Allen’s account also leads to flashbacks of his life with Brenda – Daisy Edgar-Jones makes her a vivid presence in the series – and of his authoritarian father and five brothers. Sam Worthington is Ron, the overlooked son, who feels undervalued by his father. Wyatt Russell gives a dynamic performance as Dan, the golden boy, who is intense and volatile. Dan argues that God’s laws supersede the government’s, refusing to pay taxes or the licence fee for the family’s chiropractic practice. “Heavenly Father gave us our licence for free,” he says. As they become part of a fringe Mormon group, Ron and Dan become increasingly unhinged. As Pyre’s investigation goes on, he wonders how far his own Church might go to protect its reputation.
Black, who was raised Mormon, has long criticised Mormonism’s anti-gay stance. But the series is respectful of Pyre’s genuine faith, without going easy on his Church’s cultish outliers. That nuanced view is a corrective to the black-and-white views of Mormonism that have dominated culture, from the satiric Book of Mormon to the benign view of polygamy in the HBO series Big Love, as well as horrifying news reports about fundamentalists like Warren Jeffs, sentenced to prison for sexual assault on girls he called his wives.
The series runs into serious trouble when it tries to dramatise the roots of Mormon fundamentalism, though. Ron and Dan come to embrace what they call “the old ways”, and intermittently the series flashes back to the 19th Century in scenes that include Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, his wife Emma and Brigham Young, his successor as Church president. The idea is to depict the sources of beliefs no longer part of mainstream Mormonism, including polygamy and “blood atonement”, killing sinners to cleanse them. That creative strategy backfires completely, in distracting episodes that play like cheesy historical reenactments. There must have been a better way to show how faith can veer into fanaticism.
But there is so much more that makes the series compelling. Religious fundamentalism is part of our world, from the jihadists behind the 9/11 terror attacks to the political clout of Evangelical Christians. Under the Banner of Heaven adds a bracing perspective to that reality.
Under the Banner of Heaven premieres in the US on 28 April on Hulu, and internationally on Disney+ – date to be confirmed.
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