Big Finale: Sunshine is the Best Disinfectant

This post will discuss the season 4 finale of Big Love, HBO’s series following the lives of a polygamous family in Salt Lake City.  Enter the spoiler zone at your own risk…

So, the “will they, won’t they” anticipated reveal at the end of season 4 actually happened.  The Henricksons, all of them, came out of the polygamy closet on a televised press conference.  This, despite Bill and Barb’s disintegrating marriage, and Margene’s search for self that is taking her further away from the family.  All the wives, dressed in red, white, and blue, decided to support Bill and stood with him on the stand.  Obviously, this sets up major drama for next season (which won’t start until January 2011!). 

I think the most interesting part of the finale was the juxtaposition of the reveal scene, with the other public revelation that the Kansas branch of the Juniper Creek polygamists were involved in a majorly creepy incest scheme.  As sensational as this may seem, I recall the legal drama surrounding the Kingston polygamous clan in the late 1990s (see in which the leader of the sect was prosecuted for incest.  So, it seems, there are differing levels of disturbing in both the real world of polygamy and the world of polygamy created on Big Love.

I’ve often wondered if polygamy in pre-manifesto Utah had such a grotesque, gothic subculture as modern polygamy.  Certainly there were abusers in the system.  I think there are abusers in almost any system, and one in which sex and marriage plays such a central part would have to have its hidden and awful secrets.  However, my gut tells me that the majority of polygamists, who left very convincing religious testimonies of their marriage choices in their diaries and letters, acted as a moral counterweight to the darker aspects of coercion that one sees in modern polygamy.  Polygamy was openly practiced in Utah for decades in the 19th century.  It was a normal way of life for a couple of generations of Mormons.  I have to believe that the post-manifesto pushing of polygamy into the darker, hidden, “unregulated” sectors of society led to an increase in coercion and abuse. 

In the finale of Big Love, Bill Henrickson–always the divisive, imperfect hero–feels even more compelled to bring the practice of “the principle” out into the light, as a way of regulating and curbing the types of abuses seen in the Kansas sect.  I can’t help but cheer on Bill for this decision, and wonder if life shouldn’t imitate art in this instance.  I think more women and girls would be protected if polygamy were no longer illegal.  I don’t agree with their religion, but I believe they have a right to practice it, and I want them to have the benefit of disinfecting sunshine as they do it. 

Am I right about my assumptions of 19th centure polygamy being more “regulated” and less coercive–or are my biases clouding my judgment?  Do you think there is a legitimate reason to keep the practice of polygamy illegal in this day and age, given the large number of religious people who feel that it is a spiritual imperative?  Do you agree with my conclusions that legalizing polygamy, while distasteful to my personal morals, would ultimately protect more women and girls and should therefor outweigh arguments against legalization?


  1. I think government needs to get out of the business of regulating relationships (whom we choose to love and live with). Be they homosexual or polygamous or heterosexual.

    That said, I’ve been pondering Netflixing Big Love. Is it worth it? I haven’t watched any episode yet.

  2. Daniel, I think it’s worth it.

    Karen, I do agree with you. It’s a similar premise that makes me want to legalize (and tax the crap out of) marijuana – if it’s not against the law anymore, the criminal underbelly, black market, abuse and secrecy associated with it goes away.

    I’m sure their must be complexities I’m missing, but disinfecting sunlight is never a bad thing. I did read somewhere that the polygamists are watching the gay-marriage debate carefully, since it impact their marriage choices as well, ultimately.

  3. The facility of divorce in nineteenth century was frequently pilloried by the eastern gentiles; but I think it was an important part of regulating the pressures of polygamic culture.

  4. J., do you know if divorce is as frequently used in modern day practitioners of polygamy?

    Daniel, yes, it’s an interesting series. They do a really great job of making you care about these people who are basically societal outliers. The portrayal of LDS mormons bothers some members of the church. It is probably a bit caricatured, but it is presented from the perspective of people on the outs with the LDS church (i.e.a polygamous family), so I think it’s a pretty effective narrative device. Also, I think there are some really amazing LDS characters. (i.e. the always excellent Tina Majorino). Anyways, worth a look.

