When God Was Love
Episode 1 of Under the Banner of Heaven begins with Detective Jeb Pyre being called into work. Before going in, he has an early evening prayer with his wife, daughters, and mother–all members of the LDS Church.
Jeb arrives at a crime scene, where the floors are covered in blood. The detective holds back sobs when he finds that the murder victims are Mormons he knew: Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter.
As Jeb and other officers check out the scene, a blood-soaked figure approaches. It’s Brenda’s husband, Allen Lafferty, and he’s arrested on sight.
Allen comes from a prominent LDS family, so Jeb wants to give him the benefit of the doubt. In questioning, Allen insists he didn’t kill his family. He tells Jeb and Detective Bill Taba that someone may be hunting his family. He’s concerned for his brothers as well, but he doesn’t know where they live.
According to Allen, strange men had taken interest in his family. They had long beards, like Mormon prophets.
Though Bill is immensely sceptical of this story, Jeb sends officers to the house of Ron Lafferty, one of Allen’s brothers.
Allen tells the detectives to look to the Mormons if they want to find who is responsible. It’s then that he reveals he left the faith about a year ago, while his wife remained devout.
This is when Jeb starts to doubt his story. He asks Allen if his wife threatened to leave him because he broke his covenant. He asks if he killed her for it.
Allen says Brenda was the perfect Mormon girl. We then enter a flashback where we see Brenda in a car with her father. She spoke about her plans to leave Idaho, go to college at BYU, and be on TV.
She came to Utah, Allen says, “to help build up Zion.” Allen thinks he’s responsible for reeling her into the church here and regrets he couldn’t save her from his own people. He says Jeb doesn’t know the church’s whole history.
Allen recalls introducing Brenda to his family. They all either wanted to find fault in her or wanted her to save them.
Everyone doted on Brenda when they first met her, and Allen’s brothers couldn’t keep their eyes off her.
Allen remembers his father, Ammon, judging Brenda for not meeting his own standards of a submissive Mormon woman.
We see an example of this when the Laffertys helped their neighbor clear his land. Brenda broke away from the women to help the men clear rocks. Ammon looked on disapprovingly.
Ammon then told the family that he and his wife Doreen had been called by the prophet for a senior mission. He wanted Dan to take over his chiropractic business while he was away. He said Dan was his eldest son to follow in his own footsteps (as a jab to Ron, his oldest son). Ammon told everyone to put their faith in Dan and instructed Robin to be Dan’s right hand.
Ron walked away in the middle of the prayer, and his mother followed. “You’re my one,” she reassured him.
Jeb continues to question Allen, finding that he stopped seeing his family about the time he stopped going to church–about a year ago.
Allen recalls the story of Mormonism’s founding–and how God told Joseph Smith to marry Emma. He misses the God of love he used to believe in. “But that’s not where the history ends.”
He goes on to recount the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1859. Then, Mormon settlers slaughtered innocent people. Allen holds that this inherited faith “breeds dangerous men.”
Meanwhile, detectives get an address for Robin Lafferty’s. But Bill finds his house abandoned.
He also notifies Brenda’s father of her death without telling Jeb, who wanted more answers before they called him.
However, they learn from Brenda’s dad that Brenda told her sister that she was afraid of Allen because he beat her. Allen denies this. He says they got in one fight, but he didn’t beat her.
He appeals again to the story of Joseph Smith to try and relate to Jeb. Emma’s father didn’t like the prophet. Allen says the same was true with him and his father-and-law.
Jeb asks Allen if he harmed his brothers too, but Allen denies this too. He still insists that men with beards corrupted his family.
Jeb muses aloud to Bill that Allen has a motive. After leaving the church, his family would have put a lot of pressure on him to return. He cites examples of “satanic panic” killings. Bill also thinks Allen is guilty, but he pushes back on the implication that a lack of faith indicts a person.
Bill gets a call about a sighting of one of Allen’s brothers at a hotel. They surround the place, but the man runs before falling to his knees and praying for God to show these men that they are not in line with the Gospel. It’s Robin Lafferty. And he has a long beard.
Jeb goes home, where his mom Josie greets him. She has dementia or Alzheimer’s and is often confused. They speak of heaven, how it will be perfect. She says she wants to be with her husband now.
Later, with his wife Rebecca, Jeb wonders aloud whether this case wasn’t the result of an outside evil. What if something sinister has been a part of LDS history all along?
The Episode Review
Under the Banner of Heaven is based on John Krakeur’s nonfiction book of the same name. It’s a documentation of the chilling murder of Mormon woman Brendy Wright Lafferty. Andrew Garfield’s character, Detective Jeb Pyre, is fictional–but the events of the true-crime series are based in a sinister reality.
It’s a reality that comes blazing to life on the screen, immediately intriguing and compelling. We have two storylines going on here. One of the past, where Daisy Edgar-Jones charms as Brenda, the sweet-but-feisty Mormon girl. And one of the present, where Jeb experiences a crisis of faith as he pursues leads that could undermine everything he thought he knew about the Church of the Latter-day Saints.
It’s a beautiful setup that even interweaves some scenes of the very beginning of the Mormon faith. These provide some helpful context to the present story, and shed light on different characters, as their interpretations of these past events differ.
Under the Banner of Heaven delves into a haunting mystery that fans of true crime will be delighted to follow. There’s one thing I’m wondering: is Allen’s narrative of Brenda’s past true, or is he an unreliable narrator spinning a skewed perception of the facts?