Inside the Minds of the Creators of Big Love

Feb 16, 2011

What were they thinking? Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer discuss their characters and story choices in 'Big Love' leading up to the final season



For any character you want to look at what their "nail in the head" is, and for Bill it was being dispossessed and thrown onto the streets as a kid. That scar has driven who he is. His effort to come forward was to put a face on polygamy, to ask for real respect for who he is, not the phony respect of his Rotarian bonafides with Barb. What he discovers is that no matter how much of a good role model he is, he's never going to be given that respect. And it leads him to believe that not only are there abuses in the compound that need to rectified, but that the shadow of the compound will always de-legitimize polygamy as a valid lifestyle choice. Bill realizes: We've got to clean up our messes if I'm ever going to achieve what I need to out of this life.



We did a lot of periodical and book research, and then we went up to the Utah State Senate. One thing we were surprised by was the gun culture. There was no security in the Senate building; no metal detectors like New York or Los Angeles. There were hardly any police; just volunteers. But a lot of the congressmen pack guns, which was very otherworldly for us. We wanted to make sure Bill was in his element in that world. We wanted allies and antagonists for Bill who came out of the real world of Utah politics so we would know exactly what it would mean for Bill Henrickson to come out as a polygamist and find a way into a seat in the Senate. We spoke to gay members of the Utah State Senate; Salt Lake City is very liberal and so they happen to have a progressive constituency. We tried to see what it would be like to be an outsider in that world, going up against people who had been in the Senate for 30 years. How do deals get made? What are the rules? Once we understood that we could fictionalize and justify how Bill could possibly not be immediately tarred and feathered.



I have to say, as a co-show runner, you more or less know what effect the story choices you're making will have on the characters and the landscape of the series. But I was not aware of the degree of backlash against Bill that would ensue from Season 4, Episode 4, when Bill asked Don to take the bullet. It's not that we weren't warned. There were writers in the writer's room who said "This is such a betrayal!" I said, "No, it's not that bad." Well, it was. So, long story short, we felt like we had to have a reckoning of that in Season 5. Don had to be given his voice in what happened and Bill had to atone. We also felt it was time for Don Embry to grow a set, as it were, and to be a strong foil for Bill in the business realm.



We knew Bill was a visionary, but it wasn't until Season 4 that we figured out how he was going to execute his vision. The show and the characters kind of tell you where they need to go. It became evident that this man who cared so passionately about these issues would not continue to let himself be legislated against, he would not be accommodating, he had to take actions that made a difference: bringing faith into action.



One of the things Will and I feel and that we've observed is that if one is gay and denies it, bad things happen. You become a Larry Craig in a men's room. Your life just doesn't go in a particularly pretty direction. We have tremendous sympathy for Alby, born in this culture with undeniable impulses that will never find a home in the world that he lives in. But we feel it's important to dramatize the truth. Last year Alby had a taste of self-expression and self-validation and that was ripped away from him. So he's come back this year in a very dark, bitter place. From a compound point of view, it's called Season 5: The Wrath of Alby. He's not evil in a classic sense because it's so understandable why he is the way he is. Ultimately it's sympathetic. But what he's up to is pretty evil nonetheless.

MOM LOVES ME BEST: Nicki and Alby

I think most siblings jockey in the galaxy that is populated by the central stars of Mother and Father. And as one gets older, you tend to assert that primacy not in terms of "mom loves me best," but "I take better care of mom." You find different words and expressions for essentially that same rivalry for parental affection. Nicky and Alby are hopelessly locked in that. They're both such insecure characters that they're helpless to do anything but attempt to define themselves in terms of their relationship with each other and their only surviving parent – Adaleen.



There was a small bit of business last year, buried mid-season, and I don't know if anyone caught it, but it meant the world to me as one of the co-architects of Barb and her journey. It was when Marilyn Densham (Sissy Spacek) was trying to schmooze her way in and working Barb to get the contract for the casino job. Barb opened up and shared a small anecdote about when her mother and father went to the 1964 Republican convention in Miami Beach. It was the first time Barb had ever seen the ocean as a three-year-old child and she just cried for two days. And that, to me, is so much of who Barb is: this soul that never had a chance to bloom. Someone who, in the best way possible, puts the interest of others – her family, children, sister wives – ahead of her own. In this final season, Barb wants to have her voice and get something of her own.



Barb is trying to wear the pants in this family. The whole priesthood issue doesn't really get clarified for the family until Barb actually speaks the words to Bill that she's thinking about the priesthood. For Nicki, the idea that Barb is trying to usurp any priestly duties is threatening and is misinterpreted as an attempt to control Nicki by getting around Bill somehow.



The intention of the series has always been to dramatize that families are messy beasts. It's never all good and it's never all bad. It is the simultaneity of all those emotions and those feelings that make the rich, painful, bittersweet stew that is a family. In a marriage, one goes on in spite of the difficulties. And that's not to signify they won't be at each others' throats again. They will.



The thing that can't be stated enough, that is one of the fundamental ironies of the show and of Mormon culture, is that the Mormon religion comes from a polygamist background and the Mormon church has had to distance itself from polygamy in order to survive. To get statehood and to become a credible church, they've had to separate themselves from their own history. Cutting oneself off from one's history is a theme of the show that works on a personal level as well an on the larger level of the Mormon Church. So many people feel they have to do that to survive -- cut themselves off from their past, their family, their roots, their identities, their sexuality. But then you become self-alienated, compounded and darkened.

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