In a technical sense, “Under the Banner of Heaven” is a great miniseries that does everything right. The production and sets of the show are spot-on with the story’s time and location, transporting the viewer to a small town in Utah during the Reagan administration. The writing is well-done, with superb character development, excellent pacing, and surprising originality in a genre that’s often overdone.
The acting performances are also spectacular. Andrew Garfield plays a young father and detective, Jeb Pyre, trying (and failing) to balance the sinister gruesomeness of his job with the sweet wholesomeness of his home life. The supporting cast also puts in stellar performances, particularly Gil Birmingham as Bill Taba, an older detective who assists Pyre, and Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty, the eldest brother and Mormon sophist whose cleverness gradually turns him into a lunatic.
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, “Under the Banner of Heaven” tells the story of an investigation into the brutal murder of Brenda Lafferty and her toddler, Erica. On the case are Pyre and Taba, who are something of an odd couple. Pyre’s a white, naive Mormon who grew up in Utah, while Taba’s an old, cynical Native American who comes from Las Vegas. Their investigation leads them to learn the family history of the Laffertys, a prominent family with deep roots in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
The Decline of a Family
Even more than the details of the murder, it is the decline of the Lafferty family that’s the real story. The opening scenes of the Lafferty father speaking to his five sons, their wives, and so many children is a compelling portrait of the modern-day patriarch managing his clan. He is a faithful, imposing man who wants to keep his family together, urging them to follow the right path, avoid evil, and be fruitful.
It’s clear that his sons feel enormous pressure to emulate their father and live up to his legacy — a common challenge for men today, although one that’s rarely explored. However, in their hopes to be the next patriarch, the Lafferty sons fall well short of their goals, becoming increasingly radical and unhinged in their political and religious beliefs.
For the majority of the series, there is a tension between the increasingly depraved Lafferty men, who justify their crimes with corrupted LDS theology, and Detective Pyre, who draws strength from his Mormon faith and community. Scenes of Laffertys conspiring against the government in their basement and raging at their wives and children are juxtaposed with scenes of Pyre patiently talking with his senile mother and playing with his children. Even though religion can become corrupted and exploited by certain individuals, it can also lift them by giving their lives structure and meaning.
Simplistic Indictment of All Religion
Unfortunately, in the final two episodes, that complex tension between healthy belief and toxic hypocrisy finally breaks and becomes a simplistic indictment of the LDS religion, and by extension all religious belief. Like its source material, the show draws a straight line between the violent history of LDS founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the violence of the Lafferty brothers. It characterizes LDS hierarchy as hypocrites who care more about their image than uncovering the truth. And it accuses all Mormons of being racist, deluded kooks who are basically part of a cult.
Mormons are an odd choice for this kind treatment. Its practice today doesn’t tend to push people to violent extremism or public disengagement — quite the opposite. The same goes for nearly every Christian denomination. Extreme Christians don’t blow up buildings or commit murders in the name of Jesus; rather, they give up everything they have and serve the needy. The notion of Christian-inspired terrorism is an absurd slander that has little to no basis in reality.
As one can imagine, all of this becomes frustratingly heavy-handed, if not outright bigoted, as the non-religious Taba lectures a disenchanted Pyre on the inanity and inherent violence of religion. Not only is this tedious, but it breaks with Taba’s character. Similar breaks begin happening with the other characters too, who implausibly transition from realistic and conflicted to psychotic and violent — all because their crazy beliefs brought them to that point.
It’s fair to say that although the story is set in 1980s, the decision to turn the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter into a case against organized religion is a reflection of a popular prejudice in 21st-century America, which unfairly casts all religions as corrupt, dangerous, and unnecessary.
So many people are now so far removed from what organized religion actually is. They think watching a pretty sunset for a few minutes is the spiritual equivalent of joining a church, living by its teachings, and praying regularly. As such, they really believe that telling the story of a few bad apples will change everyone’s mind.
It won’t, and “Under the Banner of Heaven” doesn’t. Most believers will likely appreciate the series’ virtues and ignore its clunky attempts at criticizing religion. Most nonbelievers will likely do the same. It may be a bad argument, but it’s a good story. At a time most entertainment is saturated by spectacle and stupidity, that’s all it needs to be.