Big Love | BIG LOVE Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Jeanne Tripplehorn
Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

Sometimes the final season of a TV series can be a cause for celebration as much as for mourning. That seems to be true of Big Love. Last season, the saga of the plucky polygamists led by Bill Paxton’s Bill Henrickson went wildly astray with subplots about casinos and Native Americans, as well as a guest-starring turn by Sissy Spacek that was so sharply concise, it exposed the looseness of the writing around her.

I’m pleased to report that the final season of Big Love brings the focus back to Bill’s house and the three wives we enjoy almost as much as he does: Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb, Chloë Sevigny’s Nicki, and Ginnifer Goodwin’s Margene. Yes, Bill is busy with his mission as a new senator-elect — that mission being to legislatively ”bridge those worlds” between polygamists and those of us who think one spouse is plenty, thank you very much. But the more compelling drama involves the interaction among the wives, how their personalities can combine to form a loving household for their large mutual family, or fracture from the pressures of their differences.

Thus, Margene tends to be excessively emotional, and all the more so now that her budding TV career as a home-shopping salesperson is in a shambles. She’s contrasted with Barb, who’s frequently been the mature voice of reason, but this season chafes in that role and seeks out new areas of exploration (drinking! dancing!). And Nicki, glowering so that she doesn’t miss a detail or slight, is currently encouraging her daughter Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson) to excel in school — the teen is a math whiz — so that the child might escape the strictures that have warped Nicki’s own life.

What’s always made Big Love compelling is that creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer have very clear conceptions of the three wives’ characters; the women squabble because they’re so different, but their creators, at their best, give each of their strengths and foibles equal weight and credibility. The show is also making room for welcome returning characters and intriguing new ones with actors such as Ellen Burstyn (Barb’s mom), Gregory Itzin (Bill’s foe in the Utah state senate), Robert Patrick (a vehemently conservative polygamist), and Grant Show (a TV motivational speaker).

But in the three episodes I’ve seen, Big Love is avoiding the diffuse plotting that made last season so aimless. By concentrating on what it means to practice polygamy in the 21st century, the series again comes close to achieving its goal of defining what it means to be a family. B+