Did Critics Love the End of "Big Love"?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 21 2011 3:02 PM

Did Critics Love the End of "Big Love"?

Last night, Big Love ,HBO's soapy drama about a polygamous family in Utah, aired its final episode.And it was a doozy. So what are the critics saying today? (Bewarned, there be SPOILERS ahead .)

At the end of the episode, patriarch Bill (Bill Paxton) is shotby his neighbor, Carl, over a seemingly minor dispute. Bill dies surrounded by his threewives, after asking for a blessing from eldest wife Barb signaling hisacceptance of her desire to join the priesthood. An epilogue set almost a year later shows that the three widows have decided to sticktogether despite the loss of their husband.

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The show's creators told Fresh Air that the surpriseending was designed to have Bill leave the show as a hero. "We wanted togive him a Gary Cooper exit from the show," says producer Mark V. Olsen.

But critics were divided over Bill's ultimate legacy.

On the L.A. Times' Show Tracker blog, Mary McNamara writes that "Bill's maddening mixture of sanctimony and loving humility ... made him oneof television's most infuriating and compelling characters right up until themoment he dies." Alan Sepinwall ,however, justfound Bill infuriating :  

Bill Henrickson had been shownpretty clearly over five seasons of "Big Love" to be an utter cancerto his family: myopic and petulant and manipulative and self-righteous andconstantly causing pain, large and small, to the three women who had chosen tobe his wives. Bill's destructive effect on his loved ones was clear to me as aviewer of the show for a very long time, and it was clear to many other viewersof the series. I'm just not sure if that was ever what creators Mark V. Olsenand Will Scheffer intended us to think of Bill, and the finale left things verymuddled in that regard. 

In the Fresh Air interview, producer Will Scheffer also said that "The big secret of the show isthat it's always been a feminist show." And indeed, the gender dynamics of the Henricksonhousehold made for some of today's most interesting critical observations. Inthe New York Times , GiniaBellafante compares Bill to some other recent TV alpha males :

It is hard to think of anothercontemporary series that committed itself so strongly to a 1970s conception offeminism, presenting Bill as a force of insidiousness because he soconsistently failed to attune himself to the needs and ambitions of his wives.Tony Soprano killed people, but Bill Henrickson represented an affront toupper-middle-class sensibility far worse: he was an inhibitor of female growth,a charmless dolt metaphorically stomping over all of our Carole King albums.

Perhaps nothing is less sexy to theprototypical thinking woman who watches HBO than the sort of man herepresented, someone blind to his own subversions and immune to ambivalence.

Over in Salon, MattZoller Seitz offers strong support for the finale and the overall series,particularly its handling of modern marriage. Zoller Seitz writes that the serieshas always been "less about political analogies than personal relationships specificallythe intense but uneasy interaction between women and men in a stillmale-dominated society":

To quote my friend  Lisa Rosman ,the show "underscored what I've always thought about relationships:that what goes on between two people has nothing and everything to do withanyone else at any given moment." The relationship between Bill, Barb,Nicki and Margene can be read as a metaphor for this, that and the other thing;yet at the same time, it is what it is, and nothing more. I love storiesthat reject "either/or" thinking and embrace"both/and" instead, and "Big Love" was absolutely oneof those stories. It reimagined the component parts of a monogamousrelationship by fracturing them into facets and distributing them among fourmajor characters -- and it did it within one of the most unabashedly spiritualframeworks in network TV history.

Did you watch the finale of Big Love ? What did you think?

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