Warning: Head to the nearest exit if you have yet to watch Sunday’s wholly satisfying Big Love finale. Everyone else, head onward and downward for an exclusive post mortem with series creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, during which the duo tackle everything from that shocking climactic twist (crikey!), the Heather/Ben scene that ended up on the cutting room floor, and who did and didn’t commit suicide in the episode.
TVLINE | Why’d you kill Bill?
Olsen: The decision came from a desire to look at all of of our characters and try and find the most positive spin on their journey. And when we looked at the character of Bill we thought, “What could be the most important testament to the life that that character has lived on the planet Earth?” And it’s not that he had two hardware stores. And it’s not that he had a casino. It’s that he created a family that endured. And we thought the best way of establishing that was seeing that the family continues after he’s gone… He forged a family, as Barb says to Sarah in our little epilogue.
TVLINE | How would the season have ended if this was a season finale and not a series finale? Would it have been basically the same episode with just a different final 10 minutes?
Scheffer: That’s an interesting question.
Olsen: I don’t think we would’ve gone to the mat quite as much as we did.
Scheffer: I imagine we would’ve [focused on] Bill and Barb’s power struggle. We never wanted her to actually divorce Bill. But she might’ve struggled with separation before ultimately coming back. We always knew the family would stay together in the end.
Olsen: Throughout the year in the writers room all of us were continually commenting on what an incredible gift it has been to know that we were writing [towards an ending]. To know where we were going story-wise. And one of the things that all of us said in that room is that if there’s anything left to be [written] about these characters, do it now and leave it on the floor because this is the last opportunity. So, as a consequence, we went deeper into Nikki’s story with her daughter to much more painful depths than we probably would have had this not been the last season.
TVLINE | Bill’s death aside, I felt after watching the finale that the show could’ve easily gone on another one or two seasons. Do you feel the same way?
Olsen: No. Look, could we have created situations for these characters that would’ve been fun to follow? Absolutely. But I think on the most fundamental level that everything we had to say with this material was said this season.
Scheffer: There was nothing more that we wanted to say.
TVLINE | One of my favorite scenes from the finale was the three wives driving down the highway in Barb’s new car. It sort of hit me in that moment that this has really been a love story about these women. Would you agree?
Olsen: Yes. There are other elements to it, but [that dynamic] is the heart and soul of the material. We discovered that very early on. Our fingers discovered it writing for those women around the table during their wives meetings.
Scheffer: The show has always been a feminist show, which I think people didn’t always understand. And some people were put off by the fact that these women were quote-unquote under the thumb of a patriarchal jerk. But it’s always been a show about the bonds between women, about the way that women subvert power when they’re in [oppressive] situations.
Olsen: I’m glad you loved that scene, Michael. That scene is just fantastic. You kind of also [realize] that this is the last time these women are going to be together because you know it’s the finale, so it adds a little extra oomph to it.
TVLINE | Looking back on the entire run, were you making any particular statement about polygamy?
Scheffer: I think we were making a statement about marriage. We were careful not to make a statement about polygamy. At the beginning we tried to be non-judgmental about whether this particular kind of marital arrangement had merit or not. As the show went on and we started to explore the abuses on the compound, certainly we were making a statement about that kind of polygamy. But in terms if this sunny suburban life that Bill had with his three wives, we always saw the women as choosing the relationship. We always acknowledged that it was a patriarchal structure and that in that sense the women struggled for equality in a way that was perhaps different than how a man and a woman in a monogamous relationship might struggle. But we always saw it as a larger metaphor on marriage in general.
Olsen: I don’t think we came into this or came out of it with an agenda or statement that Will and I are really comfortable making about polygamy – either an endorsement of it or an indictment of it. Although I hope the indictment of its abuses are patently obvious over the course of the show. But I do think one of the things that has come out this season a little bit more than others is that the show has had some comments to make about misogyny. And even though we’re looking at it in the context of polygamy, I hope the echoes of some of the things that we’re decrying through the relationships that we explore transcend that brittle architecture of polygamy as a larger statement. There remains a certain misogyny afoot in the world, and we had a few comments about that.
TVLINE | Did Frank commit suicide too?
Olsen: He did not. We tried to clarify that when we saw the footage we had. In one of the close-up shots there had been two needles on that bureau, and we tried to erase one of them to indicate that there was only one injection. We toyed around with [adding] a line for Frank where at the very end of the scene he said, “Good-bye Peaches,” but it felt really ham-fisted. So we’re sorry if there was any ambiguity there. It was just Lois [who died].
TVLINE | Talk to me about the epiphany and vision that Bill had while giving the sermon.
