More than once in FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven, characters with troubling or inconvenient questions are told to “set them on the shelf” – to shove them aside and look instead to the guidance of the God-given authorities above them, be they husbands for wives, parents for children or Mormon church leaders for congregants. And over and over, they find that they can’t. Their questions have a way of haunting them, of keeping them up at night, of nudging them toward strange, thorny, even horrific roads.
Under the Banner of Heaven (which will stream on Hulu) asks some very hard questions of its own, starting as a gripping murder mystery set in a seemingly pious, quiet Mormon community. But it’s the series’ insistence on asking not just who did it but why, why and why again that turns it into something bigger – something more complex, more thoughtful and ultimately far more unsettling.
Under the Banner of Heaven
The Bottom Line
A powerful portrait of violence and faith.
Like the true-crime bestseller by Jon Krakauer that it’s based on, Under the Banner of Heaven connects two stories separated by over a century. One traces the tragedy of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a woman who had married into a prominent Utah Mormon family, and who was found murdered along with her infant daughter in 1984. The other is a chronicle of the early Mormon church that stretches back to its founding by Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) in the 1820s, but that places its emphasis less on divine inspiration than human sin and struggle.
For the miniseries adaptation, creator Dustin Lance Black (Milk) adds a third: that of Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a fictional Mormon cop investigating Brenda’s murder. It’s to Jeb and his non-Mormon partner, Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), that the first two stories are gradually revealed, in flashbacks prompted by intense but discursive conversations with suspects like Brenda’s husband Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle). If Jeb never totally stops feeling like the framing device that he is, despite attempts to flesh out his personal life with family troubles and a crisis of faith, Garfield’s limpid performance still makes him easy to sympathize with.
From the start, Under the Banner of Heaven demonstrate quiet confidence. Brenda’s death supplies the narrative suspense, but it’s the show’s sense of empathy that proves truly difficult to shake. David Mackenzie, who directed the first two episodes, establishes a handheld style that pulls the viewer into the screen, so present we can almost smell the grassy lawns of Jeb’s carefully manicured suburban world. Meanwhile, Black’s personality-driven dialogue illuminates the intricate web of relationships between its dozen regular characters more efficiently and effectively than paragraphs of dry exposition could.
Sometimes, the series’ compassion takes the form of restraint. When Jeb is first called to Brenda’s home, her dead body is shown only briefly and from a distance – never clearly enough to make out any real detail – and her baby’s is not shown at all. Instead, it rests on Jeb’s reactions, which cycle in rapid succession through tears, nausea and near panic, to convey the horror of what he’s witnessed. In eschewing the lingering, graphic shots so common to the crime genre, the series also avoids the trap of ogling the same violence it claims to decry.
The choice allows Under the Banner of Heaven to keep its focus on who Brenda was in her life, and why and how certain forces converged to end it, rather than on the sensationalistic details of her death. Flashbacks paint a vivid picture of a bright, deeply devout young woman who’d drop everything to help a Mormon sister reconnect with God or protect her own struggling husband – and, concurrently, of the men around her who demanded meek subservience instead, including Allen’s warring brothers Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan (Wyatt Russell), working in a vein reminiscent of his unsettling turn in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
It takes a little more time for the relevance of the series’ third throughline to reveal itself. When Allen first brings up Joseph Smith during questioning near the end of the first episode, it’s mostly Howle’s performance – so raw it’s almost hard to watch – that sells it as anything but a bizarre deflection tactic. The awkwardness hasn’t entirely dissipated by the second or third (of the five sent to THR for review, and of seven total for the series), but a grander design has started to emerge. Trace back the roots of Brenda’s murder far enough, and they lead directly to the very foundations of a faith whose unwavering conviction in its own righteousness started to overwhelm its tolerance for doubt, imperfection or honest self-reflection.
Certainly, such shadows lurk in the histories of any belief system that’s survived long enough to attract a following. For example, the series makes clear that the history of the Latter-day Saints is inextricable from the history of America, which frequently met them with violent persecution. And Under the Banner of Heaven does take care to show that Mormons are no monolith; Brenda, in particular, comes to represent a more considered, progressive approach to the faith that brings her clarity of purpose while still allowing for evolution and personal agency.
But Under the Banner of Heaven draws power from its specificity, surely informed by Black’s own upbringing in the Mormon church. Though Bill occasionally makes for a convenient excuse for other characters (all Mormons) to explain certain terms or traditions, the series lets many more details of everyday life pass without comment. Mormonism and Mormon culture is for these characters what water is for a fish – just as unremarkable, and just as essential. It’s little wonder they’re so terrified to ask whether some of it might be toxic. And yet, what threatens to drown them in the end are not the questions, but the unbending refusal to engage with doubt at all.