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Under the Banner of Heaven Is the First Show to Get Mormon Culture Right

Dustin Lance Black’s miniseries starring Andrew Garfield whispers authentically to an ex-believer like me.

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Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in “When God Was Love” Episode 1 of Under The Banner of Heaven (Aired Wednesday, April 28thMichelle Faye / FX

The second episode of FX’s new miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven opens with a Mormon family at home, all dressed in white, preparing for their daughter’s baptism. The 8-year-old girl gestures to a ring on her finger, and asks her father if she should keep wearing it after she’s been baptized. The ring is small and silver with a green shield at the center, embossed with three letters: CTR, short for “Choose the Right,” as detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) explains. It’s a distinctive ring that Mormon children are encouraged to wear, as a reminder to obey the laws and commandments from their Heavenly Father.

Like many of the symbols of Mormon culture and cosmology in Under the Banner of Heaven, the CTR ring carries an immediate weight for anyone who has spent serious time in the pews of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). As an ex-Mormon myself, descended from good pioneer stock and raised actively in the church before I left in my late teens, the image of a CTR ring brings back a distinctive sensation from childhood. I can feel the cold nickel around my finger, as I twisted the ring over and over again while sitting bored in Sunday School while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang the hymn “Choose the Right.”

Mormonism is not an active part of my reality now, but the experience is so specific and unique — from practices of the religion itself, to colloquialisms and the casserole-heavy cuisine — that it ‘s hard to explain to people. And there’s been no authentic depiction of Mormonism in the media to refer to – thus far, the pop culture record on the Latter-Day Saints has mostly been written by non-members, like Trey Parker & Matt Stone of The Book of Mormon musical. The CTR ring makes another surprising appearance in HBO Max’s Tokyo Vice, as a symbol of one character’s secret ex-Mormon past. But while that show’s unexpected Mormon subplot is a surprisingly tactful if sensationalized portrayal of the struggle to leave the church, it’s still fundamentally an outsider’s perspective, and only one small kernel of a much larger narrative.

So Under the Banner of Heaven is in some ways a milestone for Mormon representation: though none of the main cast members are active or former Mormons, creator Dustin Lance Black was raised in the church and became an industry name as the only writer of Mormon experience in the writer’s room for Big Love, HBO’s notorious series about a polygamous family in Salt Lake City. Both Big Love and the original Jon Krakauer book about the real-life murder of a Mormon mother and her daughter on which Under the Banner of Heaven is based were highly controversial flashpoints for Mormons around the same point in the mid-2000s. While Under the Banner of Heaven attracted ire for unveiling violent incidents in Mormonism’s past, Big Love caught heat for its focus on polygamy and scenes recreating sacred temple ceremonies. Big Love often strove for cultural fidelity and verisimilitude, but it was ultimately about Mormonism in the same way The Sopranos was about the mafia: a rich setting and context for a larger thematic portrait of tragic masculinity.

But the TV adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven takes the faith of Black’s youth as its direct subject in a way Big Love never did. It’s aimed at a secular audience – often reminiscent of True Detective, if Lovecraftian gobbledygook were substituted for Mormon doctrine, and in tune with the culture’s obsession with true crime, scammers, cults, and extremism – but it also whispers authentically, like the still small voice Mormons speak of, to an ex-believer like me. Some of the show’s signifiers and reference points might be more recognizable to outsiders, like Detective Pyre playing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to guilt trip an LDS suspect, or his abstention from caffeine. But there’s a lived-in attention to detail that rings true, down to the way certain characters speak.

When Jeb consults the Bishop of his congregation (or “ward” in Mormon parlance) for advice about his ailing mother suffering from dementia, he finds that, much to his surprise, the Bishop is actually a huge advocate for modern medicine, telling Brother Pyre that “Heavenly Father gave us the gift of pharmacology.” That line was uncannily familiar from so much I heard at church growing up: though Latter-Day Saints are encouraged to be wary of mainstream media, the church has also fully embraced modern technology, believing that the Internet and social media are divinely-inspired tools that can aid in missionary work. It’s this kind of dialogue in the show that brings me back to my youth, even more than the modest dress or cheery demeanors of LDS characters–a potent reminder of how all-encompassing Mormon doctrine is, how every part of reality, down to antidepressants, is woven into its divine cosmology.

Under the Banner of Heaven doesn’t just capture the details of Mormon culture, it also gets this more existential sense of what it means to experience the world through Mormon eyes. Jeb Pyre, the dedicative and devout Latter-Day Saint played by Andrew Garfield, is an invention of the show, a framing device who serves as the audience’s gateway to Mormon culture. His presence also counterbalances the fundamentalist extremes depicted—Jeb might start to question his faith and the intentions of Church leadership, but he also demonstrates the genuine love and compassion that’s at the heart of Mormon doctrine. As staunchly critical of organized religion and patriarchal hierarchy as it is, Under the Banner of Heaven shows how religion can provide a genuine bedrock in your life. As Jeb watches his mother struggle with dementia, we see the comfort he gains from the idea they can be reunited in heaven, and that her body will be “made whole” after suffering on Earth. To use a Biblical turn of phrase that appears throughout Under the Banner of Heaven, the show truly attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to faith, acknowledging the sense of community that spirituality can create, while also demonstrating how those same structures of community can enable conformity and repression.

Each episode is interspersed with free-associative flashbacks to Mormon history, which function almost like footnotes to the constant quotations and citations that the show’s believers make to their own scripture. Some reviewers have argued these flashbacks feel wedged in, but they also capture the way in which to be a Mormon is, in many ways, to live in history, as scripture study is a vital tenant of the Church’s practice, and members are steeped in their own past—or, at the very least, the version of the past the LDS church wants us to believe—from a young age. It also captures a world filled with so much guilt and shame, in which the expectations of your ancestors are used as a reminder to keep you in line. The constant knowledge of my own family’s history—stories about how my forefathers were in the second wagon to roll into the Salt Lake Valley, or the ancestor who was imprisoned alongside Joseph Smith—as well as the scriptures I was inundated with made it hard to break with tradition as my own beliefs began to falter, as I felt the eyes of thousands of ancestors surveilling me.

As we see in Under the Banner of Heaven, Mormons use history almost like Jesus used parables, a form of storytelling that communicates a moral and tells us which path to walk. The biographies of anointed prophets are like living scripture to be read and learned from. At so many points viewing Under the Banner of Heaven, I found myself back in an uncomfortable folding chair in my teens, reading about the trials of Joseph Smith or the lost tribes of Israel that allegedly came to the Americas and created entire civilizations, wondering what men from hundreds or thousands of years ago could possibly understand about my life in the 21st century.

With its emphasis on how misogyny can become enshrined through tradition and law, Under the Banner of Heaven interprets the current moment through a lineage of religious fundamentalism and gendered oppression. But unlike their forefathers and foremothers, Jeb Pyre and Dustin Lance Black both demonstrate a capacity for learning from the past, rather than blindly applying its beliefs to today—there’s still goodness and love in the hearts of many of the show’s Mormon characters, but we also see the dangers of letting fervent beliefs run unchecked. If there’s any moral to the story of Under the Banner of Heaven, it’s that parables are meant to be metaphors, not commandments written in stone—taking history literally, rather than learning from it and evolving, can lead you down a dangerous path of blind faith.

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