“Under the Banner of Heaven” grapples with the contradictions of faith

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an enduring object of fascination in popular culture. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who grew up in a state from Utah to Colorado, took musical theater by storm with The Book of Mormon, a typically obscene comedy about LDS missionaries in Uganda. There aren’t many practicing Mormons in the cast of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake Citybut the church anyway hovers over every aspect of the show, from the Muslim convert who challenges his story of racist ideology to the woman excommunicated for having an affair. Even more recently, a group of students known as the Black Menaces went viral on TikTok for asking their peers at Brigham Young University what they think about feminism, same-sex marriage, civil rights, and more.

This fascination extends to prestige television, where creators have ample time and space to explore it. From 2006 to 2011, HBO aired Great lovean ensemble drama about a practicing polygamist and his three wives living near-undercover in suburban Salt Lake. Great love clearly followed in the footsteps of The Sopranos, exploiting a similar contrast: an exotic and illegal subculture dealing with domestic banalities. But, like most outward accounts of the Mormon faith, Great love was also interested in a much larger contradiction. The modern image of the church is almost aggressively narrow: abstinence that extends even to caffeine; the mandatory collared shirts and ties of missionaries; the many, many mom bloggers. And yet, the mainstream church of over 16 million members is directly adjacent to grim and violent acts of social rebellion, both in its canonical history and in its current fringe.

These contradictory stereotypes are the subject of journalist Jon Krakauer’s article Under the banner of heaven, a book that begins as a true crime and develops into a popular history of the whole church. They are also the subtext of the seven-episode adaptation that premiered this Thursday on FX, written by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black and originally directed by Against all oddsis David Mackenzie. If the premise of Great love was that even religious extremists could live surprisingly normal lives, Under the banner of heaven the other way around: even the most faithful followers of the book, according to the series, can have connections to extremely unorthodox beliefs, whether they are aware of these connections or not.

For her journey to the screen, Under the banner of heaven gives a face and a name to this faithful: Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), the pious Latter-day Saint assigned to investigate the shocking and bloody murder of young housewife Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and his 15 month old daughter. The murders, carried out in heavily LDS county Utah in 1984 on the anniversary of the state’s Mormon colony, are tragically real. Jeb is a fictional character, carefully constructed by Black to personify the faithful appalled by the crimes committed in their name.

A former pageant girl from Idaho, Brenda had married into the Lafferty clan, an offspring of five boys whom Jeb’s partner, Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), a non-Mormon from Paiute descendants, calls “the Kennedys of Utah”. He is only partly sarcastic. When Brenda first meets the Laffertys, they are the epitome of Mormon propriety: pious, industrious, neat and tight-knit. Her romance with Allen (Billy Howle), the youngest, ends with him drenched in her blood. What happened in the meantime not only explains Brenda’s murder, but the fine line between believer and fanatic; faith and folly; and, more provocatively, church and worship.

As a work of fiction, Under the banner of heaven has tools at his disposal that Krakauer does not. To like Hulu’s The stall, the show can use its creative license to scale down a sensational story to an intimate scale. Before long, teasing the Laffertys’ interpersonal dynamics bECOMES the central mystery. Through interviews with family and friends, Jeb identifies various inflection points in the Laffertys’ fall from grace. Where did they go wrong? Was it when overbearing patriarch Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl) went on a senior mission, creating a power vacuum? Was it when Dan (Wyatt Russell), the second oldest son, caved under the pressure of being left in charge, turning to radicalism for guidance? Or was it something deeper – something latent in the Laffertys and the values ​​they embraced that was there all along?

Dramatize Under the banner of heaven also comes with compromises. While a narrative approach may mask Brenda’s ambitions to become a news anchor, or the financial strain that leaves eldest son Ron (Sam Worthington) subject to outside influence, the show finds it harder to incorporate exposition. on the origins and evolution of the church. Krakauer’s reach extends from the Prophet Joseph Smith and his fateful revelation regarding “plural marriage” to the succession crisis that followed his untimely death to the breakup of various sects, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. Much to the chagrin of the LDS leadership, the FLDS embodies all of the negative tropes the church has worked so hard to distance itself from; for decades, the openly polygamous offshoot essentially operated the remote outpost of Colorado City, Arizona as a theocratic city-state. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a life sentence for multiple counts of child molestation.

Under the banner of heaven can’t just explain all of this to us. Instead, it clumsily weaves 19th-century reenactments into its 20th-century story, often introduced by characters like Allen abruptly shifting from criminal interrogation to history lecture and back again. (Joseph Smith himself is a major presence, played by Andrew Burnap.) The five episodes screened for critics include a trip to Colorado City, and we watch a character receive what he feels is a divine revelation; part of what makes the church so vulnerable to schism is its belief that lay members can communicate directly with God, a challenge inherent in its official administration. It’s hard for Under the banner of heaven to communicate an overarching context like this as effectively as the emotional texture.

When the show is able to effectively synthesize these two elements, it’s usually thanks to Jeb. To cap a run that includes an Oscar nomination and a pivotal role in a billion dollar movieGarfield walks towards a interrupt action on a high note. A Seasoned Cop marks an expansion of his lineup, but Garfield’s signature sweetness and sensitivity are key to Jeb’s growing decency and horror. A father of two young daughters who cares for his aging mother, Jeb is deeply invested in his faith as a source of moral guidance and community support. But the deeper he delves into the Lafferty case, the more he worries that the same doctrines could, in the wrong hands, be used to justify acts like Brenda and the murder of her child.

It is important to emphasize, as Krakauer does, that none of the issues at stake are exclusive to the church. This is part of what gives Under the banner of heaven its subversive charge: Its cast bears no resemblance to those that the mass media generally presents as examples of religious fundamentalism. They are middle class, affluent and, of course, white, which is no coincidence. The church didn’t allow black men to enter the priesthood (essentially, to be a Mormon in good standing) until 1978, just six years before the events of the show. Women are still prohibited; those who have same-sex relationships may face excommunication.

The church also has the distinction of being remarkably recent in terms of religions, which means that there are many records – both internal and external – of its entire history, and its transition to legitimacy is not is not far from living memory. (In 1842, Missouri’s anti-Mormon governor was shot in the head, likely by a church member; in 2012, a Mormon sat atop a major party’s presidential ticket.) The Church isn’t the first from a widely ridiculed splinter group to an established global network; he is however the first to leave the United States, a country from which he inherited his internal tensions. America, too, is struggling to come to terms with its unsavory past, even when it is felt in the present. Under the banner of heaven is an intervention from the outside, although it is ultimately a story about what festers inside.

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