Elisa did a post on the new Hulu series, announcing its imminent release, and while I wasn’t super excited to watch the show, having heard some mixed reviews of the book and the series, I finally did cave in and watch the first four episodes. New episodes are released on Thursdays, and there are seven total.
If you haven’t watched it, and you don’t want any spoilers on a true crime story that’s 40 years in the past, this is not the post for you. Personally, I already knew quite a bit going in, although I had not (and have not) read Krakauer’s book on which it’s based. I had low expectations based on the knowledge that Krakauer’s book was written in the wake of 9/11, based on the premise that all religions have the propensity to foster violence, and if Americans think we are any exception, we’re not because Mormonism, a religion that is totally American, is equally violent. I (mostly) disagree with that premise.
First, it sounds like what every Fox News-watching racist believes about Muslims, that their faith is irredeemably entwined with violence, and second, it reminds me of the way Ted Bundy used the fear of pornography to manipulate conservative Christians by deflecting blame from himself. Pornography didn’t make Bundy slaughter dozens of women, and claiming it did turned him into a prop for sex-negative Evangelicals, exhibit A for why pornography is bad. Krakauer’s premise seemingly does the same for the anti-religion fanbase by saying all religion is fundamentally violent and leads to extremism and zealotry. While there are certainly zealots in religion, some of whom have committed violence, non-religious groups can also engage in extremist violence, such as eco-terrorism or I dunno, storming the capital. Most religious people do not become extremists. Isn’t this an issue of correlation not equalling causation?
Here are some thoughts on the series, which I think is getting better, but I can’t go quite so far as to recommend you pay for Hulu on this basis alone. Let’s talk about how the series exceeds my expectations (over) and how it is disappointing (under).
Across the board, there is universal acclaim for Andrew Garfield’s acting as the fictional Detective Pyre, and there’s no denying his ability to emote the hell out of this role. He may be terrible at interrogating suspects, he may not be great at shower sex, but he is a tender father and son, and he is effective at showing emotion, even despite some confusing and weird dialogue. He also just looks Mormon. I buy it. I thought his turn as Jim Baker in the Eyes of Tammy Faye was also spectacular. He’s good at religious characters.
Daisy Edgar-Jones is also a luminous presence on screen. I’ve enjoyed her acting in Normal People (that’s worth a watch, IMO). She is strong while also presenting as fragile and introspective.
Detective Taba, the native American detective from Nevada is a bright spot in all his scenes as an outsider observing this Mormon culture. His raised eyebrow at the Cigar-store Indian statue in a home they enter and his dismissive “charming” comment are classic. The exchange between him and Det. Pyre, and Pyre’s horror at the idea of racism is another great moment that felt very authentic. The police chief’s casual reference to him as a “Lamanite” was a believable gut punch, but Taba’s diplomatic correction reveals his own maturity: “Actually my dad was a Piute.”
There is a temple endowment scene that was actually very beautiful and moving in how it was filmed. I was dreading this; it just feels wrong, as it did in Black’s other project, Big Love, but it was handled with not just respect, but grace. Similarly, there is a shower scene in which the wife sheds her garments to join her husband in the shower, and I have to say, that’s the sexist garment situation I have ever seen. She’s rocking the one-piece skirt style that I’ve only ever heard about (did they even exist by 1984?), and they are actually attractive and flattering, two words I have never before used in combination with garments. I mean, these one piece skirt style g’s are totally impractical and unlikely since almost no women wore skirts and dresses on a daily basis by this point, but the filming choices allowed the garments and temple to seem desirable and special in unexpected ways.
The actual murder investigation was pretty straightforward. It was known who did it, and they were arrested in a buffet line at Circus Circus. They also readily admitted they did it. So how do you make a seven-episode arc out of that? Well, there’s a ton of stuff being added to this to make it more “mysterious,” and some of that plotting is interesting, although there are some threads I would have done differently. For example, the interrogation of Brenda’s husband who was arrested in blood-soaked clothes right outside the murder scene (although he is not the culprit), still ultimately reveals some culpability on his part as he heard his brothers’ plan and didn’t prevent it. If I were the district attorney (who is not portrayed), I would definitely be going after a conspiracy conviction on that guy.
