In "Come Ye Saints," the best episode of Big Love's best season (its third, for the record), there's a scene that expresses the appeal of fundamentalist religion better than any other in the history of American television.
The quirky HBO drama — about a polygamist family living in suburban Salt Lake City — boasted a surprising thematic richness. When it debuted a decade ago, on March 12, 2006, it immediately began to present nuanced takes on marriage, patriarchal systems, and female friendship. But it saved its best material for fundamentalist religion, which, in marked contrast to much of TV, it refused to outright condemn.
In the scene mentioned above, Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin), the youngest of patriarch Bill Henrickson's (Bill Paxton) three wives, has lost her mother. Margie has always longed for a place to belong, and that's never been truer than in the wake of this tragic loss. She wants assurance that she'll see her mother again, even though she and her mother belonged to entirely different religious traditions. (Margie is a fundamentalist Mormon, while her mother didn't have a strong affiliation to any particular belief system.)
So since Margie belongs to a church that allows for the baptism of the dead, granting them acceptance into heaven even after they've passed on, the family performs this ritual in a hotel bathtub, with eldest wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) acting as a proxy for Margie's mother.
The scene is filmed with soft, glowing light. In the wrong hands it might have brought to mind a Thomas Kinkade painting, but instead it feels like something incomplete being made whole. For all of the problems religion causes on Big Love, it boasts one asset nothing else can provide: It makes the broken feel complete.
Big Love embraces religion's good and bad qualities
Don't get me wrong. Big Love functions almost as much as a critique of the patriarchal tendencies of many religions as anything else.
When Barb longs to become a leader within the family's church, she is rebuffed at every turn, and when middle wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny, in one of the best TV performances of that era) thinks back on her life, she realizes she was very nearly a child bride, causing a huge crisis of faith. Other characters struggle with their sexuality. Even the straight characters feel ashamed of their attractions, because they've been taught sex is only palatable within marriage.
But Big Love always returns to what draws people to their churches again and again: Their fellow worshipers feel like family, and they offer a sense of community the rest of the world often lacks.
Yes, all the characters on Big Love eventually experience horrible revelations about how their religion has poisoned them, but when it comes time to either cut ties or reembrace their faith, they always choose the latter. To do otherwise would be to leave behind everything they know.
This approach has caused some to view the show with consternation. Why doesn't it condemn patriarchal polygamy as loudly as possible? It sometimes appears to be doing so in scenes set at Juniper Creek, a polygamist compound whose residents adhere to the "old ways" (including brides as young as 13), but within the Henrickson homes outside of Salt Lake City, polygamy is portrayed with a near aspirational quality, like something you'd see in a glossy magazine spread.
This is because Big Love understands something that too few works of art do nowadays: When the church lost its place as a major center of American social interaction, it wasn't really replaced by anything else. Even at its worst, a faith-based tradition allows lots of people to come together and ponder the deepest questions of the universe, for a little while every week. Where else can you get that in modern society?
Thus, there are still experiences and feelings that only religion can provide, and many of us still find ourselves longing for them.
On Big Love, religion equals family
The way Big Love viscerally explains this to viewers — no matter how little belief in any gods we might have — is by rooting its unique spin on religion in something all of us can instantly understand: family.
The Henricksons are, if nothing else, a really good family. They look out for each other and take care of each other. They try to mediate their conflicts to preserve their love for each other. And they figure out how to face the challenges of raising many, many children alongside each other.
In short, Big Love couches all of its religious ideas inside of something TV has always tried to sell: the ideal family, where everybody loves each other. It's the kind of family we might wish we could belong to, even if we're more or less happy with our own. And by joining the Henricksons for episode after episode, we do feel like a part of their little tribe.
But joining them also makes us privy to the kind of belief most of us will simply never hold. This kind of fundamentalist religion relies on giving up so much of what we might love about the modern world — from feminism to embracing our unique sexualities to watching television shows like Big Love — that few of us are likely to dive into it wholesale.
But by equating religion with family, Big Love makes it easier to understand why it can be so hard to leave faith behind. After all, why would you ever leave your family, especially a really good one? Over the course of the series, a few characters at least flirt with the idea of leaving the church, simply because of how seriously their own personal growth is being stymied. But we're shown what happens when they do — they're left with no support systems at all, fending for themselves in a world that can't quite understand who they are.
Consequently, it's always been easy to write off Big Love as a show about cultists — because it sort of is. But its view of religion is open enough to admit that people still get something out of believing in something bigger than themselves, that the structures and hierarchies the church provides don't easily track with any other social institution, even if those structures and hierarchies are prone to abuse.
Big Love is not a perfect TV show — its fourth season, in particular, is awful — but in its best moments (and especially those first three seasons), it suggests that the way pop culture often writes off the religious is unacceptable. Those who believe are just as worthy of empathy and understanding as any of us, and Big Love, in its own way, affords them that.