  5. Daniel,
    Taking the government out of the relationship business is, frankly, impossible. The the tiny issues from my part of the world: the tax code has to decide how to treat people. Are married couples an economic unit that should be taxed as such, or should the basic taxable unit be the individual, irrespective of whether that individual shares income and expenses with another or not?

    The lines that currently exist are both too broad and too narrow–for example, a married couple may keep their finances completely separate and still be treated as an economic unit for tax purposes (that is, too broad). Alternatively, some devoted couples who share evenly all of their income and expenses cannot file jointly (that is, too narrow).

    All of that said, the federal government has to do something with relationship, including marriage, even if that thing is to ignore it. And I’m only talking tax; that totally ignores all the other ways where family is relevant to law or to society.

    The way government treats family may well need to change, but it doesn’t work for government to pretend there is no such thing as family.

  6. This simplistic suggestion of “just get the government out of the marriage business” comes up every time.

    If the legal system is implicated in household finances (see @5) and immigration laws (among other things), then the government has a compelling reason to at least provide legal recognition of family relationships such as parent or spouse. I agree that perhaps the government should have less proscriptive power (in deciding who doesn’t have the right to be recognized as a family), but when family relationships exist, the government has reason to record them.

    Just as a simple example, if you think the laws can decide who does and doesn’t have the right to live in a given country, but you think that the government has no business legally recognizing spousal relationships, then you’re saying that the government should be in the business of breaking up families if/when one spouse’s visa expires…

  7. Sam,

    I don’t mean wholly and completely. I’m talking about changing the way a government sees a family to reflect actual reality. Thus if we have (as in Big Love) a generally workable relationship between one man and three women, or if two women are in a lasting relationship, or two men, that should be considered a familial relationship. The government currently does recognize (if I am not mistaken) common law marriages which indicate that a man and a woman who have lived together for a given amount of time, even though never officially married, are considered a married couple because of the amount of time they have lived together (not to mention if they have children). This is of course, not related to whether the actions these people take are sinful or not. That is for a church to decide among its members. Churches can promote their own idea of what is right, but for a multi-cultural, multi-religious society, we need to be able to define and frame life within that society so all are welcome.

  8. Daniel,
    Changing the way the government sees a family to reflect actual reality is a nice rallying cry, but how would you propose doing that? Common law marriage does exist in 11 states, but provides its own unique challenges.

    Moreover, what reality do we want to recognize? The economic reality? My wife and I have a single bank account that we can both use at will, but there is some empirical evidence that the earner of money controls it more than the non-earner. But every couple is different. A married couple may have completely separate financial lives, whereas roommates may split expenses (including food, etc.) completely evenly. How much work do we want the government to have to do in order to determine how a particular family functions financially (not to mention in every other way)?

    Marriage, then, becomes a useful shorthand; maybe some married couples act the same as unmarried couples, but marriage creates a bright line, and we (meaning the government) can decide that it will treat one side of the line differently than the other without being too intrusive on individuals’ privacy and without exposing itself to the administrative hardship of looking at each couple in detail.

    Does that mean marriage is the best line? I don’t know; I’m sure a principled argument can be made that there is a better line to look at. And should marriage be limited to people who are allowed to be married currently (or, for federal purposes, heterosexual couples who are currently married)? Again, principled arguments can be made for the expansion or contraction of what is recognized as a marriage. And by all means make those arguments. But saying that the government should get out of the marriage business altogether is, practically and, I’d argue, theoretically, an untenable position (unless you argue marriage for religion. civil union for government, which doesn’t do anything except change the terminology).

  9. Marriage is one thing__an agreement between two or more persons. A family is another__persons (kids) are added who had no say in the Marriage agreement. Who will watch out for them?

  10. Symphonyofdissent says:

    Most legal historians and first ammendment scholars will tell you that the anti-polygamy Reynolds decision was decided on the basis of ignorance and anti-Mormon bias. It is due time for a religious expression rights challange. Such a challange will likely triumph in the environment of the peyote and santorini slaughter decisions of recent years.

