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 http://www.nytimes.com/1999/06/04/us/polygamist-is-convicted-of-incest.html?pagewanted=1) 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?