The series adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed 2003 nonfiction book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which premieres on FX on Hulu today, is designed to fit into well-worn grooves in your TV brain.
It’s a show with a sad, grim, and determined primary detective (check) whose relationship with his partner, set in Utah’s rural wildness, has strong echoes of True Detective (ding ding ding, it’s a prestige-TV bingo!). It’s also a show about fundamentalist Mormonism and cult dynamics (check) tied to the roots of contemporary extremist politics (chagrined check).
If the phrase “it often feels like True Detective” piques your interest, or the slogan “murder among the Mormons” appeals to you, Under the Banner of Heaven will deliver. Better yet, it will easily, even gracefully, meet those requirements.
Despite its overly familiar rhythms and glitzy murder-show aesthetics, there are aspects of Under the Banner that achieve something unique and unique. But, for the most part, it’s one of those shows that’s supposed to scare and overwhelm us, a true-crime adaption that’s supposed to shake us to our core and make us rethink our ideas about violence and masculinity, and so on.
In practice, I believe that a large portion of the audience will tune in for the opposite reasons: the strange comfort: the weird comfort of the dark murder show and the particular satisfaction of witnessing an unusually heinous crime in a remote, long-ago place and time.
The part of Detective Jeb Pyre, played by Andrew Garfield, is the most significant adaptation option. The original text delves into a double homicide in Utah in 1984, as well as the long, winding history that gave rise to both mainstream Mormonism and its modern-day fundamentalist breakaway groups.
Krakauer’s story is based on historical research and conversations with key players and fundamentalist believers; it is less concerned with law enforcement characters and crime-solving mechanics.
Garfield’s Pyre is a one-man foil for the whole dark weight of fundamentalist Mormonism. He’s clean-cut, family-oriented, and a devout Mormon who believes in American government and the rule of law.
He is at the heart of the story and frequently serves as an unspoken narrator. It’s Pyre’s horror that we’re supposed to notice as the camera turns through a gory crime scene. When facets of the research reveal mysteries about early Mormon ideology, we’re supposed to connect with Pyre’s fear, to understand how he’s haunted by stories of early LDS pioneers.
Pyre might be a little too cleanly integrated into the story. The way his natural earnestness contrasts with the deranged Lafferty family, members of which are both victims and suspects, has a mathematical accuracy to it.
The balancing act between mainstream Mormonism and the fundamentalist fringe is arguably too tidy in Pyre, which is expressly meant as a counterbalance for the eldest two brothers, Dan and Ron (Wyatt Russell and Sam Worthington).
But Garfield’s almost blatantly soft portrayal of Pyre masks Pyre’s stark fictional functionality: He is so kind, so very, very sweet, so sensitive to violence and yet so steadfast in his values.
Yes, Pyre’s storyline fits roughly into all of the hoary wounded detective tropes, but Garfield gives Pyre a softness that makes his iteration younger and more well-defined beat for beat. It also adds to the attraction of his cooperation with Detective Taba (Gil Birmingham), a coupling that defies conventional “good cop, evil cop” or “experienced, rookie” oppositions.
Let us now extol Gil Birmingham’s praises. Bill Taba appears in a show about a gory, horrific crime committed within an isolated community, a plot founded in Mormon theology that spans from spotless family wholesomeness to self-righteous anti-government violence.
He embodies all of the wit, disbelief, skepticism, and wisdom. Of course, he has to play the outsider, and the cloistered, close-knit Mormon communities around Birmingham provide enough of side-eye, wisecracks, and aggravation.
But Birmingham, who is often the supporting character actor in large shows like this, is simply too talented to let Taba just be a hard wall between Pyre and his sensitivity. He lends an inquiring, kind inquiry to the interaction, and after the two get to know one another, it feels more like friendship than cold tale mechanics.Every scene is enhanced by the presence of Birmingham.
The flashback story line recounting the history of the early Mormon pioneers, on the other hand, is the poorest element of the series. It takes center stage in Krakauer’s novel, where it is given ample time and attention to form the story in tandem with the modern murder mystery. The flashbacks are either too many or not enough in this scene.
The portrayals of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young lack the same vitality and individuality as Pyre’s other characters. They’re dressed in headgear and collars, gesticulating aggressively or kneeling in prayer.
Whatever humanity or individuality we should expect from them is completely lacking, and this is especially true for the ladies. Yes, the flashbacks are so prevalent that they make the show feel like a pedantic lesson plan. Either the 19th-century story has to be drastically condensed or made to stand on its own two feet. It’s an unwanted hitchhiker as it is.
Nonetheless, I found myself cruising through the first five episodes (of of a total of seven) provided to critics for all the reasons premium crime dramas about awful crimes in small, remote places tend to appeal to audiences. Insularity provides a strange sense of relief – as long as you can ensure your own safety on the other side of the wall.
That always requires a willful blindness to the darkness, extremism, and violence that are all too near at hand. That is, however, one of the reasons why Under the Banner of Heaven’s Pyre is such a brilliant masterpiece. He’s taken aback and upset. We get to share his naive dread for a bit.