only able to be who they really are when they were free of him. It’s like I got everything I wanted and nothing I wanted, all in the same hour and ten minutes.

Big Love is going to stick with me long after the finale, and I’m thankful I got to experience all five seasons, even as frogballs as Season Four often was.  I can’t name another show that had such a rich cast of women in really great, complicated roles.

What do you think, readers?  While you’re formulating your posts, here are a few classic Big Love promos.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

12 replies on “Recap: Big Love Series Finale, “When Men and Mountains Meet””

Aristotle, a Greek dude with opinions on fucking everything

I wish I would have had this line back in Philosophy class, all those years ago.

I just watched this today, so I too need to process it, but thank you for the idea that Bill was a cautionary tale rather than a guy we were supposed to like. The show makes much more sense now.

At this point, I’m only disappointed Don didn’t get any come-uppance. He was as long-suffering and put upon as any female character in the show, and it would have been a little too delightful to see him give Bill a swift kick to the head before Carl finished him off.

Bill-as-martyr never occurred to me.

I thought it was Lois at first too, especially since Bill looked at her for a moment after seeing the vision. I didn’t really buy it though. To me, Bill has never had a connection to heavenly father or anything close, he just uses his ‘visions’ to do whatever he wants to do. If I continue that belief then he saw Emma Smith because he wanted to recognize Barb’s having the priesthood. Which I guess is possible if he felt that it was the only way of saving his marriage, but I don’t really think that is in Bill’s character to do.

Another problem is that even if you accept that Bill feels that Barb should be the one to take the lead in his new church, I don’t believe for a second that any of his congregation would accept Barb as a priest, let alone prophet.

Aside from that I did like that without Bill his wives are flourishing. In addition to them not being held back by what he wants I think that when you take away the aspect of the sister wives, particularly Nicki, vying for Bill’s attention and position they would definitely be able to get along better.

More on the “faith” aspect–I found this quote, which just. . .annoys me on a bunch of levels.

TVLINE | Talk to me about the epiphany and vision that Bill had while giving the sermon.
Olsen: It was two things. The first thing was him realizing he was really talking about the eternal nature of marriage and family. That reality became manifest for him in that moment, and that it went back beyond Lois and his wives to the generations which had come before him. But the second part of it is that the final vision inside the church rests and falls on the character of Emma Smith. And [viewers] will know her, hopefully, because of the recognizable Mamie Eisenhower hairdo she’s wearing, which was also written into the script in episode 4 where Bill had his vision after Margene knocked him over. And within that vision he and his mother Lois were at this odd 1950s-esque cocktail party where this same woman, Emma Smith, appeared to him. And the poetry of that is that in that episode, Bill realized that his mother was the ultimate victim of this patriarchal and polygamist lifestyle on the compound. She had been disempowered and had contracted a venereal disease that led to her dementia. In the same episode where Bill is struggling with his version of his abuses — his knowledge that he married Margene when she was 16 — he sees Emma Smith in that dream sequence and she is the personification in Mormon culture of all the abuses of polygamy on a personal level because her husband Joseph Smith was the philanderer who broke her heart. And in that first sequence in the fourth episode, Emma is invested in lying. She can’t say the whole truth to Bill. So she says, “There were no 16-year-olds in my household. There were no nannys, there were no chambermaids that my husband bedded… ” That was Bill’s soul wrestling with the abuses of what happened with his mother and what happens in polygamy. Now fast-forward to the finale where Bill has had his moment of grace, and at the back of this entire room is the character of Emma Smith, who looks at him and nods and affirms what he is now feeling and now learning that there is more to life than patriarchy and that Bill has made the internal adjustment to absorb Barb’s growth. So that’s what Emma Smith represented. Bill had a profound and deep change.

I’m just. . .really bugged by their take on Emma Smith, and I’m not seeing at all the line they’re drawing between what she “represented” and Bill’s revelation.

quote from this interview

Also, I don’t know, there’s something about the way they use the words “feminism” and “misogyny” that sits badly with me.

