By Gillian Flynn
Updated June 15, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Season 2 of HBO’s Big Love opens on a house in chaos: Polygamist Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives have potentially been outed, and the family is reeling. Normally steady Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) debates whether to leave altogether; fundamentalist Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) spins between righteousness and revenge; free-spirited Margene (Walk the Line‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) frets and freaks like the 21-year-old she is. In the midst of the crisis, Bill drives out to the desert to pray and, along with The Book of Mormon, brings a copy of Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of the clashing — and ultimately synergistic — personalities of Lincoln’s war cabinet. It’s an incredibly thoughtful touch, and a nice symbol of what makes season 2 so worth watching: Big Love has dropped the last vestiges of its ostentatious quirkiness and fashioned itself into a rich and grounded family drama, filled with conflicting characters aimed toward a higher goal (in this case, love, not war).

That’s not to say the series doesn’t have its odd moments. The world of the Henricksons, a family whose very existence is a secret, is packed with reminders that what you see may not be what you get. The wives’ three separate houses all connect in the backyard; a Tupperware container carries a handgun; Nicki’s powerful prophet dad, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), calculates how much cheese he’ll need for the apocalypse in a room covered with cloud-lined wallpaper evoking heaven itself. But these scenes of the polygamist lifestyle — both the Henricksons’ relatively mainstream household and Roman’s stark fundamentalist compound — are entirely earned because the family at the center feels totally real. Paxton is, as always, likable. Here he plays a man constantly in touch with his morality, and he pulls it off with a practical, unpreachy ease. But it’s the women, with their jagged struggle to love each other, who fascinate. Tripplehorn is the embodiment of sensibility and desperate grace as a wife questioning the faith that forged her family; Sevigny’s Nicki is like a snake in French braids. Greedy and childish, Nicki’s also a crucial, ringing voice for the benefits of plural marriage, which is, after all, the basis of Big Love: She can make traditional coupling sound downright lonesome. ”Poor Joey and Wanda,” she laments of Bill’s brother and sister-in-law. ”No other spouses to lean on — how are they going to make it through this crisis with only each other?” Sevigny has a hell of a tricky job: As the least appealing of the three women, she must still be a winning booster for polygamy — without that, the show wouldn’t work. Glowering and swishing her prairie skirts, Sevigny tackles the job splendidly, giving a passionate, slightly poisoned heart to Big Love. B+