Under the Banner of Heaven is a Fascinating Examination of Ex-Mormon Issues
Under the Banner of Heaven, the new true crime series on Hulu, delves deep into the story of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a Mormon woman who was murdered along with her baby in 1984 in a Utah suburb. The case is portrayed through fictional detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), and includes flashbacks to the life of the victim and the suspects. It also folds in seminal scenes from Mormon history in an attempt to contextualize the horrific crime.
Written by Oscar-winning ex-Mormon Dustin Lance Black (Milk), the series is sure to rankle some Mormon feathers. The first two episodes (which are streaming now) depict a broad range of Mormons, from jack Mormons to fundamentalists, lascivious men to naive women. I’m sure much will be written by Mormons and other former Mormons about the accuracy and authenticity of the show’s portrayal of Mormons. (For the record, I thought the show nailed it, which may have to do with my having grown up not far geographically or temporally from where Black spent his own adolescence in Northern California). What struck me most, however, was what this show has to say about us ex-Mormons.
The most prominent ex-Mormon so far in the show is the aggrieved husband/primary suspect, Allan Lafferty (Billy Howell). Lafferty is initially given the benefit of the doubt by Garfield’s devout Mormon detective. However, the moment Lafferty reveals that he has left the church, Pyre’s leniency evaporates. The detective cannot understand how anyone could deny his temple covenants and then not be a murderer. Those of us who have left the Mormon church have often been on the receiving end of this judgment, though probably not to this same degree. We’ve overheard whispers about how the light of Christ has supposedly vanished from our eyes or worries about keeping younger siblings safe from our influence. We know there’s no hell worse than the Outer Darkness reserved for sons of perdition, those who have denied the Holy Ghost.
Amusingly, Allan Lafferty is also the character most invested in proselytizing. Mere hours after he discovered the grisly remains of his wife and baby, he’s offering up clumsy segues to arguments ripped from the CES Letter. Questions about his possible motive are answered with a diatribe about Joseph and Emma Smith. Rather than defending himself at all, Lafferty spends the majority of his screen time bringing up the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the treatment of women in the church. To a non-ex-Mormon viewer, this probably looked like an unrealistic attempt to shoehorn in exposition and theme, but this is perhaps better viewed as a semi-satirical indictment of the ex-Mormon zealotry that leads us to pin every evil on the church. For a people who have fled a culture known for its missionaries, we tend to be an evangelical bunch. Even if the real Lafferty wouldn’t have jumped to making his wife’s murder about the church, we can see that Dustin Lance Black can’t stop himself from doing so.
Just as ex-Mormons can find it easier to leave behind specific church doctrine than general missionary zeal, we tend to cling to the orthodox Mormon mistrust of our institutions. The Lafferty clan is seen repeatedly railing against taxes, traffic enforcement, zoning laws, the feds, etc. We also see Joseph Smith embroiled in a similar conflict in flashback. Although he has left the church, Allen Lafferty maintains his skepticism, but has now extended it to include the major institutions of his life: Mormonism itself and his family. Many people who have left their religions have a heightened sense of paranoia about authority figures and institutions, but Mormonism’s history of fleeing governments and claiming persecution compounds that mistrust.
Especially exciting for ex-Mormons are the scenes that portray moments in church history. We’ve all seen portrayals of these moments from the Church and its adherents: Brigham Young’s mission to England, Joseph Smith’s romance with Emma, his tarring and feathering at the hands of disaffected mobs. Where these are traditionally presented onscreen as melodramatic moments in the lives of great men, here everything is a little more sinister. We get the obligatory shots of Joseph sticking his head in a hat for revelation. The tarring and feathering has been recontextualized as a response to Smith’s sexual indiscretions with a teenage girl. While the casting and costuming make these moments resonate with anyone familiar with LDS cinema, the lighting and music and acting, as well as an emphasis on violence, lend a sinister air to these scenes. The first vision is presented with Joseph staring into a bright, alien light. In one inspired moment, it’s implied that he may have made the whole thing up to convince Emma to marry him. For people who are used to the sanitized version of these moments being presented in a sacred light, these scenes feel revolutionary.
Hand-in-hand with the church’s opaque history, its treatment of women and minorities is a major reason many of us have left. The show seems aware of this intersection. I can only conclude that the inclusion of Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), a fictional Paiute partner for our lead detective, will eventually serve as a conduit to further exploration of the racist Mountain Meadows Massacre, Similarly, discussion of the women’s place in the church will undoubtedly lead to an examination of polygamy, which is clearly already creeping in at the edges of this narrative both in the Lafferty family flashbacks, and in Joseph Smith’s.
The show wisely declines to rest solely on historical examples of Mormon bigotry. The casual Mormon racism and sexism the characters face in the present is an accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a member of a disenfranchised group in Utah. They experience uncomfortable moments with the crotchety old white men they encounter. Brenda Lafferty experiences some disturbing quid-pro quo sexism from a BYU professor, while Taba tries to maintain his dignity after a ranger refers to him as a “Lamanite.” The Lafferty family exemplifies several outdated attitudes, like their stunned reaction when Brenda jumps in to offer the men a hand in clearing a field while the women serve refreshments. But even our more sympathetic and less extreme Mormon detective Pyre gets called out on his casual racism and sexism.
This story by no means centers the female or minority experience of Mormonism, but the themes are present and sadly still relevant. The attitude toward Mormon women, particularly, feels like pity, which honestly is the most charitable emotion I can usually muster for women, minorities, and queers still participating in the church. There isn’t much space in my exmormon worldview for Mormons who are neither victimized nor complicit. I don’t know whether it’s possible (or even correct) to highlight the deleterious effects of institutional racism and misogyny without making the women and minorities in the story come across as victims. The point is that they are, not that they’re to blame.
So as this series progresses, I will be watching with an eye on whether Black was able to transcend the problematic white male gaze of Mormonism, or whether the women and minorities (well, minority singular so far) are just being used to further the arc of the white male cop. Pyre’s own inevitable faith journey has already been explicitly tied to the idea that he’s leading his wife and daughters into a church that would diminish them. The quick cut between matching husband/wife poses (Sister Pyre embraces her husband from behind in the shower, Brenda holds onto Allen on his motorcycle to meet his family for the first time, and Emma holds onto Joseph on horseback as she flees her father’s house for a life of suffering and polygamy) took my breath away. Will Pyre’s wife eventually show some autonomy here, or is she merely motivation for her husband’s eventual apostasy? We shall see.
Overall, I really enjoyed these first two episodes. While I believe Black’s primary intent was to make people look more deeply at Mormonism and religious fundamentalists in general, I found a lot here about what it means to be ex-Mormon, trying to find peace in a world that has shifted beneath our feet, trying to heal from wounds that are still being inflicted on those we left behind.