Television has been flooded with true crime lately, both in documentary and narrative form. Few have sought to reinvent the wheel, because there’s really no need; the genre is tried and true, relying on the allure of a captivating mystery spun out of gruesome facts. In many ways, FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven (airing on Hulu) stuck to those familiar beats: a detective in personal crisis as he investigates a terrible crime, the tragedy of the innocent victims, and the thrilling chase to stop the unhinged evil of the perpetrators. But it also managed to be the best possible example of each, culminating in a formidable finale that both tied up the story and left room for ambiguity. Most importantly, it never lost its focus on Brenda Lafferty.
From the start, Under the Banner of Heaven had a lot to juggle. In addition to unraveling the poisonous thread that took down the Lafferty family and led to the murders of Brenda and her daughter, the series also wanted to investigate the religious at the core of all of it. As our own Lacy Baugher Milas discussed in her review, the show did a beautiful job of portraying the Detective Jeb Pyre’s devout Mormonism in a natural way, especially as it started to falter under the weight of the church’s history, challenged by the nature of this particular crime. The modern LDS church certainly did not come off well in quietly powerful subplots where its PR-focused influence did nothing to stop burgeoning evil inside various Lafferty homes, even when the women and children in those homes were in clear and present danger. And though a case could be made that the flashbacks to the church’s early history (and early connections to current fundamentalist sects) weren’t necessary, the truth is that all of that was integral in illustrating the twisted thinking that led to the “blood atonement” used the justify these heinous acts.
We knew from the start what happened to Brenda and her daughter Erica, as well as who committed the crime (more or less; the specifics became clearer over time), so the mystery was never what happened but why. That answer was fascinating and horrifyingly complicated. Meanwhile, because Dan and Ron were still at large until the final moments of the finale, the tension remained extremely high regarding what other evil they might be able to get away with before they were caught. When Detective Pyre found them in the casino, at last, there was a palpable sense of relief. The extraordinary anxiety throughout the episode and series had come to an end—and it’s to Under the Banner’s credit that we could feel that strongly about a moment as deceptively simple as finding two men who were in hiding.
What augmented that relatively quiet moment were two other much more dramatic ones that came before it. One was Dianne’s ongoing struggle to evade her husband and protect her children, something she might never have had the strength to do without Brenda’s help. It’s a subplot that could be easy to overlook with everything else going on, but Under the Banner managed to give a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the vulnerability and lack of support that too many women face when trying to leave an abusive relationship (her scene at the gas station was also exceptionally triumphant). Matilda is an example of a woman trapped in abuse who took a different path; she saved her children, but stayed with Dan. In the final episode, she essentially tells Ron that Brenda was the mastermind of the whole operation with Dianna, something she clearly wanted to avoid saying. You can feel her fear there, sitting at a table with all of these violent, confused men who could turn on her at any moment. And so it was Brenda who paid the price.
It would have be easy for the series to have been focused almost solely on Detective Pyre and his story, because it was exceptionally compelling (and Andrew Garfield was a revelation in the role). But really, I would have watched a series based on any character here: the insanity and intensity that Wyatt Russell brought to Dan was incredible; to see how Dianna and Matilda ended up joining this family would have also been a fascinating thread to follow (not to mention how quickly brothers like Sam and Robin became fundamentalists, and how that affected their families); Detective Taba’s career could have been its own show. But while Under the Banner did an admirable job of giving everyone time (with long, though justified episodes), its true guiding light was Brenda. Not only was she given a full story that was entirely her own, she was radiant and heroic throughout. Her powerful condemnation of the brothers before her death sent a shiver down my spine and put tears in my eyes: that God would make her whole again, and Dan and Ron would be cast into eternal darkness. May it be so, Lord.
Under the Banner of Heaven was an incredibly dark and a twisted journey, but it never felt exploitative. That was one of the many keys to its success. No one was a cliche, the victims were honored and truly mattered, and while real justice can never be served, at least those responsible were stopped from further harm. The cycles of abuse that the series tracked, both historical and familial, were damning, but the lasting impression was one of hope. Under the Banner showed how broken a family can be with the Laffertys, but also how loving and forgiving through the Pyres. And it ended with that rather than any coda saying what happened to Ron and Dan after their arrests, or putting pictures of the real people next to the actors who portrayed them. This was not that kind of crime story. It was about a woman who stood up against a tidal wave of evil, and whose legacy resonated in all who knew her—including Detective Pyre, who was left with his own revelation: that every moment spent in the company of those we love is its own miracle.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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