Bill Paxton, who died Saturday at 61, was a consistent presence in studio blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s, showing up and providing a bit of grounding wit to films from Aliens to Titanic. And yet his most impactful role may have been in a project that’s half-forgotten today. HBO’s Big Love, a show that served as a transition from the great antihero shows of the early 2000s to more intimate slices of life, would have collapsed entirely without Paxton’s commitment and brilliance.
Big Love came on the air in 2006, with Six Feet Under having already ended in an apocalyptic bloodbath and The Sopranos a year away from killing (or not!) Tony. By contrast to shows like these, ones that assayed scabrous souls and their place in the grand scheme, Big Love, about Paxton’s Bill Henrickson and his family was almost self-consciously prosaic. Its story, about a fundamentalist Mormon in Utah whose three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin) provide both endless small dramas and a family love that, at times, provides a glimpse of the divine, tended at first to avoid big narrative swings. This made it feel less urgent than other prestige-cable shows and yet, at its best, more carefully worked.
Paxton embodied the show’s virtue — one of restraint. His polygamist was the opposite of louche: He was cut off entirely from the prurient side of life, almost allergic to pleasure. Paxton managed to find dramatic possibilities in a character who easily could have been a dull scold and a narrative dead-end, treating Bill’s dysfunctional and illegal family life as the natural consequence of a life spent at a remove from love and from spiritual nourishment. If he follows the rules, as he understands them, well enough, Bill will finally find his reward; for Paxton, that meant a performance of unfashionable rectitude. Bill was exiled from his family’s fundamentalist compound as a young teen; his clutching his wives so close that he threatens to crush them follows fairly logically from that, and Paxton gave the psychological journey real sting.
As Henrickson, Paxton was often an amiable blank, so unable to speak out that his wives’ rivalries perpetually subsumed family life. A half-expletive, like “Gosh” or “darn,” was as close as he came to anger, but the performance was, in its lack of adornment, among the more sophisticated on TV. On much of prestige-cable, the charismatic characters are smarter than everyone around them; even when they’re waylaid by personal demons, they’re able to wittily deconstruct their own angst. (Why else do antiheroes from Don Draper to Walter White lose the “anti” and become heroes?) There was nothing meta about Bill Henrickson, and no tricks of charisma Paxton could use to sell us on his character’s lovability. We were either open to joining Bill on his journey — a movement towards coming to terms with his past by indulging an addiction to family, surrounding himself with the love he lacked in childhood — or we were not. His performance on Big Love was not a feat of charm or persona. It was human, with all that implies: A tendency towards self-deception, a set of flaws and inner walls that often eclipsed the good, a soul revealed only in raw and painful moments.
Big Love lost steam in its latter seasons, but it does have a legacy, most apparent on FX’s The Americans and AMC’s Better Call Saul, other superlative dramas that find the confused souls at the center of dwarfing institutions, and that moves those characters forward with rigid, at times alienating incrementalism. In a time at which the coin of the realm on television was satisfying grandeur — huge character moments, madness and mania — Bill Paxton stared forward, searchingly and blankly, asking you something as simple, and as challenging, as to look back.