Olsen: It was two things. The first thing was him realizing he was really talking about the eternal nature of marriage and family. That reality became manifest for him in that moment, and that it went back beyond Lois and his wives to the generations which had come before him. But the second part of it is that the final vision inside the church rests and falls on the character of Emma Smith. And [viewers] will know her, hopefully, because of the recognizable Mamie Eisenhower hairdo she’s wearing, which was also written into the script in episode 4 where Bill had his vision after Margene knocked him over. And within that vision he and his mother Lois were at this odd 1950s-esque cocktail party where this same woman, Emma Smith, appeared to him. And the poetry of that is that in that episode, Bill realized that his mother was the ultimate victim of this patriarchal and polygamist lifestyle on the compound. She had been disempowered and had contracted a venereal disease that led to her dementia. In the same episode where Bill is struggling with his version of his abuses — his knowledge that he married Margene when she was 16 — he sees Emma Smith in that dream sequence and she is the personification in Mormon culture of all the abuses of polygamy on a personal level because her husband Joseph Smith was the philanderer who broke her heart. And in that first sequence in the fourth episode, Emma is invested in lying. She can’t say the whole truth to Bill. So she says, “There were no 16-year-olds in my household. There were no nannys, there were no chambermaids that my husband bedded… ” That was Bill’s soul wrestling with the abuses of what happened with his mother and what happens in polygamy. Now fast-forward to the finale where Bill has had his moment of grace, and at the back of this entire room is the character of Emma Smith, who looks at him and nods and affirms what he is now feeling and now learning that there is more to life than patriarchy and that Bill has made the internal adjustment to absorb Barb’s growth. So that’s what Emma Smith represented. Bill had a profound and deep change.
TVLINE | Let’s discuss Heather for a moment. I thought it was firmly established that she was a lesbian, so her romance with Ben took me off guard.
Olsen: The only one who said she was a lesbian was our little sociopath Rhonda in the second season. Other then that, she was a gawky Napoleon Dynamite kid struggling with what it is to be a girl in this world. I never understood how [the lesbian label] took root. It was Rhonda’s attempt to blackmail her, and poor Heather was so terrified she didn’t know how to handle it.
TVLINE | Didn’t she have a mad crush on Sarah?
Olsen: She… I don’t know. If you go all the way back to the pilot when we first introduced that teen world, Heather is the character who’s largely demeaned by all the cool girls. And she doesn’t care because she’s righteous and all that stuff. And Sarah is nice to her. In that very first scene in the pilot, Sarah tells the other guys to lay off. I always thought she was just a dorky girl and Sarah was someone who was decent to her.
TVLINE | I thought it was an interesting choice on your part to not show Bill’s actual arrest or brief incarceration.
Olsen: As many of our critics have rightfully told us, the series is about more than just plot points. And Bill getting arrested is a plot point. Had we gone through the arrest and the days in jail, I felt like it would’ve given us the wrong footing for the finale, which [delved into] so many deeper, emotional things.
TVLINE | Anything you ended up cutting out of the episode?
Olsen: Just one thing. There was one last Heather/Ben/Rhonda scene where Ben made one more [overture] to Heather by way of apology and Rhonda’s basic attitude is, “You know what? You two putzes, you sort this out. I’m getting on a bus and going to Branson. I’m going to sing with the Osmonds.” [Laughs] We didn’t cut it for timing. It was a momentum thing. By the time that would’ve come up we were dealing with so many other deeper things that it felt like a frivolous scene. It didn’t fit the episode.
TVLINE | Had the show not ended, what would’ve happened to Cara Lynn and her teacher. Would they have endured?
Olsen: I was going to say yes but Will is shaking his head no. I don’t know what would’ve happened. I do know this: It would’ve required a significant amount of time passing.
TVLINE | How did Bill Paxton react to learning you were killing off his character?
Olsen: Initially he wasn’t terribly focused on it. He was like, “OK, this is great.” And then he went through a phase where he wasn’t so crazy about it. He felt really bad that his character had to die. He spent six years in the skin of that character. It wasn’t a vanity thing, it had to do with the kind of love and custodianship he felt toward his character.
TVLINE | And what about Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin?
Olsen: They loved it. Just after Bill had read the pages we took Ginny, Chloe and Jeanne up to Will’s office and handed them the last 10 pages and we left the room so we weren’t breathing down they’re necks as they read it. And then we came back in 10 minutes and they were ecstatic. They were incredibly pleased on a storytelling level. They didn’t see it coming. Jeanne said it best, “It’s the only way it could’ve ended.”