What Big Love teaches about marriage and jealousy.

Science, technology, and life.
April 21 2006 12:07 PM

Big or Me

What Big Love teaches about marriage and jealousy.

Big Love. Click image to expand.
Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloë Sevigny, Bill Paxton, and Jeanne Tripplehorn in Big Love

In the final scene of Episode 6 of Big Love, high-schooler Ben Henrickson wonders whether to become a polygamist like his dad. His father, Bill Henrickson, tells the young man that it's a big responsibility, but that he's up to it. "You've got a big heart," he assures the boy with a smile.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That's the implicit message of Big Love. It's hard to sustain a polygamous household. It's not for everybody. Most of us are too jealous. But some people aren't, the show suggests. And for them, maybe we should tolerate or legalize plural marriage.

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So, let's look at how this on-air experiment is going. Talented writers and actors are trying to make plausible the idea that American women raised in an age of sexual egalitarianism are bighearted enough to share a husband. Is it working?

No. To begin with, there's the problem of hierarchy. In the original model of polygamy, illustrated by the Mormon-offshoot "compound" to which Bill's parents belong, there's a clear order: first wife, second wife, etc. Bill's mom, who longs to become first wife after her husband's original wife dies, openly pulls rank: "As second wife, I'm entitled."

Big Love tries to get beyond this model, but escaping hierarchy proves impossible. Unless you marry all your wives in one ceremony, they're in chronological order. Sexually, the most powerful wife is the last one, since she's young enough to have kids (which is a big reason why she married you), whereas your previous wives, like you, have aged. But the first wife, like the first-born son, carries the authority. Some of this primacy is caused by monogamy laws: Only the first wife can be legal. But most of it is forced by everyday logistics. Halfway through the first episode, the family climbs into a car. Bill takes the wheel, leaving room for one passenger in the front seat. His second wife, Nicki, opens the front door, but his first wife, Barb, takes the seat, relegating Nicki to the back.

In theory, the wives work out household arrangements by consensus. In practice, decisions have to be made, and Bill's busy working (as you would be, if you had three families to support), so somebody else has to be left in charge. Just as the president's oldest cronies get top jobs in the White House, the patriarch's first wife gets the top job in the house. "You control everything!" Nicki fumes at Barb. In theory, polygamy is great for women because another wife can watch your kids while you take a break or go to your job. In practice, spouses who go off to work leave others to pick up the chores and day care. "Here we are, food-shopping again," Nicki grumbles to the third wife, Margie, about Barb's career. "I can't remember the last time that woman pushed a cart."

Hierarchy isn't the only problem. All it takes is one aggressively jealous wife—in this case, Nicki—to set off defensive jealousy in the rest. Nicki rebukes Bill for spending time with Barb on "my morning" (each wife gets certain scheduled days with Bill) and accuses Margie of sleeping with him before she joined the family. Barb, in turn, limits Nicki's access to Bill. "I can't let him go alone with Nicki," she tells her daughter. "The emotional demands she makes on him!" Would the jealousy disappear if Nicki left? No way. Each wife wants more than she's allowed. One day, Margie's having such a romp with Bill that she keeps him past 9 in the morning, when Barb's "night" with him is supposed to begin. Nicki reminds Barb that each woman must stand up for herself.

Then there's the problem of spontaneity. In the fifth episode, Bill falls for Barb all over again, and they make wild love in their SUV. As Barb's head clears, her first reaction is guilt: "This is Margie's night." Bill reaches for an excuse: "It's not like we planned it." But that's how lapses happen. When you're tempted by someone outside your marriage, the bright line of adultery can stop you. When you're tempted by someone inside your marriage, the line feels more like a technicality: You're supposed to have sex, just not tonight. And the line moves all the time. Whose night it is depends on three women drawing up a calendar. Revisions happen on the fly. One night, Bill comes home late and stumbles from one bed to another, discovering that the wives have traded nights.

When you're forbidden to fight about sex, you fight about other things. Nicki spends herself into credit-card debt, tearfully trying to fill with material goods the emptiness she feels over her inability to command Bill's attention. Barb accuses Nicki of manipulating Bill into diverting Barb's paycheck to subsidize the other women's spending. When Nicki thinks Bill is dating a potential fourth wife, she exults, not out of generosity, but because she sees an opportunity to get between Bill and Barb. Barb will hate the upheaval, Nicki tells a friend: "He's going to need me to smooth things out with her!"

At the core of Big Love is the hollow pretense of bigheartedness. "I fight my jealousies, and I conquer them," Nicki brags to Bill. A minute later, in violation of the wife-rotation schedule, they're humping madly in Margie's bed. Nicki brushes off Margie's outrage at the infraction, telling her to "get over it." But Margie can't. When Nicki refuses to let Margie borrow her car, Margie remarks acidly, "I thought we shared everything." To restore the illusion of happiness, Barb asks the two women to join hands with her. "This is not in the spirit of who we are," she insists. But Nicki walks away, pleading, "I just can't right now." Later, as she stews over Barb's new job, Nicki sniffs, "This is exactly what plural marriage teaches us: the value of selflessness."*

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.)

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