  11. OP: “It was a normal way of life for a couple of generations of Mormons”.
    But a good question is how many children of polygamy picked to have that lifestyle for themselves?

  12. Sam,

    I really don’t know how. It’s more a sentimental position that I take and not one that should actually affect reality. I really don’t care either way. I like the slow move we as a society are taking right now toward normalizing homosexual relations so that they are not as stigmatized and psychologically, mentally and emotionally harmed.

  13. As for the show, I think Barb is the hero. Bill is a patriarchal bully.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    My understanding is that, unlike gays, polygamists are not looking for legalization of their marriages, but rather simply decriminalization. For practical purposes polygamy has already been decriminalized in Utah and Arizona, where the attorney generals have made the (I believe) very proper decision not to prosecute polygamy simpliciter, but rather the abuses that too often accompany its modern manifestations: child abuse, welfare fraud, tax fraud, etc.

    Karen, I agree with both of your points. First, I agree that one cannot simply look at contemporary fundamentalist polygamy and imagine that we’re looking through time at the 19th century variety. There are a lot of differences at play. The 19th century Mormons weren’t cloistered in a closed society; they were people who had lived in and had experience in the rest of the world, who knew how that world worked, who travelled and served missions, who interacted with the rest of the world in print. For them, leaving the practice was always a legitimate option, unlike for a child who grows up in a completely isolated outpost with no knowledge of the outside world. The relatively easy availability of divorce for women J. mentioned was another factor. Also, it wasn’t a closed system; missionary success in Europe meant that there was a steady stream of new immigrants feeding into the system. Modern fundamentalists generally don’t proselytize and are much more closed against the outer world.

    I also agree that if the family is going to survive as such, the reveal was probably necessary. They’re going to experience a tremendous amount of pushback (foreshadowed by all the people walking out on the news conference, and the verbal reaction of Sissy Spacek). But the secrecy and duplicity of their present lives was killing them. Their only shot at living the principle with dignity is to try to do it openly, I think.

  15. MikeInWeHo says:

    Isn’t it interesting how a discussion about Big Love always seems to turn into a discussion about the definition of marriage and then SSM issues? Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer (the creators and writers) are just brilliant, and a couple:

    I agree with RJH: Bill is a jerk. It was horrible how he threw his business partner at Home Plus under the bus this season.

  16. It’s a similar premise that makes me want to legalize (and tax the crap out of) marijuana – if it’s not against the law anymore, the criminal underbelly, black market, abuse and secrecy associated with it goes away.

    Unfortunately, marijuana is a dangerous drug that destroys brain cells in a way that few other chemicals do. Also unfortunate is the fact that marijuana has somehow gained a completely false reputation as a “victimless drug”.

    Contrast this with alcohol which, if consumed in moderate proportions, is naturally flushed out of the system. (One serving of alcohol in one hour will not cause a normal person to become intoxicated, and it will be flushed out of the system completely).

    Sorry to deviate from the OP. I’ll let you return to your regularly scheduled definition of marriage discussion…

  17. Alex, I don’t know the medical data, but I do not see doctors prescribing alcohol for cancer, glaucoma, migraine or other patients.

    I have first-hand experience with both. (adult convert) In practical use, pot is far, far less debilitating that alcohol. The effects are less destructive, are less sickening and wear off without physical illness.

  18. Comment 1, says something which I think is interesting, attractive, and ultimately wrong on several levels.

    One could also say, I think government needs to get out of the business of regulating the actions of individuals, consenting adults really, as they are acting out their lives on the highway in automobiles purchased with their own money and on roads funded by their own tax dollars. Only punish people when they actually do something bad like injure or hurt someone, etc. not when they are doing something we feel uncomfortable with that could potentially cause someone harm in a certain circumstance.

    It’s just as fraught with errors as saying government should “Get out” of markets. It’s an easy answer. It’s the answer I’d like to give in a variety of areas as a free-marketer as well. But I full recognized that regulations and rules surrounding areas of our freedom are necessary as much as I think individuals should be free to trade derivatives based purely on speculation and not an underlying need to hedge.

