My three wives: Chloe Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin… (Lacey Terrell / HBO )
HBO's Emmy-free and too long under-appreciated "Big Love" came out of its yearlong, writers-strike-created hiatus like the buffed-up guy tired of eating sand.
But instead of going for fireballs and kidnappings (OK, there were a few of those, but they were totally incidental), cancer scares and intra-cast murder attempts (well, yes, there were those too, but again, not the point), creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer took their strange and startling American fable to new heights, and depths.
All of which came to a DefCon 1 "conclusion" in the season finale Sunday night. Oh, there were several moments of "closure" in the final minutes, but that was just the writers handing a bit of narrative Xanax to keep viewers from developing unsightly nervous tics while they wait to see what will really happen next season.
And not just in terms of plot. "Big Love" has become richer in tone and message. What had been quaint -- the mob-like machinations of the compound at Juniper Creek -- grew dark and murderous; what had been solid and structured -- the Henricksons' prefab polygamous corner of the universe -- collapsed into chaos.
While last season examined the complexities of marriage and family and love, this season dealt more with the separate, perplexing and often lonely lives each one of us leads amid all the noise and haste of modern daily life.
In episode after episode, the writers and actors pried apart the multihued twist of characters with the precision of bomb squad technicians. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) moved from arm candy to entrepreneur; Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) admitted her deep attachment to church and community even over the bonds of family; Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) had a miscarriage and teetered on the verge of collapse before righting herself.
And Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), poor Nicki, the buttoned-down sociopath everyone has loved to hate. Finally she, and we, came to grips with what lurked beneath it all -- she was born to parents with "murder in their hearts," parents who forced her to give up a child in a desperate attempt to flee the compound. Meanwhile, Bill (Bill Paxton) watched the fortress of women he had so carefully constructed around him morph into an opposing army of righteous indignation.
It wasn't a perfect season. The story line involving Ana (Branka Katic) joining the family as a fourth wife fizzled into the world's quickest divorce -- she just walked out of the house never to be seen again. A reprise of the sexual tension between eldest son Benny (Douglas Smith) and Margene was a dud, and Teenie (Jolean Wejbe) seems to have just vanished into thin air.
Even so, "Big Love" is like no other show on television, possibly ever, and polygamy, though fascinating, is not the reason. Instead, it simply provides the odd and irregularly sized frame, the only thing big enough to accommodate a portrait so complicated that, left to its own devices, it would soon claim the entire wall, the entire room.
Where else do you see characters regularly engaged in sincere and supplicant prayer? What other show respectfully portrays the soul-rattling fear that a transgression from religious belief can cause in a modern American? Where else are the power struggles of marriage examined without apology or laugh track, or the contrast between male and female friendship portrayed without sentimentality or agenda?
What other show consistently examines the sticky and complicated mess of love and fear, loyalty and ennui, generosity and spite that holds most families together?
Oh, and it was nice to see Harry Dean Stanton pick up a guitar again, if only for a minute.