Let’s face it, most people don’t know a whole lot about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I certainly didn’t, and even now I only know what I’ve learned from other people. When I first saw that Andrew Garfield was to star in Under the Banner of Heaven I was excited even though I knew very little about the true crime case or the religion surrounding it.
Under the Banner of Heaven
Created by: Dustin Lance Black
Premiere Date: April 28, FX and Hulu
Under the Banner of Heaven is a seven-episode limited series distributed by FX. The show is based off of the book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer which tells the true events of Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Erica Lafferty’s brutal murders. While some details and characters are invented for this show, the motives stay the same.
The series does its best to paint a picture of Mormonism in the 1980s, illuminating temple practices and misogynistic attitudes held by the Church. As someone who grew up in an Atheist household, I often found it hard to tell if this portrayal is accurate or dramatized to further the tension Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) feels when confronted with hidden truths about his religion’s origins. Pyre’s inner conflict is extremely compelling. He is a man of faith, so devoted that he even refuses to medicate his ailing mother because it goes against his Church’s beliefs. His journey throughout the show is influenced by those around him, even the deceased Brenda.
To give viewers (especially non-Mormons) context for the extreme beliefs and actions of the Lafferty brothers, the show balances between the present (aka the 1980s when Brenda meets Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle) all the way to the end of the case) and the history and origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The juxtaposition of the birth of Mormonism with the violent end to Brenda and her baby Erica’s lives poses the same questions to the viewer as it does Detective Pyre: What else is hidden on these high shelves? Do the ugly truths erase what good can be found in faith?
Detective Jeb Pyre is a young, outstanding member of his church and community. Partnered with the older and more cynical Detective Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), Pyre becomes the heart of the case, using his LDS upbringing to peel back the cloak and reveal truths that might have been left unseen by a non-Mormon. And it deeply hurts him.
Pyre and Taba chase after the Lafferty brothers, bringing three out of the five of them into custody. With each round of questions, each search through a house, and each encounter with friends or family they come closer to the truth. Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan (Wyatt Russell), the proclaimed “One Mighty and Strong” and the “Hand” to the One respectively, have been empowered by their faith. Revelations from the Heavenly Father lead them to Fundamentalist Mormon groups, the forming of the School of Prophets, and to hunt down any person, women, and children included, who dares defy them. These groups of FLDS Mormons believe in more outdated (and outlawed) practices like plural marriages that the founders of Mormonism quite literally died for.
The show weaves together multiple storylines as Pyre and Taba try to find the killer(s) before anyone else dies. Under the Banner of Heaven reveals itself slowly, allowing the hidden history to shed light on the case for both Pyre and the audience. Using the story of Mormonism as a backdrop for the unfolding case reveals how men can use faith as a motive to commit acts of violence toward women. It begins with Mormon founder Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) wanting to marry more women and crescendos with the abuse faced by Lafferty’s wives Matilda (Chloe Pirrie) and Dianna (Denise Gough). Eventually, it concludes in Brenda’s violent death.
Episode Six, titled “Revelation” and directed by Isabel Sandoval, stands out as the emotional core of the entire show and Pyre’s character. Pyre is at a complete breaking point. He finds himself unwilling to continue believing in a religion that incites pain and suffering in so many of its members. His relearning of Mormon history unveils horrific acts of racism and misogyny, some of which are still entrenched in the ideals of LDS. His home life is shattered as he realizes that he cannot save his wife Rebecca (Adelaide Clemens), mother Josie (Sandra Seacat), or two daughters from the patriarchal hierarchy of Mormonism.
The two histories of Mormonism clash in Pyre. The teachings of love and family that he associated with LDS are thrown against a perhaps “truer” history of violence that allowed Mormonism to endure in America. Jeb Pyre is lost, afloat in a sea of doubt and confusion about his religion and life. This episode ends in Pyre’s car. He is alone, left outside by his wife after he cannot pray with her. Pyre sobs. Andrew Garfield gives an amazing performance in the entire series but this scene stands out as he begins to truly lose his faith.
In the show’s finale, Pyre and Taba manage to catch up to Ron and Dan, who are now confirmed to have brutally murdered Brenda and Erica. Pyre holds the burden of deciding what Dan and Ron’s next moves would be, once again using his faith to dictate their movements. So many lives are at risk and Pyre holds himself responsible as not only a detective but a Mormon.
In this episode, Pyre is faced yet again with a splitting of the history he knows against the truth. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is shown in flashbacks, depicting the violent outcome and the lengths that the early Mormons went to defend their land and religion. Taba, who is Paiute, remarks on how the Mormons used the Native American tribe’s image to slaughter unarmed emigrants.
Even though Pyre wasn’t told by God Himself where to go or what to do, he performs a miracle and captures Ron and Dan alive before anyone else dies. Brenda and Matilda stand up to their abusive husbands and escape the Lafferty clan and their malicious acts of violence.
The final episode begins to repair some of the damage to Pyre’s faith. Once plagued by nightmares of Brenda’s final moments and his own death, Pyre now understands who Brenda was without ever meeting her. She was a woman of faith, who believed in uplifting her family, friends, and neighbors while pushing against any regressive notions of submission. Her death almost tore Pyre apart, but through his experience solving her murder, he is able to reconcile and choose his own faith and family. It’s a tale of deciding to see the good in spite of the ugly like Brenda did before her time was cut short.
I found Under the Banner of Heaven to be quite an illuminating show. Before I watched it, I couldn’t really say with any confidence that I knew a lot about Mormonism, and it would be a lie to say I know a lot about it now. But the show is about more than that. It is about submission, faith, violence, love, and what happens when you find out an institution you believed in has been lying to you. Faith is not inherently wrong, but it’s what you decide to do with it that matters.
There are a lot of elements of Under the Banner of Heaven that I didn’t expand on a whole lot. I’m sure there are many others out there (including Mormons and ex-Mormons) who watched the show and have many of their own opinions. My final thought is that Isabel Sandoval and Andrew Garfield need to work together again soon!