A writer named Carol Hanisch once famously said that “the personal is political.” Though she was talking about feminism, this week’s Big Love demonstrates that it’s not only women who struggle to reconcile their personal convictions and wishes with the political world around them.

The episode, “A Seat at the Table,” skillfully weaves together two main threads: Bill’s mission to bring polygamist communities into the light and the wives pondering the nature of personal happiness. When it comes to seeking your true place in the world, how much say should others have? At what point do you earn yourself a seat at the table?

A Net of Many Holes

Bill throws in his lot with the state’s attorney general to help the women and children of the (apparently plentiful) fundamentalist/polygamist groups in Utah and surrounding states. The plan, called the Safety Net program, would allow them to receive equal treatment — education, for starters — as long as they play ball with the government. Unfortunately, two massive roadblocks stand in his way.

First, Alby derails the meeting Bill calls between the fundamentalists and the state by starting a ruckus about a “breakaway” UEB community. As the meeting falls into chaos, Alby gloats from behind a video link-up.

Second, despite Bill’s best efforts to convince his district counterpart — state representative Midge — to help him, we later learn she not only won’t support him, but she’s even proposing new legislation to recriminalize polygamy. Not exactly the outcome Bill was looking for.

The Sins of the Mother

Meanwhile, Barb is still trying to find her path to happiness. She asks her mother, Nancy (Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn), to provide an introduction to a “freethinking” women’s group called Sunstone. Nancy is skeptical — their relationship has been rocky going all the way back to when Bill starting adding wives to the Henrickson marriage.

Things go from bad to worse to pitiful, however, when Barb and Nancy take part in a Sunstone discussion panel that puts the spotlight back on the Henricksons’ recent coming-out party. A mortified Nancy stalks out.

Barb and the audience regain some compassion for Nancy when we learn that part of her disdain for Bill relates to feelings of guilt she carries from her younger days. More than 30 years ago, she allowed her husband and the church to force her to drop her support for the Equal Rights Amendment. Worse, after inviting personal hero Betty Ford to speak at Sunstone, she caved to intense pressure and left the former First Lady stranded at the airport — permanently uninvited. We cringe right along with Barb as Nancy tells her story.

Deserving of Happiness

Margene considers selling the energy drink promoted by the motivational speaker she met in the season opener. Now that she’s no longer a “jewelry hawker” (the term she decries bitterly in her vlog posting from last week), she needs something more.

Despite Ana’s pleas to Margene to walk out on Bill, a conflicted Margie can’t decide what to do. Where does her happiness lie? Her despair deepens after a wrenching farewell between Margene and the pregnant Ana, who’s leaving the country with her illegal-immigrant boyfriend, Goran.

But Bill — in a moment of clarity similar to last week’s apology — realizes that he can’t force his wives into submission anymore. As Margene folds baby clothes, Bill tells her, “I want you to know you have permission to choose to go, too. To leave the family, if this marriage makes you unhappy. If I make you unhappy. Because you deserve to be happy.” She looks at him in wonder.

Five Things I Have Big Love for this Week 

1) Who the heck knew there were so many fundamentalist groups in Big Love‘s world? And all with cool-sounding but oddly formal names, not unlike the United Effort Brotherhood, Bill’s erstwhile home. I actually think the writers gave so many folks “a seat at the table” just so they could make up the names.

2) Bill calls on a potential ally named Bud (Robert Patrick, of The X-Files and Terminator 2) for the Safety Net program. When Bud tries to wriggle out of the upcoming meeting because he “has no use for the state,” Bill sharply points out that his entire large family receives welfare from Utah, so apparently he does have some “use” for the government. I’d score that Bill-1, Bud-0.

3) Nancy and Barb’s dust-up isn’t the only mother-child drama. Bill’s mom, Lois, is living in a shambles of a house, with a broken-out wall and debris everywhere. Simply put, she seems to be losing it. Also losing it: Nicki’s mom, Adaleen, who now lives alone in her old house (Alby has moved out). As she awaits the birth of her unnaturally conceived child, she sleeps in her former marriage bed beside a framed photo of Roman — and his Stetson hat.

4) Midge’s mom, played by Mariette Hartley of Poloroid ad fame, says that Nicki reminds her of Victoria Gotti, “that mobster’s daughter.”

5) Barb gives Nicki’s daughter Cara Lynn a copy of Jane Eyre — calling it “my favorite novel.” Barb — that’s my favorite novel, too! Who knew? (And just in case you missed the parallels, it’s about a young woman struggling to find happiness in world that’s often aligned against her.)

Love It or Loathe It?

Love it — another winning episode from what’s proving to be a stellar final season. If it were my choice, I’d give a guest-star Emmy to Ellen Burstyn to go along with that Oscar. Also, I’m dying to know what’s behind Lois coming into the Henrickson home and declaring, “Have I got news for you!”

If you don’t watch, you’ll never find out.

(Image courtesy of HBO)

Alison Stern-Dunyak

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV