Ginnifer Goodwin, left, Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Chloe Sevigny… (Isabella Vosmikova, HBO )
As so often happens, the source of " Big Love's" greatness almost proved to be its undoing. For three seasons, the HBO drama about a polygamist family was astonishing in its narrative agility, able to persuade increasingly devoted audiences that the Henrickson clan — one husband, three wives — were not all that different from their non-polygamous counterparts. The cats-cradle of familial relationships, set against Juniper Creek, the polygamous compound where "Little House on the Prairie" gingham concealed hearts right out of "Scarface," allowed creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer to explore character and story in a way that would otherwise require three or four separate shows. Aided by a flawless cast including Bill Paxton as Bill, Jeanne Tripplehorn as Barb, Chloe Sevigny as Nikki and Ginnifer Goodwin as Margene, "Big Love" took on the big themes — love, marriage, God, family, the very nature of adulthood — and shook them until the floor glittered with hidden treasure.
Then came Season 4. Suddenly Bill was running for state Senate and going Rambo down in Mexico, and Nikki and her mother were mixed up in some "Boys From Brazil"-type scheme. There was a casino on the reservation subplot, a Sissy Spacek as politico subplot, the Henrickson kids were all over the map and at the end of the most improbably political campaign in history, Bill outed his whole family.
So, a little crazy.
It's hard when a show that asks viewers to suspend some of their most basic belief systems — it's easier to convince us that someone can fly than that a modern, self-loving woman would agree to a polygamous marriage — crashes against its own safety rails. When a Titan stumbles, the universe rocks.
But Atlas has regained his footing. Season 5 of "Big Love," which begins Sunday, acknowledges the wider world, but the action returns to the more intimate theater of the principal characters. HBO recently announced that this will be the show's final season, which means Olsen and Scheffer are now free to make their closing statements, to write with a final goal in mind. (They have also taken out finale insurance — Gregory Itzin, who helped make the final season of "24" such a stunning success, guest stars as the new speaker of the House.)
After a brief, but still biblical, respite in the desert, the Henricksons regroup and soon face a host of other situations both stemming and separate from their new visibility. Because polygamy is not a felony, and because there is, apparently, no system for recall or impeachment in Utah, Bill takes office, only to find himself with no allies and many enemies. No one is happy with his election, or impressed with his goals — not the public, not fellow polygamists and certainly not his former supporters, including his employees, who feel betrayed. Having grown increasingly autocratic, Bill must face the reality that he has irreparably damaged many relationships and possibly made a gigantic mistake. As usual, Paxton finds just the right blend of tyranny and genuine humility to win the audience's vested interest if not it's actual sympathy, which may be the biggest miracle of the show.
Each of the wives are at a similar turning point. Barb, who has never been at peace with polygamy much less being the public face of it, is realizing that there are certain things even love cannot accommodate; Margene loses her business and, she fears, her identity; while Nikki is faced with the most dangerous predicament of all — she's gotten what she wanted. If that weren't enough, Bill's mother, Lois ( Grace Zabriskie), and Nikki's mother, Adaleen ( Mary Kay Place), are very much in evidence with devastating results. (Zabriskie's storyline alone will bring the house down and she is a wonder to watch.)
In Juniper Creek, Bill's alter ego Alby Grant (played with consistent and too long under-appreciated brilliance by Matt Ross) has surrendered to madness. The suicide of his lover last season snapped whatever frail attachment he had to reality and now he, like Bill, is bent on executing his vision of the world.
In early episodes, "Big Love" quickly reclaims its astonishing ability to balance the insightful and the absurd, hilarity and heartbreak and the personal with the political. The hours race by and already the final season seems far too short.