Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda in "Under the Banner of Heaven".

A Timely Hideousness — “Under the Banner of Heaven”

Andrew Garfield is a beautiful performer. “Under the Banner of Heaven” has one of the most impactful depictions of a crime scene I’ve seen in recent memory, without even showing much of it. Instead, the camera stays on Garfield’s Detective Pyre. We see just the edges of the rooms he walks through, but every twitch and tic in his face and eyes. It’s a captivating sequence that describes the scene’s horror far better than if we’d been shown the murder victims in graphic detail.

There’s a restraint and empathy when it comes to the individuals in “Under the Banner of Heaven” that’s balanced out in the other hand by an exacting and coldly logic fury at the organized abuse within the Mormon Church. It takes a poetic sense of capturing both history and myth in one net, to see which boils into justifications for abuse when placed against fact.

Pyre investigates the murder of a woman and child in 1984, arresting the blood-covered husband but quickly opening up deeper questions about a politically influential fundamentalist family. It quickly becomes clear that the situation has arms that reach into every facet of the Mormon Church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church, has been at the heart of investigations into systematically covering over child abuse, domestic violence, even statutory rape. Dozens of women detailed how the church threatened them with the loss of eternal salvation if they left violent partners. It even used a victims’ hotline as a resource to hide sexual abuse claims.

This is the question at the heart of “Under the Banner of Heaven”, in which fanatics insist their war against “socialism”, “haughty women”, taxes, and outsiders is justification enough to take out their anger on the women who do the silent work of “building their kingdom”. With no credit but all the blame, the minute a man fucks up it’s the woman’s fault, and should a woman have aspirations or thoughts of her own, well we see the result of men’s childish anger and vengeance painted in Pyre’s eyes in that opening scene.

At times, “Under the Banner of Heaven” is edited like a storm of impressions that combine interrogation, flashback, and Mormon myth, all containing questionable motives and tableau that repeat in Pyre’s own life. These are visual expressions of Pyre’s identification with victims and suspects alike, and that identity carries with it doubt. It creates a screen reality that isn’t sustainable, in which Pyre himself can’t spiritually or emotionally survive.

What “Under the Banner of Heaven” is at its heart is a deconstruction of the LDS Church’s history of abuse of women, down to its most buried bones. It argues that its systemic abuses against women are infused into its DNA and trace back to its creation; that its creation wouldn’t have been possible without both the work of women and the abuse of the women who did that work.

In its way, “Under the Banner of Heaven” gnashes teeth. This isn’t just a series that presents a mystery without judgment of larger systems. It stares wide-eyed and carves the LDS Church apart in action and in history. It wrangles the type of system of horror against women we treat as too big to comprehend, let alone fail, and renders each element with clarity. Much like Pyre separates his suspects and jumps between interrogations to ferret out information, the series isolates elements of LDS misogyny and abuse so that they can’t inter-rely to cloud the issue. It builds a case as Pyre does, of an organized religious system built top-to-bottom to suppress women, victimize them, and – if needed – spit them out with varying degrees of damage if they can’t be taught a learned helplessness.

It’s a timely hideousness that “Under the Banner of Heaven” comes out just as the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade was leaked. The LDS Church, after all, effectively provides two U.S. senators at all times to oppose women’s rights, including the right to an abortion.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t just a self-contained mystery, it’s a direct prosecution of the LDS Church’s treatment of women, and a larger condemnation of many religious organizations that act similarly.

If there’s one criticism I have of the series, it’s that in the episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s told mostly through male eyes. Pyre engages in complex discussions with suspects about the nature of the LDS Church, allowing the series to jump across time as arguments throughout the church’s history are evoked. These conversations allow him to corner his suspects, but sometimes trap him when his own doubt overwhelms. He lives with a wife, daughters, and his elderly mother, so the repercussions of what his first suspect suggest about the church echo louder and louder in his own mind.

The only lens into a woman’s direct experience that we’ve gotten is through the story of Daisy Edgar-Jones’s Brenda, the murdered wife. This is housed as flashback by her surviving husband as he’s interrogated, but it doesn’t obey the rules of flashback – it tells pieces of the story that he wouldn’t have directly witnessed. It works, in large part because we need to see her story through her perspective, and not just through the limitations of her husband’s recollections. His interrogation serves more as a bridge into an omniscient narrative, rather than as second-hand recitation.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t an easy watch, as beautifully painted and detailed as it is. It’s intended to be a difficult one. I appreciate that it creates its tension as a mystery through dialogue and a changing landscape of information. It has a brief chase and scenes with guns, but these are treated with realism and honestly aren’t as tense as those interrogation dialogues that sweep between the details of a crime and the abusive history of the LDS Church.

That the series comes within a week of the leaked Supreme Court decision draft on Roe v. Wade makes it even harder to watch – perhaps more important to watch as well, but certainly more difficult. What I appreciate about it is that its fury is cold, clear-eyed, sourced. The arguments that would resist its own aren’t avoided, but rather engaged, deconstructed, dissected.

It’s all based on a real case, specifically as examined in Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith”. Showrun by Dustin Lance Black, writer of “Milk” and “Big Love”, the ways in which larger, more philosophical conversations around the LDS Church’s abuse of women are turned into dialogue and morphed into tableau and crescendoing montage are…they’re exquisite from a storytelling standpoint. That’s what makes them so hideous from any human one.

You can watch “Under the Banner of Heaven” on FX or Hulu. The first two episodes are available now, with a new one arriving every Thursday.

If you find articles like this useful, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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