When God Was Love and Other Concerns – ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ (Review)

What would you do if everything you’d ever known about your beliefs came crashing down in front of you in the pursuit of truth? The life you built with your family and the community that gives your life meaning are both built on a sham?

These are the dilemmas around which the highly anticipated Under the Banner of Heaven revolves. Set in Salt Lake City, the headquarters of the Latter-Day Saints Church (LDS), the show chronicles the investigation of the 1984 Utah v. Lafferty case that resulted in the gruesome murder of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica Lafferty, in an act of “divine revelation.”

Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in Under the Banner of Heaven (COURTESY: Michelle Faye/FX)

Inspired by Jon Krakauer’s 2003 true crime book of the same name, Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven deals with much more than the Lafferty case by adding two fictionalized characters – and their two highly contrasting relationships with faith – at the helm of the investigation: Detectives Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham).

Pyre, a devout Mormon and (you guessed it) family man, gets called into work while playing with his twin daughters. From the first encounter, it’s clear tell that the Pyre family is held together by its faith, from the way they pray together to how Pyre speaks to his sick mother to even the tapestries of religious slogans scattered over the house. 

Jeb is visibly shaken by the sight of Brenda covered in her own blood. But what really breaks him is little Erica’s body in her crib. Thankfully, the show spares us the gore. Not long after, a rattled and bloodied man shows up to surrender, we finally let out the breath we’ve been holding – and that’s when the title card appears.

Gil Birmingham as Bill Taba and Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in Under the Banner of Heaven (COURTESY: FX)

Under the Banner of Heaven‘s first two episodes provide a smooth introduction to the story and its characters; it’s easy to follow even if you don’t have any knowledge of the case or of Mormonism. (However, reading a little about both topics, just to help you notice all the details in the show, enhances the experience a great deal.) The series juxtaposes three separate timelines: the present, Brenda and Allen’s relationship, and early Mormon history. The present deals with Pyre’s own struggle with the truth while trying to find justice, while the other two timelines draw comparisons between the days of Joseph Smith and his doctrines and what led to the double murder from Allen’s point of view.

The ensemble cast makes the show. One of the best parts is Pyre and Taba’s blossoming friendship – Garfield and Birmingham’s rapport is as nuanced as it is entertaining. Birmingham’s performance is perhaps the strongest of the series so far, which says a lot for such a talented cast. And I think, based on comments about Birmingham’s appearance from several characters (including the detective himself), that the show will delve more into Paiute history and racism in Utah. Other cast standouts are Chloe Pirrie and Denise Gough as Matilda and Dianna Lafferty, the wives of Dan and Ron Lafferty.

The Brenda / Allen timeline is engaging and doesn’t feel like a typical flashback storyline. This is due largely to Daisy Edgar Jones’s angelic presence (including a rendition of Bette Midler’s “The Rose”), and it’s a shame that we don’t get to see more of her.

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Wright-Lafferty in Under the Banner of Heaven (COURTESY: FX)

So far, Andrew Garfield doesn’t stand out particularly, but that’s due to Under the Banner of Heaven‘s balanced ensemble. I don’t doubt that Garfield’s part will become more significant and emotional once the series starts unraveling the LDS church’s fundamentalist dark side.

Overall, Under the Banner of Heaven is intriguing and leaves you wanting to know more, but I believe it will prove divisive because it doesn’t attempt to appeal to casual fans of the genre. Its episodes clock in at around 65 minutes, suggesting that less-devoted viewers might feel each installment runs a bit long; I hope future episodes address the pacing issues.

Rating: 8/10

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