The history flashbacks, while totally confusing, are fairly interesting in showing that 1830s frontier culture was super violent on a regular basis, and while I don’t personally buy the premise that it leads directly to 1984 violence, particularly given how painstaking the efforts to hide that history have been (as shown in the series), you can see why some extremists, particularly fundamentalists, would justify their actions with an appeal to the authoritative past. I did chuckle about them having to go to the rare reading room at the BYU library, something we all discovered as students there. And wow, the Joseph & Emma scene in which he reveals D&C 132 to her is unflinching, even if it’s not actually how it went down. That Joseph actor is also a handsome and charismatic dude, but honestly, not enough for her to put up with that nonsense because even a twenty-year-old Brad Pitt couldn’t pull that shiz off.
The cadre of sisters-in-law, who don’t get nearly enough screentime are really interesting and well done. Matilda in particular is a fascinating character, but she very quickly becomes a prop to illustrate her husband’s abusive, patriarchal and authoritarian beliefs. She just isn’t given enough to do, at least not yet.
The dialogue is beyond cringe-worthy, which is funny because if it had been accurate, it would have been cringe-worthy but in a different way. The number of times “Heavenly Father” is used conversationally is completely unrealistic. It’s not just that “Heavenly Father” is used instead of “God” or other names for divinity; it’s that it feels like every Mormon character refers to HM or the “holy spirit”  in at least every other sentence. There is only one use of the phrase “Oh my Heck!” so far. The “Heavenly Father” to “Oh my heck” ratio is way, way off, at least based on what I experienced when I first went to BYU (two years after the murders) and for the first time in my life met people from that area. I haven’t heard a single “fetch” or “flip” yet.
The Mormon characters appear to have no social skills whatsoever. Apparently, the ability to read situations, put people at ease, and have a normal conversation are all washed away with “baby sins” at baptism . While I will readily admit that there are weirdos in every congregation, some of whom are obsessed with the Church to the exclusion of most everything else, they are fewer and farther between than in this series, and they don’t kneel in prayer in the workplace or play MoTab in a police investigation or accuse people of murder because they quit going to church as if that’s a valid motive. Det. Taba has to actually point out that lack of church attendance doesn’t equal a motive for murder. So, as portrayed, Det. Pyre does not seem at all like a “mainstream” Mormon; he seems like a socially inept zealot confronted with troubling history and information for the first time in his life. His wife is a cipher, particularly in the first episode where I don’t think she has any lines beyond maybe announcing that dinner is ready. The Church members in the series act like it’s Stepford. I mean, I’ve certainly mocked Utah county once or twice in my life, but come on, man. This isn’t typical. Let it be terrible in realistic ways.
There’s an implication that Church leaders, at least local ones who are possibly acting from orders on high, are involved in a conspiracy to prevent the Lafferty boys from being held accountable for the murder, and to keep the story hushed up. The lengths they go to in order to protect them feels like they are in on the crime, but the murderers had been excommunicated two years earlier (which wasn’t mentioned in the script–that’s just factually correct). Even if they hadn’t been excommunicated two years earlier, why a Stake President would request that murder suspects be released to his custody is unfathomable. It also flies in the face of the idea that simply not attending church was enough to make the super-duper Mormon detective think Allen was a murderer, but being excommunicated raises no such concern among a higher ranking Church leader. Where’s the logical consistency here? If this really happened, I would like to see some receipts. If not, it’s a big, wild swing.
In a flashback, Brenda has an exchange with her BYU professor in which he has locked the door and is making sexual advances toward her, which she cleverly leverages into a gig as KBYU news anchor, an assignment which we are to believe was considered ridiculous to our hitherto patriarchal and misogynist BYU professor. There are a few problems here. First, one of my mid-1980s college roomates was a KBYU news anchor, which was totally uncontroversial and part of her program, and in my experience this BYU professor’s actions feel unlikely for this department (a religion professor, maybe). BYU faculty’s sexism is usually more along the the lines of discrimination and dismissing female students’ abilities, not trying to corner them in a dark room for hanky panky shenanigans, and even that is much more likely in a male-dominated STEM field, not the humanities. If you want that brand of sexism (attempted assault), I guess you’d have to go off campus to the MTC.
