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FX and Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven holds nothing back in its quest to uncover the cruelties women face within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The women in Dustin Lance Black’s limited series, based on the nonfiction book by John Krakauer, are expected to cover up in modesty, get married, obey their husbands. This separation of men and women, Black asserts, stems from dangerous religious tenets.
While murder may be at the heart of this true-crime series, the horror within Under the Banner of Heaven is twofold. One, of blatant and gruesome crime. Another, of the quieter strains of harm in religious institutions–of their passivity, inaction, and theology that puts women in their place.
Both threads make Under the Banner a deeply controversial show. Several Latter-day Saints have understandably shared their upset over its negative representation of the LDS church, as well as concerns over conflating the average Mormon with those in the Fundamentalist LDS Church (FLDS). While the latter seems unfounded (Black and Krakauer distinctly separate the two strains of Mormonism), Under the Banner of Heaven remains a searing indictment of conservative theological principles as a whole.
The true-crime drama chronicles the tragically true story of the murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her daughter in a predominantly Mormon, Utah town. But it’s a fictional character, detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), that the limited series follows. With partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), Jeb follows a chilling trail of evidence that will shake his Mormon faith and plunge his community into suspicion.
“For some, truth brings discomfort,” says Stake President Ballard in the series’ final episode. And Brenda’s husband, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), doesn’t miss a beat in his response. “For others,” he says, “lies do the same.”
Under the Banner endeavors to reveal multiple truths: namely, which religious men murdered Brenda, and how they could have twisted such a pious faith in order to justify doing so. “This faith, our faith, breeds dangerous men.” Another statement from Allen Lafferty could well be the mantra of the series.
That’s the heart of the critique from the community of Latter-day Saints–that Black weaponizes misconceptions of their religion against them in order to further misrepresent the LDS Church. And, a former Mormon himself, Black may not care about the potential detrimental effects such a bleak portrayal could have for the church he left. Yet, there’s sensitivity and even reverence in his depiction that many seem determined to ignore.
Some of the most compelling characters of the show are the truly kind and empathetic practitioners of the Mormon faith (i.e. Brenda and her father), and the villainous personalities (religious leaders, mainly) are those who would squash out Brenda’s kind of faith-practice. Edgar-Jones unfortunately does not appear as frequently in the show’s middle, but writers still keep Brenda Lafferty at the heart of the show, holding her up as a beacon of light for those past (the women she helped before her death) and present (Jeb, during his investigation of her murder).
Jeb’s story (a captivating portrayal of a faith crisis) and the murderers’ story (of chasing power, patriarchy, and bloodshed in the name of God) end up interwoven and inseparable from Brenda’s. Each uniquely captures a different faith experience. For Brenda, that’s a journey of someone who becomes gradually stronger in her faith. It’s the depiction of a leader, a savior, a kind and compassionate friend.
In this convergence of experiences, Under the Banner of Heaven creates quite a dark and moving tapestry–a combination of thrilling true-crime drama, indictment of dangerous religious extremism, and tender remembrance of a gentle soul. We can safely say that the limited series won’t be for everyone. But for those who cite unfair representation in denunciation of the drama, creator Dustin Lance Black would likely respond, as Jeb Pyre asks in the series–“What kind of Mormons are you defending?”
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Verdict - 9/10