'Big Love' raises the stakes for its intense final season
Bill Paxton stars in "Big Love," airing Sundays on HBO.
Just days before wrapping the fifth and final season of HBO's critically acclaimed drama "Big Love," which begins new episodes on Sunday, Jan. 16, series stars Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn freely admit that their demanding roles as Utah polygamist Bill Henrickson and his "first wife," Barbara, have left them struggling to get through their final scenes.
That's not surprising, actually, given that "Big Love" ended last season on a very, very risky note, as Bill, newly elected to the Utah State Senate, came out of the polygamy closet with Barb, along with her "sister wives" Nicki and Margene (Golden Globe winner Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin). Any hopes that their big revelation will mark a fresh and free new beginning as a public family, however, are quickly dashed in the face of the crushing hostility that greets the news.
Bill's efforts to win allies in the Senate are swiftly rebuffed by Republican majority leader Richard Dwyer (recurring guest star Gregory Itzin, "24"), who knows a political hot potato when he sees one. The volatile Nicki has her hands full with recently self-widowed, high-maintenance mom Adaleen Grant (Mary Kay Place) and closeted gay brother Alby (Matt Ross), who has gone into full-tilt, megalomaniacal, puppy-poisoning overdrive since the suicide last season of his secret lover, provoked by wife Laura (the invaluable Anne Dudek). Margie, meanwhile, is a tearful wreck, since the controversy torpedoed her lucrative and ego-stoking career as a TV home shopping personality.
And Barb? Well, the family's bedrock member is starting to drink a little.
So it's no wonder Paxton, who lives only an hour or so from the Southern California set of "Big Love," says he spends most nights in a hotel room wearily trying to master the dialogue for the next day's filming.
"They write so many great speeches for me, and Bill has a great facility for perseverance and deep reserves of incredible stamina," says Paxton, 55. "I mean, he's married to three women. Seriously, this role is like a jealous mistress that I have to service. As well as you think you know the role, you can always know it better, so it has been a constant struggle and challenge for me, but it has been rewarding to do this great love story with these three gals and to have a role that takes on all these theological explorations."
And if you think Bill's decision last season to run for the Senate was based on hubris, you don't want to let Paxton know about it. The actor bristles, clearly defensive about a controversial character of whom he has become very protective.
"He is doing this because he feels a calling," Paxton says. "He is compelled to do it. In that way, he is almost more of a messianic creature, like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he said, 'Father, why do I have to do this? Please take this from me.' He feels that if he doesn't do it, The Principle (of a polygamous lifestyle as a righteous way to live) will die or be left (to the machinations of) people like Alby and Roman Grant, who will continue to promote ignorance and abuse.
"I absolutely do not believe that it was an act born of hubris, and as for naivete, this is a guy who grew up on the streets, so he isn't naive. He's very savvy. The only naivete he had was not realizing the extent of the animosity that would be created by his running and actually being elected. He has handled persecution all his life, and he has overcome every obstacle. He is a self-made man who cannot be shamed. He does have ambitions, and he is a visionary, but it is all for the sake of his family."
Well said, but that family is suffering enormously in the fallout from its newly publicized relationship. Tripplehorn, however, whose multilayered performance as Barbara has been one of the show's stealth assets, says this season marks the first time she has started to relate to her character on a personal level.
"I have had a mixed relationship with Barb as an actor," Tripplehorn confesses. "I didn't meld with her the way I thought I would at the very beginning. A lot of the time I haven't understood her thoughts or her actions, and I have had to consult with (series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer) about what's going on. I still don't understand some things about her, but it's much more intuitive this season than ever before. It's sad that I really understand this character on a really deep level just as I have to say goodbye to her.
"What is beautiful about this season is that both Bill and Barb have to evolve, and she really pushes him to where he has to change his way of thinking. He's very rigid still, and Barb does not sublimate herself. She takes a stand for her family. For Barb, this season reflects what you see on the covers of women's magazines: 'Put yourself on the top of the list.' Barb is trying to put herself first so she can take care of the family, which is a pretty common dilemma for women: putting yourself first in order to help others."
As for whether "Big Love" fans will be pleased with where the show leaves the characters, Paxton is very optimistic. "I think they are going to find it a lot of things, but I think that they will find that this is a very deep, rich and resounding season for every character," he says. "I liken it to a great Russian saga, where it gets to the end and you know you have been on a journey. I promise, viewers will not be left in any ambiguity, like on 'The Sopranos.' "
Tripplehorn likewise invokes the "saga" concept in her evaluation.
" 'Big Love' is about a family, and there's a bit of a Rorschach test in it," she says. "You see in it what you identify with. I talk to so many people who are fans of the show, and I am always struck by how they identify with different characters. There's something for everybody. Seriously, I look at it as a really, really good book because there is that caliber of depth and character and quality and texture.
"Like all great pieces of art, whether it be literature or fine art or a movie or a TV series, it will hit people on different levels and for different reasons. I hope they find it satisfying."