by Meredith O’Brien
As she lay in her hospital bed, fearful that her cancer was going to kill her, she was emotionally blackmailed into turning her loving, monogamous marriage, which had seen the birth of three children, into a polygamist one. From that point on, Big Love ’s Barb Henrickson, has never been the same. And as its final season progresses, Barb’s character (Jeanne Tripplehorn) very well may turn out to be the Betty Friedan of the fictional Big Love Mormon set.
Over the course of the HBO polygamist drama – now in its fifth and final season – I’ve had a soft spot for the would-be feminist Barb, who never seemed to be fully on board with this whole multiple wives thing but only agreed to it because her husband Bill (Bill Paxton) wanted her to, plus she felt guilty that she couldn’t bear him any more children which he desired.
Early in the show’s second season, after being thrown out of a state Mother of the Year competition in the middle of a ceremony because her polygamist status had come to the attention of the contest organizers, Barb went on a soul-searching mission to figure out what had happened to her life. She left home for a few days and told Bill she wasn’t sure she wanted to be in a plural marriage any more. She enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Utah to study social work. I was thrilled that, amid the stifling patriarchy that seemed to imprison nearly all of the Big Love women, one of them was breaking out and away from being kept under the thumb of her husband. “Go Barb,” I found myself thinking as she happily drank a hot cocoa on campus and pondered her wide open future. But, disappointingly, all of Barb’s ambition and independence fizzled out when Bill decided to open a Mormon-friendly casino that required Barb’s attention AND run for the state senate which also put more Bill-centric work on Barb’s plate. Bye-bye master’s degree.
There was a brief time, at the beginning of the third season when Barb thought her cancer had returned and knew that Bill was interested in adding another wife to the family, when Barb reversed her previously stated “no fourth wife” position and decided to take the lead on welcoming the woman into the marriage, particularly if Barb was sick. She wanted to make it look like she was on board. However the marriage to the fourth wife lasted for only a few days before the woman fled, and Barb learned she was still in remission.
During the course of the show, agreeing to go into polygamy with Bill has cost the smart, incisive Barb deeply. She was excommunicated by her church which she used to love. She was ostracized by her family and rarely sees them. She’s had to lie about her life and have her three children lie about their lifestyle for fear that they’ll be exposed. Despite putting up with all of that, Barb’s patience came to a grinding end when Bill unilaterally decided to not only run for public office, but, on the night after he won his state senate seat, publicly declared that he was a polygamist and pressured his wives to stand up in front of a crowd of supporters and media, over Barb’s vigorous objections.
In its current and final season, Barb has been pushed one step too far and is becoming radicalized, as she finds herself subjected to public ridicule as one of the “lying polygamists,” where people snap cell phone camera photos of her when she’s out in public with her sister wives. Barb started this season by drinking wine – expressly forbidden by her religion – saying she wanted to expand her horizons. She gave one of her sister wives’ daughters the “liberal” book Our Bodies, Our Selves. She appeared on a public panel discussing how excommunication is painful for families.
But Barb’s most radical move has been to directly challenge the notion that she and her family should be led by a male priesthood holder. During a Christmas Eve dinner, Barb told the family that women are blessed with “free will, your own personal relationship with [God], and a divine ability to discern the truth.” To comfort one of her sister wives, Barb offered to do something that heretofore only the male head of the household would do: Offer a blessing. Barb, in her capacity as one of a state senator’s wives, also spoke with the Utah First Lady about joining an Interfaith Council and focusing on promoting the role of women. “I have a calling,” Barb says in an upcoming episode.
And I hope that that calling, by the time the series wraps in a few weeks time, is a feminist one. In a show where the attitudes toward women seem to hail from another, sexist era, ending Big Love with Barb’s liberation from her narcissistic, messianic husband would be just perfect.