In an increasingly secular world, telling nuanced stories about faith has become more and more difficult, to the point that most mainstream networks rarely even try to do so. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given how eagerly prestige drama has embraced the edgy antihero and the idea that we’re all essentially doomed to become our worst selves on a long enough timeline. (The days of Touched By an Angel are long gone, is what I’m saying.)
In recent years, the idea of religion as a primary narrative driver has often found itself regulated to shows that carry a vague whiff of the supernatural, like Paramount+’s Evil or Netflix’s Midnight Mass. But although 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 good and evil. Yes, both shows poke at various uncomfortable truths about religion or the harms we have often done to one another in God’s name. But, as a general rule, they understand the emotional and cultural value of keeping faith with something larger than ourselves and refuse to punch down at believers. Despite their often outlandish premises, these are shows that take faith seriously and treat religion with respect.
Unlike its supernatural brethren, FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven is a true crime drama that follows the investigation into a horrific murder. But what sets this series apart from the dozens of other murder shows on TV these days is that it’s as concerned with questions of belief as it is with finding the answer to a whodunnit. This is a story that delves deep into the uncomfortable space between faith and fanaticism, acknowledging the tension between the historical precepts of religious belief and the demands of modern society. Where do they intersect? In what ways are they eternally opposed? And what drives believers to cross the line into violence in the name of their God?
Based on the bestselling true crime book by Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven follows the story of Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a 1980s Utah police detective, dedicated family man, and devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He’s horrified when he’s called to the scene of an especially 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.
Though suspicion immediately turns to Brenda’s husband Allen (Billy Howle), the investigation quickly begins to point to larger, darker forces at work: Mormon fundamentalism, of the sort that the modern-day church is quick to disavow and condemn. But to this fringe subset of believers, their version of God’s word is more important than any human edict. Faith-based violence in the name of 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 had no place in this world, 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 elder brothers Dan (Wyatt Russell) and Ron (Sam Worthington) have not just embraced these sorts of fundamentalist beliefs, they’ve been encouraging their friends and neighbors to do the same. And as Jeb digs further into their increasingly bizarre and often frightening faith, he begins to uncover uncomfortable truths about the religion he has devoted his life to, from its dark historical roots to the lengths its current church leadership is willing to go to cover its secrets up.
Usually, when pop culture decides to tell a story about Mormonism, it focuses on its most sensationalistic members or traditions, ones don’t generally reflect the experience of a practicing Mormon today. (For those who don’t know, plural marriage was outlawed by the church in 1890.) Yet mainstream culture remains fascinated by a sort of colorful historical fiction about this religion: Sister wives, Laura Ingalls Wilder-style compound fashion, impressionable young missionaries sent to third world countries in crisp white shirts, prophets and literal angels and buried golden plates. We’re horrified but fascinated by monsters like Warren Jeffs, but we’re less interested in the everyday stories of men like Jeb Pyre, with his easy warmth, quietly deferential tone toward church elders, and his gentle care toward his dementia-addled mother.
One of the best things about Under the Banner of Heaven is that it isn’t Big Love or Book of Mormon. Instead, while it’s unflinching in its honesty about the dangers of fanaticism and the horrors of religious violence, it also remembers to give those evils a balancing and opposing good, an example of the quiet work of faith in real life, represented by simple acts of kindness and charity, love and care for one another. And despite the sensationalist nature of many of the elements of this case—Dan’s creeping anti-government stance that essentially leads him to embrace polygamy to own the libs, Ron’s use of physical abuse at home to support his weakening spiritual headship there, a list that marks local leaders for death because of their more modern views—the FX series (streaming on Hulu) never feels exploitative in the way that others like it have. Instead, it just feels tragic, all around.
It’s also a show that could have used another pass with a judicious script editor. Every episode of the five that were made available to screen for critics clocks in at over an hour in length, which is just not necessary in the year 2022. As a result, we’re often forced to sit through what feels like the same conversation multiple times (particularly in the first few episodes), obvious revelations about various Lafferty family members are dragged well out past the point of any sense, and other than the more modern Brenda, the series’ women are largely held at arm’s length from us. (Translation: I wanted to see a lot more of Jeb’s wife, who seems to represent a kind of well-adjusted Mormon womanhood that I wish the series had poked at more directly.)
Although the TV version of Under the Banner of Heaven significantly cuts down on the lengthy historical interludes from Krakauer’s book that recount various important moments from the life of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, the sudden period segments feel out of place and often derail the momentum of the primary narrative. And, in all honesty, the show doesn’t draw firm enough parallels between the historical and present-day segments to make their inclusion worth it. (Though if someone were to make a full-on period piece about the politics of the early LDS church in mid-nineteenth-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, at the end of the day, Under the Banner of Heaven is at least attempting to do something more by asking how anyone can hang on to faith when confronted with its darkest secrets and worst tendencies, or why we would want to in the first place. And while its answer may ultimately be an incomplete one, the fact that it’s trying to find one matters.
FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven premieres Thursday, April 28th on Hulu.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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