    Arguing for the “free market” of marriage regulation is just as silly as arguing for a complete free market in the financial world. We need some regulations to correct from perverse incentives that can create broad systematic risk which is so big and crushing that it could bring down the entire system before it’s too late to stop it.

    That doesn’t mean we bring in the heavy hand of the state and regulation into all areas. And I think there is a definite and limited balance that we need to strike. Just because some regulation is often good, doesn’t mean all regulation is good. Too much regulation in the market creates perverse incentives as well… so too much regulation (benefits, credits, exemptions, exclusions, etc) in the marriage market can also lead to perverse incentives.

    I think the same argument could be made for marriage. Society certainly has in an interest in maintaining how society progresses over generations. It doesn’t mean we mandate church attendance just because I think it is good, or even mandate marriage. But I do not think some simple codified rules defining what marriage is, is wholly unjust.

    The devil is always in the details though, and just like financial regulations, with societal ones we often run the risk of screwing things up. Like how gays feel completely marginalized (and understandably so based on the kind of rhetoric that is often thrown around), because we don’t have any kind of system/regulation/societal rules to deal with homosexual relationships that desire to be more permanent.

    We’re at a new point in human civilization where we need to completely create a set of “rules” for a type of relationship that hasn’t really existed before. I’m not referring to homosexual behavior, but rather homosexual relationships coexisting openly and in fairly widespread practice without having to cover it up amongst the rest of society.

    Some on one side of the debate insist we need to fit every relationship (including homosexual or polygamous) into the definition of marriage. I think that muddies the waters too much and dilutes the meaning of the definition of marriage to have it cover such a broad scope. Do we need a new concept/term? Some say that conveys inequality. But language conveys inequality. We should strive for equal treatment under the law, not equal outcomes and definitely not equality of titles.

    So getting back to the post now. As uncomfortable as I am with polygamous relationships, I can also acknowledge they happen with or without the state. They also happen with or without religion, just often times one partner is getting cheated on and didn’t even get to “agree” (Mrs. Woods) or perhaps they did agree (swingers). So it seems strange to villify into law people who openly practice these relationships when we permit it when it is done secretly or discreetly with no strings attached.

    The same goes for homosexual relationships. While I am uncomfortable with this behavior, and find it wrong on a moral level, I also acknowledge that loving someone and caring and being committed to them is extremely important and makes us all better people. It’s probably better to codify or establish some sort of ideal method of a loving gay relationship, than have the state essential require that all gay relationships must be without commitment (legally). In the best case, I would hope that people could overcome and not give into this kind of behavior, but I can not force that aspect of my belief system on someone else. They get to decide for themselves.

    But a polygamous marriage is clearly not the same thing as traditional marriage, so we shouldn’t call it that. Gay marriage is not the same thing either. Instead of expanding the definition, why not come up with a new term for the relationship and then codify that relationship, be it gay or polygamous into the law?

    But I really can turn on a dime in all of this… because something at my core (and it’s not the “homo’s are icky” accusation) says that society which openly embraces immoral behavior is doomed. But that’s also the same way I feel about Britney Spears….

  19. Tracy, my grandma was asked by her dr to have a glass of wine daily

  20. Just to be clear- I am not advocating the use of cannabis. Nor alcohol. I follow the WoW and am a member of the church is good standing. I’m just offering the opinion that legalization and taxation isn’t a bad idea, and I frankly do not find it any worse than alcohol.

  21. While I find polygamy fundamentally sexist and deeply unpalatable, I do think legalizing it could have a protective effect on women and girls. For one thing, they could divorce and sue for alimony and child support. Whether this would actually happen often or not is an open question, since as Kevin Barney said, they aren’t looking for legitimization so much as to be left alone.

