Blood runs through Under the Banner of Heaven. It coats the walls and floors of a house in the suburbs of Salt Lake Valley, Utah, where, in 1984, Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter are found dead. It ties the prime suspect—Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), Brenda’s husband—to the sprawling family he’s distanced himself from and whose status as Mormon royalty renders the incident all the more cataclysmic. And it stains the foundation of the Latter-day Saints—a movement built, as the FX series asserts, with the blood spilt and shed by Joseph and Emma Smith and their earliest acolytes.
Adapted by Dustin Lance Black from Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name, Under the Banner of Heaven ambitiously, if unevenly, explores facets of violence, family, and faith via the investigation of detectives Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) into the murders of Brenda and her baby. Allen, who claims innocence, serves as a disaffected, surprisingly lucid window into both the Lafferty family and the Mormon church. His interrogations at the hands of Jeb and Bill transition into scenes set in the years leading up to the killings, focusing on the absorbing dynamics of the Lafferty clan: the unyielding rule of ageing patriarch Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl); his tension with eldest son Ron (Sam Worthington), who’s strayed from the family’s intense Mormon faith; and the ascent of Dan (Wyatt Russell), a younger brother, who leads a turn toward dangerous fundamentalism.
The audience mostly observes the investigation through the perspective of Jeb, a devout Mormon and the proud father of twin daughters. When Jeb reviews the crime scene in the first episode of the series, the barbarity of the murders is captured not in the depiction of its gore, but in close shots of Jeb’s distraught reaction to it. Jeb is exceedingly sensitive, almost boyish, and the latter quality is evident in his startled response to the eventual strong-arming by church leaders when they learn that one of their more influential families risks exposure. His characterization suggests the potential naïveté—or delusion—of true believers, but it suffers from Garfield’s lack of restraint, especially in scenes where the actor affects an out-of-place singsong whisper in an attempt to gain trust with those he questions.
Jeb and Bill begin their investigation by digging into Brenda’s relationships with her in-laws. Allen’s reminiscence reveals how most of the Lafferties bristled at her confident individuality, ambition, and refusal to accept the duties of wifedom and motherhood at the cost of all else. Others, like Matilda Lafferty (Chloe Pirrie), Dan’s wife, found in Brenda a kindred spirit, united by their desire to live fuller lives. The series fleshes out Brenda and the Lafferties by highlighting the memories that linger in their minds, like the day that the Lafferties spent toiling in the heat to help a desperate neighbour tend his land or the night that Allen lost control of fireworks while courting Brenda and almost burned her family’s house down.
Allen and others also turn their attention further backward, to Mormonism’s early days. They regularly, and stiltedly, refer to tales about Joseph and Emma Smith, reflecting on the persecution of their forebears, the massacres they suffered and those they committed, and the controversial commandments they issued. These stories are depicted with flashbacks to the 1800s that awkwardly evoke, stylistically, History channel re-enactments.
Still, the flashbacks occasionally crash against contemporary events in blistering, rapidly cut montages that lend the investigation an air of epic and perhaps fated significance. In one such moment, as Jeb, Bill, and other officers storm a remote cabin occupied by fundamentalists, their advance is juxtaposed with the Haun’s Mill Massacre of 1838, when an unauthorized militia slayed 17 Mormons, the youngest among them seven years old. Rather than offering absolution to the cops or the fundamentalists, the scene provides stirring context to their conflict, illustrating the formative narratives on which both factions were raised.
Under the Banner of Heaven also grapples with how its characters are united and divided by faith, even within the Mormon church. On the night of the double murder, when Jeb and Bill bring Allen into the station, Jeb asks to take the first crack at him. “Mormon to Mormon,” the detective says. As for Bill, he sticks out on the force and in the community—as a recent transplant from Las Vegas, as an indigenous American, and as a non-LDS man surrounded by Mormons. He makes an effort to fit in, more for the comfort of others than for his own, refraining from cursing and constantly chomping on what appears to be nicotine gum.
But Bill is distinguished by the nature of his wrath, which is fueled by the deaths of innocent people, the subjugation of women, and the inaction of indifferent institutions. His is a righteous rage that contrasts with the more reactionary fundamentalists whom he and Jeb encounter. Bill’s influence rubs off on Jeb, who increasingly challenges the church, propelled by indignation and an urgent need to maintain his faith in the face of the horrors that he unearths. As Jeb discovers his anger, he gives shape to Under the Banner of Heaven’s central concern: the struggle to attain personal agency in the crushing course of history.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Billy Howle, Sam Worthington, Denise Gough, Wyatt Russell, Gil Birmingham, Adelaide Clemens, Rory Culkin, Seth Numrich, Chloe Pirrie, Sandra Seacat, Christopher Heyerdahl
Network: FX on Hulu