Big or Me
What Big Love teaches about marriage and jealousy.
Well, OK. Nicki's obviously not cut out for husband-sharing. Nor are the women at the compound: Bill wonders whether feuding wives poisoned his dad, and the youngest wife of the compound's leader confides, "The other sister-wives hate me because old Roman loves me best." But surely some woman in this show is happy with polygamy.
Margie? Alas, no. Ten minutes into the first episode, as they're getting ready for bed, she asks Bill whether he misses her more than the other wives. "Officially, I miss you guys all the same," he shrugs. "Officially"? It's bizarrely impersonal, but that's what polygamy requires. The disappointment shows in Margie's face. Later, when she finds Bill in her bed with Nicki, she gropes for an officially acceptable way to express her outrage. "I like sharing you," she tells him. "But you can't use my words in our bed!" Bill brushes her off. Often, Margie laments her isolation and plays suggestively with Ben. "You have no idea how much of my day is spent alone," she confides to him.
Barb's struggle is even more difficult. Once, she had Bill to herself. Now she's infertile, and he's got two younger wives. "Are you going to wear pajamas to bed every night, or just on mine?" she asks him in the first episode. Her daughter, Sarah, opines to a friend that Barb consented to Bill's second marriage because she was afraid of losing him. When Nicki announces that she's planning to get pregnant, Barb is the only one unable to embrace her. And when Bill sweeps Barb off her feet again, a friend warns her, "I understand that it's difficult sometimes to feel special in your marriage. … I just don't want to see you get hurt. He's not going to leave his wives." It's like any other affair, except that the man she can't have is her husband. It's not something new she's longing for. It's something old.
And what has polygamy given her to make up for what it took away? She gropes for an answer but can't find one. Plural marriage requires sacrifice, she tells Margie, fumbling for words and looking away as she fights back tears. "We have to stick with it, no matter how lonely it can be, because there isn't anything else that can bring us these rewards. This is, um—this is it."
Yes, it is. How sad.
Correction, April 21, 2006: The article originally quoted Nicki as saying, "This is exactly what plural marriage teaches us: the value of selfishness." I misheard the quote while watching the show. The remark was in contrast to, not in concert with, the jealousy she expressed in the scene. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloë Sevigny, Bill Paxton, and Jeanne Tripplehorn in Big Love by Ron Batzdorff.