In an increasingly secular world, telling nuanced stories about faith has become increasingly difficult, to the point that most mainstream networks rarely attempt to do so. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given how readily the prestige drama has embraced the edgy antihero and the idea that we’re all essentially doomed to become our worst selves over a long enough period of time. . (The days of Touched by an angel are long gone, that’s what I’m saying.)
In recent years, the idea of religion as the primary narrative engine has often found itself regulated by shows that carry a vague whiff of the supernatural, like those on Paramount+. Evil or Netflix Midnight Mass. But while these series often use monstrous metaphors to interrogate ideas of belief, temptation, and human corruption, they’re still primarily based on an easily understandable framework of right and wrong. Yes, both shows touch on various uncomfortable truths about religion or the wrongs we have often done to each other in the name of God. But, as a rule, they understand the emotional and cultural value of keeping the faith with something bigger than ourselves and refuse to hit believers. Despite their often wacky premises, these are shows that take faith seriously and treat religion with respect.
Unlike its supernatural brethren, FX Under the banner of heaven is a true crime drama that follows the investigation of a gruesome murder. But what sets this series apart from the dozens of other murder shows on TV these days is that it’s as much about questions of belief as it is about finding the answer to a thriller. It’s a story that delves deep into the uncomfortable space between faith and fanaticism, acknowledging the tension between the historic precepts of religious belief and the demands of modern society. Where do they meet? How are they eternally opposed? And what drives believers to cross the line into violence in the name of their God?
Based on Jon Krakauer’s true crime bestseller, Under the banner of heaven follows the story of Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a 1980s Utah police detective, devoted family man, and devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is horrified when called to the scene of a particularly violent homicide where the victims are members of his small town’s most prominent Mormon families: the double murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter in their own home.
Although suspicion immediately turns to Brenda’s husband, Allen (Billy Howle), the investigation soon begins to point to larger, darker forces at work: Mormon fundamentalism, such as the modern church is quick to disavow and condemn. But for this marginal subset of believers, their version of God’s word is more important than any human edict. Faith-based violence in the name of our Heavenly Father is not only acceptable but expected, and archaic practices like plural marriage or “blood atonement” are openly encouraged. A bright, ambitious girl like Brenda would not only have no place in this world, but many of its members would have seen her as an active threat.
As the investigation into the Lafferty clan continues, it becomes increasingly clear that older brothers Dan (Wyatt Russell) and Ron (Sam Worthington) not only embraced these kinds of fundamentalist beliefs, they encouraged their friends and neighbors to do the same. . And as Jeb delves deeper into their increasingly bizarre and often frightening faith, he begins to uncover uncomfortable truths about the religion he has dedicated his life to, from its dark historical roots to the lengths that the church’s current leadership is. ready to go to cover her secrets. at the top.
Usually, when pop culture decides to tell a story about Mormonism, it focuses on its most sensationalized members or traditions, these usually not reflecting the experience of a practicing Mormon today. (For those unaware, plural marriage was outlawed by the church in 1890.) Yet mainstream culture remains fascinated by a kind of colorful historical fiction about this religion: sister wives, Laura Ingalls-style composite fashion Wilder, impressionable young missionaries. sent to third world countries in crisp white shirts, literal prophets and angels and buried gold plates. We’re horrified but fascinated by monsters like Warren Jeffs, but less interested in the everyday stories of men like Jeb Pyre, with his easy warmth, quiet deferential tone to church elders, and kindness to his mother. suffering from dementia. .
One of the best things about Under the banner of heaven is that it is not Great love or Book of Mormon. Instead, while he is unwavering in his honesty about the dangers of bigotry and the horrors of religious violence, he is also remembered to give these evils a well-balanced and opposite, an example of the silent working of faith. in real life, represented by simple acts of kindness and charity, love and care for each other. And despite the sensationalist nature of many elements of this case – Dan’s rampant anti-government stance that essentially leads him to embrace polygamy to own the libs, Ron’s use of physical violence at home to bolster his leadership spiritually weakened there, a list that marks the death of local leaders due to their more modern views – the FX series (which airs on Hulu) never feels exploitative the way others have. Instead, it just looks tragic, all around.
It’s also a show that could have used another pass with a sensible script editor. Each episode of the five that have been made available to reviewers is over an hour long, which is simply not necessary in 2022. As a result, we are often forced to go through what feels like the same conversation. many times (especially in early episodes) obvious revelations about various members of the Lafferty family are dragged far beyond all meaning, and aside from the more modern Brenda, the women of the show are largely kept at bay. we. (Translation: I wanted to see a ground more of Jeb’s wife, who seems to represent a kind of tight-fitting Mormon femininity that I wish the show had addressed more directly.)
Although the television version of Under the banner of heaven greatly reduced the lengthy historical interludes in Krakauer’s book which chronicle various significant moments in the life of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, the sudden period segments feel out of place and often derail the momentum of the main narrative. And, in all fairness, the series doesn’t draw strong enough parallels between historical and current segments to make it worth including. (Although if someone have been to do a comprehensive period piece on early LDS church politics in mid-19th century America, it is Absolutely something I would watch. Just in case you’re listening, FX.)
This series will likely introduce a whole new generation to the horror of the Lafferty murders and spark renewed interest in the darker corners of the Mormon faith. But, in the end, Under the banner of heaven is at least to attempt do something more wondering how anyone can cling to faith when faced with their darkest secrets and worst tendencies, or why we would want to in the first place. And while his answer may ultimately be incomplete, the fact that he tries to come up with one is important.
FX Under the banner of heaven premieres Thursday, April 28 on Hulu.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the editor of Paste Magazine, but loves to dabble in all kinds of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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