Mark Twain came downstairs every night and read what he wrote during the day to his family at the dinner table. When I first learned that fact it seemed wonderful. I’d like to have a built in audience, every night. Now I wonder– when did his family read their stories? To whom? He was the only one who read, night after night, the whole edifice of his family about him and his career. Which is not to say he wasn’t generous, or that he wasn’t loving, but just that he had the Y chromosome advantage, a conviction so deep it wasn’t even conscious, that what he had to say was important, that it might be the most important thing at the dinner table, night after night, decades upon decades.
Something incredibly tragic, Shakespearean, about the end of his life– he died alone, his wife and two beloved daughters dead before him. The third daughter, the one who lived, described as willful and temperamental, was unable to enter, even to walk past, the huge house he built for them all to share.
I saw the finale of Big Love yesterday. When I tried to tell Jesse about it this morning I cried, talking about the old couple, Frank and Lois, lying together on her bed, with the syringe and vial beside them on the table. What made me cry was the long view I had of their relationship, because I have been watching them not just for two hours, but for five years, long enough to have my own old memories of their marriage. They fought every day, regularly tried to kill each other, and then Frank did end up killing her in the end, not because he hated her, but because he loved her. He held her like a child and told her stories as she died, knowing that after she was gone he would have nothing left in the world. She was his last thing and he let her go, because she asked him to help her, and she was suffering.
Big Love worked for me because in addition to being about family, it was a story about a man with a huge ambition– to make polygamy, that crazy idea, legitimate and legal. In each season Bill took that goal further, raising the stakes– not just to be safe, but to come out of the closet; not just to come out of the closet, but to win a senate race, to wipe out the snake pit of his childhood, to change the law so that other polygamist families could live out in the world without fear. Polygamy is a cool arena. But what gives the series life is the protagonist’s driving goal, to make polygamy legitimate in the world. It’s a story about family, and all the challenges that any family has. But they aren’t just drifting along having their daily struggles. Bill keeps pushing them all forward, towards a more difficult, risky, impossible end.