But fine, let’s assume that the Clarence Thomas of the College of Journalism existed; why would this clever Brenda be taken in by the abusive and patriarchal Lafferty clan, and why would she marry a milquetoast doormat like Allen and let him convince her to suborn all of her ambitions? She outsmarts and outclasses him by a mile. Her motivations seem to be all over the map. It feels like in the rush to indict the Church’s sexism (which was portrayed in such an overt and obvious manner that it undermines the critique), that we forgot to make the women real people. Brenda, one of the two victims along with her daughter, is literally not even in episode 4! Will the real sexism please stand up?
A genre problem
There’s always an ethical dilemma when it comes to true crime drama. You have to balance centering on the victim vs. the murderer(s), and frankly, the device that attracts and keeps viewers is the gruesome crime, bizarre motivations, and the did he / didn’t he (it’s usually a he) as you watch the plot unfold. That’s always going to be difficult to accomplish without treading on ethics a bit. Are we aggrandizing violence? Are we profiting from a murder? Are we behaving like craven ghouls? Yes. The answer is almost always yes. Should we stop watching true crime? I mean, it’s entertaining. As a genre, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s a guilty pleasure, emphasis on guilty.
Another problem whenever the Church is portrayed in mainstream media like this is that there are two main critical voices out there, and frankly, they are both essentially the same True Scotsman fallacy. Believing church members say “We’re not like that! These people are worse than us! We’re good! This is an embarrassment! Whoever wrote it is just a bitter anti-Mormon!” and post-Mormons say “Yes, this is how Mormons are, which is why I left! Because they are [insert stereotype or criticism]! They just can’t handle the truth which is why they will never learn from their abusive and terrible ways.”
In Solomon-like fashion, I’d like to suggest that both these critiques are right, and they are also both wrong. Yes, some Mormons are terrible in these ways, and yes, most Mormons are not. Maybe there’s a correlation between how many of this type of Mormon one encountered and the likelihood of getting the heck out of such a wacky, abusive religion. In the tug of war between staying for the good and leaving for the bad, the ratio of good to bad in one’s actual experience certainly matters.
As to the erasure of women in a show purporting to examine misogyny, the topic is worthy of exploration, but so far this story isn’t really nailing it. Is this really the vehicle for that story? Is it necessary to portray generic sexism and tropes with women whose actions are incomprehensible as the men around them boss and belittle them? That doesn’t feel like the most insightful perspective on Mormon sexism, as one who has lived in the culture for over fifty years, and there’s definitely a critique to be made. I’m not seeing the pedestalization, infantilization, and benevolent sexism that feel more common in the culture.
But can I turn off my brain and enjoy it for what it is? Mostly, although even I with plenty of inside-baseball knowledge am finding the complex plot with flashbacks, history, fundamentalism, and contemporary takes on sexism all a bit confusing, probably also because it’s a huge cast, even if you only include the Lafferty family. Also, the show’s insistence that the Lafferty family are “Mormon royalty” is very irritating. There are families that qualify as that, I don’t dispute it, but I never heard of the Lafferties aside from these murders. Was this a case of them being big fish in a tiny puddle? I’m not aware of any famous Lafferty church leaders in the early days of the church. Yet, the phrase “Mormon royalty” is used more often than the phrase “Oh my heck.”
- Have you watched the show? If so, what do you think? If not, do you plan to watch it?
- What types of sexism and misogyny have you actually seen and experienced in the Church? What do you think is typical?
- Just how weird was American Fork in the mid-80s?
- Do you think the true crime genre is problematic? Why or why not?
 A term I’ve never heard used in real life; I’ve also not really heard baptism at age 8 explained as washing away sins, but rather joining the church and making a covenant. Sins are what happens after the age of accountability, not before. The series took a dig at this by cutting to Brigham Young preaching in Hyde Park that the Book of Mormon makes it clear that original sin is a false doctrine, but then we see Det. Pyre promoting that same false doctrine with his 8-year old twins. I don’t doubt some Mormons and even leaders have taught it this way; it just wasn’t my experience.
 Missed opportunity as Mormons prefer to say “holy ghost,” right?