    I also think legalizing polygamy and gay marriage are closely connected, and that the creators of Big Love know this. I wonder if one reason the Church has taken such a firm stand against gay marriage is because they don’t want polygamy legalized. It could reopen the question of why it’s not practiced by Mormons, if it ever will be again, and if it will be in the next life – questions the Church doesn’t want to touch with a 10 foot pole. I’d actually be happy to see these questions answered, especially the one about the next life, because it’s an extremely disconcerting possibility for me.

  22. Emily- I agree there are connections between legalizing SSM and polygamy. There are a few cases that show this happening mostly related to custody issues-as a SS couple asked for a friends help conceiving…then in rare cases fights ensue and everyone wants custody. The groud breaking issue is recognizing the parenthood of the not biologically involved SS partner.

    what a mess for the child.

    It’s always sad to me when we talk about marriage law mostly in a way to protect victims and deal with break ups.

  23. I’m just offering the opinion that legalization and taxation isn’t a bad idea, and I frankly do not find it any worse than alcohol.

    One of my many professions is as a drug prevention specialist. First-hand experience with those who have used and abused marijuana, along with a vast body of clinical research, says differently.

  24. Alex, I frankly do not believe you.

    The research you describe cannot be done in the US. But extensive studies have been done in the Netherlands (see e.g. Clinical research there finds no effect of “legalization” on drug use per se. Policy research shows significant reductions in drug-related crime. Maybe you can provide links to this “vast body of clinical research” you mentioned?

  25. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 23 Are you high?

    re: 8 That’s a very thoughtful and well-written comment, Chris. I agree that the devil is in the rhetorical details. Your only error is your assumption that our current notion of “traditional” marriage is really that.

    Here’s how it’s supposed to look, right: Boy-meets-girl, they fall in love, get married, have sex on their wedding night, move into together, start having kids, stay together for life, amen.

    That’s lovely, but it’s really a very contemporary model of marriage. Marriage has been defined many different ways throughout history (property transaction between families, polygamy, etc). The definition continues to evolve regardless of what anyone thinks about it. Whether the term will wind up embracing same-sex and polygamous relationships is anybody’s guess.

    Lately I’ve been watching the TV series Caprica (geek alert!). It’s interesting how they depict a society that has many different kinds of marriages: same-sex, group, etc. Of course, we know from Battlestar Galactica that the Capricans are indeed doomed because they’re about to create the Cylons so perhaps your last paragraph is true!

  26. Alex, I’m sorry, but you’re crazy. Is your vast body of research just watching Reefer Madness?

  27. Peter LLC says:

    Wednesday weed…on Monday?!

  28. The body of research to which I referred is in relation to the dangers of marijuana use on the body. I do not deny that the legalisation of any product will cut down on the crimes related to its use. If marijuana was simply a problem because of the crimes associated with it through the black market, street production, and the such, then I would whole-heartedly advocate its legalisation. (Of course, the fact that saying that when a drug is legalised, the drug-related crime goes down comes across as rather redundant. It is like saying that the number of speeding-in-traffic-related crimes would decrease if only speeding was legalised through the abolition of speed limits. But I digress even further.)

    Again, I was speaking of the physical harm of marijuana use and abuse, not the effects of legalisation. The National Institute on Drug Abuse published this summary in July 2005. There is also this report from the Office of Applied Studies, a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, discussing the correlation between adolescent use of marijuana and various problem behaviours. Admittedly, correlation does not imply causation, but there is a very strong relationship.

    Lastly, I am going to step out of this conversation, as being accused of being high and called crazy is not going to cotnribute to a discussion whatsoever, and, quite frankly, is rather insulting. So feel free to call me whatever names you wish now. I am done. Sorry for deviating from the discussion of polygamy.

  29. Legalisation? Yes!

    Taxation? No!


  30. Alex,
    Come back. I don’t think anyone was intentionally trying to insult you in any way other than playfulness.

  31. Dan,

    I can’t arbitrate between you and Alex on the clinical effects of marijuana, but your objection that “no effect of “legalization on drug use” is found in studies is not an answer. The question you mention are not clinical questions. The clinical questions are the effects of marijuana usage on the body.