I still can’t believe that writer claimed that “all the loose ends” were tied up in that final scene. :eyeroll:

I still feel kind of irritated by it–I think in large part because I think they copped out of an ending for the HUGE religious/spirituality arc of Barb’s seeking the priesthood. During the peak of the season, I thought they were doing really well with that–I think Bill was generally a selfish and self-important asshat, but I do genuinely believe that he felt the eternal family, salvation and the very meaning of faith were at stake with what Barb was asking, and it was a fundamental issue that could not be compromised about. And when Barb broke down in the baptism font I was deeply disappointed because of that. And then they “fixed” it by giving Bill that vague Emma Smith vision, which I guess we’re supposed to take as a revelation that hey, Barb CAN have the priesthood! And yes, it was nice that he asked for her blessing. But this was such a major issue, that I just really can’t buy it without SOME comment from Bill. (Great religious thinkers may have ecstatic/mystic visions, but they have to communicate them!).

So, the “epilogue.” Is it saying Barb a priesthood holder in Bill’s “new” church? Is the “new” church laissez-faire on the Principle–meaning it accepts but doesn’t demand polygamy? Because I don’t see all those compound polygamists who flocked there on Easter being good with that, and I REALLY want to believe Sarah and Heather wouldn’t be good with the alternative. That just felt totally unearned to me, after being such a major issue. Stories about faith are hard to tell, but they brought that on themselves.

I was disappointed that we got so little of Adaleen especially, but the anti-climax for Alby, and I still wish they could have at least paid lip service to Joey and Wanda. And Lura! Granted, I’m an Anne Dudek fangirl, but I was hoping she would be more important to the season. Also, I was really worried the baby was going to be a posthumous Bill/Margene kid, and I’m glad he was Sarah’s.

I did love Nicki and Barb at the shelter, and Nicki beginning to communicate with Cara Lynn and her insight about love being scary for her.

I probably have more thoughts, but I was just really frustrated by the way they “resolved” the faith question.

I’m not happy. I couldn’t get past the image of Bill, sitting at the table in spirit form while his widows worked harmoniously and honored their better selves. Smug bastard.

Also, what about those needs Barb was mentioning? It seems like they are all still living in Bill’s world without him, with no sign of a sex life (I know it was a short segment, but still…). I can’t help but think that Bill would have already replaced these three women.

I agree about the replacement. Also, I am so frustrated that none of the wives ended up seeing Bill for the abusive fuck he was. I could have really enjoyed the ending if they’d all realized he treated them like children, was emotionally manipulative and clearly wasn’t as involved with or dependent on them as they were to him, then started breaking away and he started trying to make amends, only to be killed before completion.

Part of that, I think, is really that HBO didn’t give them enough time to work with. That kind of realization and bravery would have taken a long time to happen realistically. He has them all believing so hard that they would all perish without him. He’s made them think he’s the only thing keeping them together, keeping them sane, and keeping them afloat financially. For them to realize he’s LYING would take forever, especially for Nicki.

This ending frustrates me. I wanted the women to free themselves and the way this ended, it still seems like they’re enslaved by him.

I think the characters on the show viewed Bill as heroic however ,as a viewer, I felt the opposite. He’s selfish, childish and extremely unprofessional. I think they do a great job of illustrating his delusion. He is so wrapped up in himself he ignores the obvious reality around him.Barb “followed him into polygamy” and he never anticipated any problems? Then he gets involved with Margene. How daft would you have to be not to recognize someone is 16? Especially Margie….Then you have Nicki.She racks up huge credit card debt, takes birth control pills in secret and has a fling with her boss, all of which had small consequences compared to what Barb goes through for just wanting to be a priesthood holder. What Bill puts the family through so that he can fulfill his political aspirations is further evidence of his number one priority being himself.

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