I’m having an unexpected reaction to FX’s Under the Banner of Heavenand not just because Andrew Garfield plays a good dad who’s trying his best and says “honey” to lot. The true-crime series mixes fact and fiction to tell the story of a Mormon family in the ’80s who fell into fundamentalism and murdered two of their own. Because that line is blurred, I keep catching myself treating the series like it’s Succession or game of Thrones and watching as though the Lafferty brothers are just another wacky dysfunctional television family. It’s also distracting that the actors playing said brothers are, how do I put this sensitively, hotties! It’s a problem, to say the least, and I’m here to talk about it.
Here’s a quick recap of the real story the FX series is based on: In 1984 a woman named Brenda Lafferty (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones in the FX series), and her infant daughter Erica were murdered. Two of Brenda’s brothers-in-law (I won’t say who, in case you’re watching Under the Banner of Heaven free from IRL spoilers) were ultimately convicted. The killer said that he had been called on by God to murder the woman and child. Much of the family had become Mormon fundamentalists, also known as FLDS for short. In real life, the FLDS has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The show does take some liberties with the real-life case and the non-fiction source material, a book by Jon Krakauer also named Under the Banner of Heaven. Only six members of the Lafferty family on the FX series share names with their real-life counterparts: Brenda, her husband de ella Allen, the two killers and their respective wives. The other brothers on the show have made-up names and storylines inspired, but not taken directly from, other members of the family. Garfield’s character is also 100 percent fictional—so any thirsting after him or speculating about his character is innocent, as far as I’m concerned. In this essay, I’m talking about the fictional representation of this event in the series, not the real people, who are, as I said, no good and very bad. There are some highly suspect casting choices that, while everyone involved is very talented, make me question my own reality, frankly!
You can’t introduce me to six brothers played by attractive actors (Sam Worthington, Wyatt Russell, Seth Numrich, Rory Culkin, Taylor St. Pierre, and Billy Howle) and not expect my mind to wander. I am, after all, a human. Because there are literally so many of them, I started to ask myself right away: Who’s the favorite son? Who’s the rebellious son? Is there a gay son? What’s the drama? Questions like this cloud my brain even though I know I’m watching a true-crime thriller. One son is put in charge of the family to spite another for not choosing the father’s profession. Doesn’t that sound like something out of game of Thrones? Then, in later episodes, the brothers stand up for each other when their father verbally and physically abuses them. That literally happened on Succession. Heck, both the fictionalized Lafferty family on Under the Banner of Heaven and the fictional Roy family on Succession have a Culkin. The comparisons are right there!!
And when we meet these characters originally, Brenda is welcomed into this family that is so “nice” to her in a way that feels creepy without crossing any discernible lines. Everyone is weirdly flirtatious with her, from her then-boyfriend’s father to his brothers from him and even all of his brother’s wives from her. What kind of Lannister bullshit is going on?! It’s very Cersei welcoming Sansa to King’s Landing and calling her “my little dove,” and it’s… weird! It made me wonder, Okay, what are the reasons here? Who’s going to betray Brenda first? And then I remember that, um, I actually know exactly how this is going to end because it is based on something that actually happened, and not some plot cooked up in a writer’s room.
As if that wasn’t enough, Under the Banner of Heaven also has dramatized flashbacks to Joseph Smith’s early days founding the Church of Latter-Day Saints with his wife that play out like some dish-y period drama. Andrew Burnap, who plays Smith, was just cast as a literal Disney prince in the upcoming Snow White adaptation with Rachel Zegler. When he’s publicly shamed for adultery, men rip his shirt off of him and his abs of him glisten like something out of Outlander. I’m supposed to be learning something here! It’s so jarring, and it’s also, like, kinda superfluous to the plot of the show?? So why add it just to make me question my own attractions? It’s rude!
When I watch television, my fandom-loving brain is trained to seek out problematic “sad boy” faves, characters you love to hate, and pick “teams.” That’s totally inappropriate with this show, but I’m finding it difficult to help myself. These “characters,” do pretty horrific things on Under the Banner of Heaven… but I’ve watched characters do horrible things on television before. I have even loved characters who’ve done horrible things before, especially when they’re good-looking. Hot villains are a whole thing! The difference is that these things, again, really happened.
It’s escapist to pretend the Lafferty brothers are playing the game of Thrones or competing for the proverbial kiss from daddy like Kendall and Roman Roy. However, this is the problem when we get addicted to true crime. It’s actually not meant to be popcorn entertainment. We’re so over-saturated with the genre at this point that it’s shockingly easy to turn off the part of your brain that knows these stories are about real killers and real victims of real crimes. I’m loving Under The Banner of Heaven, with and without my operatic delusions, but maybe it’s time for Hollywood to move on and find another genre to exploit.
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