    I’m far from an expert, but there are some pretty serious effects of marijuana that differ from alcohol. One is that the effects of the drug on the brain are much longer lived than those of alcohol. So mental function can be impaired for days or weeks after usage. But frankly, given that alcohol related deaths in the U.S. are somewhere around 30-40,000 per year (similar to breast cancer deaths, incidentally), I find the argument that something is “no worse than alcohol” kind of meaningless in almost any context.

    On the original topic, I admit to being unsure about legalization as a way to “shine light.” I think the law has many of roles, and one of them is pedagogical. I am loath to give that up lightly.

  32. The same “sin tax” as on alcohol and tobacco products. What’s the problem with that?

  33. Someone show me statistics that 30K-40K people die annually pot related deaths.

  34. Tracy M,
    Such statistics aren’t meaningful, b/c the usage rate of marijuana is much, much lower. It’s like saying ebola is less deadly than the flu because fewer people die from it. There is some sense in which that is true, but another in which it most certainly is not.

    The statistics you requested are also difficult to obtain, because usage is not well reported. Most deaths from marijuana are reported as things like “substance impaired driving” etc.

  35. People, people, people….I give you HBO drama, polygamy, cults, incest, abuse. Hello! Drama–on a silver platter. And you’re talking about marijuana??

  36. Based on scriptural precedent – before anything is delivered up on a silver platter – a female of royal status has to perform a seductive dance.

  37. If we legalize polygamy, does that mean if I marry a couple extra wives I could get them all on my insurance policy? If not, and one or more get a job, can they include one of the non-working wives on her insurance policy?

    Or, while we legalize polygamy, we can revisit national health care…

  38. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 36
    Let’s get mfranti high on peyote and have her do her infamous snake dance. Would that count?

  39. We’re planning a SLC snacker soon. Those of you who would like to see mfranti dance should prepare to attend. Fair warning.

  40. Mike, what is it with you and snake dancing? First Amri, now mfranti…what is going on here?

  41. #37:You can get insurance on almost anything___if you are willing to pay the price. I would think if your insurance company was willing to add wife #1 for say $300, they would be willing to add wife #2 for another $300(?)
    Interesting question:Would wife #1 and wife #2 be considered married to each other?

  42. #40: I want to know how he knew to pick peyote over Mary Jane?

  43. Steve G. says:

    41, In LDS traditional polygamy I don’t think the wives can be considered married. They make no vows to one another, they just happen to have made vows to the same man. One wife may refer to the other as a sister wife, but you wouldn’t hear one wife calling the other her wife.

    That isn’t to say wives couldn’t also be married under a different definition of polygamy. As was noted above, the Sci-fi show Carprica depicts a minor character in such a relationship.

  44. #41: I was thinking about coverage under an insurance policy. If the policy is not clear as to a term, then the insured get to define it.

  45. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 40
    Oops, my bad. I meant to suggest Amri for the ritual snake dance because she’s experienced. As for peyote, it just seemed more appropriate in a religious setting.

  46. Someone show me statistics that 30K-40K people die annually pot related deaths.

    How about all the people being killed in Mexico right now over trafficking?

    Regarding polygamy, I’ve often thought polygamy would be a very different institution if it were decriminalized. I’m with you, Karen–I think legitimizing polygamy would reduce abuse and facilitate integrating polygamists into society.

  47. How about all the people being killed in Mexico right now over trafficking?

    Hence, decriminalization and taxation. But I don’t think pot is what they are mostly dealing with in the border crisis.– I think I’ve read it’s heavier white drugs.

  48. not to completely distract but every time people say “Snakes on a plane” I’m sure that’s not the image you were going for…

    carry on finding the magical 30,000 deaths and solving all marriage woes

  49. every time people talk about snake dancing….shhhesh.

  50. I believe the Spiritual Gifts associated with plural marriage were removed from the world. These gifts are necessary to enable a healthy plural marriage free from over burdening jealousy, inappropriate marriages and sexual degradations.

    I think that is why modern plural marriages seem to be a creepy thing and will be unable to break free from major issues unless those spiritual gifts are returned to the earth.

    I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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