In Hulu and FX’s new true crime limited series Under the Banner of Heaven, Andrew Garfield plays a detective with a crisis of faith as a brutal murder threatens everything he thought he knew about his community. The first episode, “When God Was Love,” delves into the night of the crime itself as Jeb investigates and we learn more about the victim, Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones). With brilliant cinematography and top notch performances, Under the Banner of Heaven is a showcase for Garfield while drawing the viewer into its dark narrative.
Content warning: This recap contains discussions of a violent murder and a brief mention of domestic violence.
The episode opens with Detective Jeb Pyre playing with his daughters Anna and Caroline in an idyllic neighborhood. The family is preparing for Pioneer Day festivities but their peace is shattered when the station calls. Something horrific has happened, and Jeb is called into work. They say a quick evening prayer with Jeb’s mother Josie, who is losing her memory, and Jeb heads out to investigate.
As Jeb arrives at the scene of the crime, he finds an officer sitting on the steps, barely holding it together. It’s clear that whatever has happened here, it’s a far worse crime than this sleepy town is used to handling. Inside, Jeb finds blood everywhere and a woman’s body in the kitchen, composing himself as he makes his way through the house filled with children’s toys. He nearly breaks when he sees a photo of the victim on the wall, someone he clearly knows from the town. But it’s the scene in the bedroom that prompts his emotional breakdown: the woman’s baby was murdered as well. It was a vicious attack, and it is clear this mother fought for her life. Jeb composes himself outside to rally his fellow investigators despite their shock. A figure covered in blood emerges in the road with his hands up as the officers train their guns on him.
At the station, Jeb confers with his partner, Detective Bill Taba. The man from the road is Allen Lafferty, whose wife, Brenda, is the murder victim along with their daughter Erica. The Laffertys are a big name in the LDS church, and Jeb takes the lead in the interrogation knowing that this will cause complications for the case. Allen is shaken, insisting that he didn’t commit this murder and that he last saw his family in the morning before work. As he provides more details, Jeb keeps a gentle line of questioning while Bill takes a more aggressive tone. Allen is frantic about the rest of his family, wondering if someone is targeting them. But an odd theme emerges: Allen doesn’t know where his brothers are or what they’re doing, and even more worrying, strange men with beards have been targeting members of his family. Bill doesn’t believe the story, wanting a quick confession from a suspect he views as guilty, but recognition dawns in Jeb’s eyes.
As Allen is processed, they attempt to call his brother Ron. He doesn’t answer, and Bill jokes that it’s past a Mormon’s bedtime. But Jeb quietly insists that this is only more worrisome. He knows any Mormon would pick up a call after 10 p.m. because it would almost certainly be an emergency. As Bill and Jeb discuss the case, cultural differences become clear. Jeb sees the beard detail as important since around here, no Mormons have beards, but cynical Bill sees Alan’s story as part of the classic drifter excuse used in so many murder investigations before — Bill is also an outsider, both because he is Native American and because he is not Mormon. Bill knows that Jeb is too close to this, having known the Lafferty family for years, and he offers to go in alone to spare Jeb having to hear Alan’s confession. Jeb agrees, though he’s not convinced Alan is the right suspect.
In the interrogation room, Allen tells Bill that while Brenda was still devout and considered herself LDS, he had drifted away. Jeb bursts in, thinking that Allen not supporting Brenda’s devotion is the true motive, thinking that Allen was clearly upset that Brenda remained devout while he strayed. Bill tries to regain control, sensing that Jeb has lost his impartiality, but Allen insists that he always supported Brenda, sobbing that she was “perfect.” He tells Jeb his only crime is not insisting on taking Brenda away from the LDS before it was too late. The officers work on locating the rest of the Laffertys, but this is difficult as only two out of five brothers have a working phone.
Jeb gets a call from his wife Rebecca, who shares that Josie had another nightmare. Jeb is resistant to the idea of starting her on medication. He asks his wife to look for an address for the Laffertys in old church directories. Meanwhile, Jeb and Bill return to Allen. There were no signs of forced entry and no valuables taken. It’s not looking good for him, and Jeb shrugs as he asks the man to give them something more than random prophets if he really is innocent. Allen admits that his brothers Ron and Dan were always interested in Brenda, nagging at her for every perceived deviation from Mormon tradition. He asks Jeb if Brenda and Erica deserved their fate for being less than perfect, and when Jeb answers no, Allen sarcastically remarks that he must not be a good Mormon then.
Rebecca gives them an address for Robin Lafferty, and Bill goes to check it out. Alone with Allen, Jeb asks if he misses the church. Allen shares that he misses the sense of family he had as a boy. But he most wishes he still believed that God was made of love. Bill finds a pile of burning documents in Robin’s yard, but no sign of the man. Both Bill and Jeb start to feel as though there’s more to the story, though Jeb is still stuck on the idea that Allen no longer being a church member and leaving the faith points to his guilt.
Bill calls Brenda’s father to notify him, which Jeb is upset about. Bill angrily points out that nothing about this investigation has followed normal procedure so far and accuses the majority white Mormon force of racism. He notes that he has hard evidence from his chat with Brenda’s father, who accused Allen of beating Brenda. Jeb takes this as proof of Allen’s guilt since Brenda’s father is a bishop in the church. But Allen sticks to his story of bearded men coming after his family, and the detectives put out an APB to find Robin and the mysterious men.
A motel owner calls to let them know a man fitting Allen’s description just checked in. They head to the motel room, where a woman and several terrified children are waiting while her husband escapes out the back window. The officers chase him down and are shocked to find that this is Robin Lafferty. Bill tells a stunned Jeb to go home and check on his own family. If the Laffertys know him from church, they could be a target too.
Jeb talks with his mother in the kitchen, who in a moment of lucidity tells him she wants to die to be with his father. Emotionally drained, Jeb confesses his greatest fear to Rebecca. What if the killer isn’t some outsider or a man who fell from grace? What if someone within the church did this?
In Brenda’s perspective, we see her singing a hymn for the 1980 Miss Twin Falls Idaho pageant. She doesn’t win, but her optimism is undaunted. She wants to be a television reporter, but not in cities she sees as sinful like Chicago or New York. Her dream is Salt Lake City and Brigham Young University, but her father is reluctant to let her go. In a flash forward, Brenda has indeed made it to BYU, a smile on her face.
She meets Allen at temple, eventually coming home to meet his family. The Laffertys seem friendly, and Brenda’s sunshine personality is winning. But there’s something off from the start in the way the brothers and their families react to Brenda, who despite her overall innocence and clear devotion to Mormonism is still more outspoken than the wives. The family also treats her as an outsider, with the many children staring at her and patriarch Ammon keeping a watchful eye. Dan immediately questions her about the rules at BYU, trying to find out how faithful she really is. The party gets underway, and the brothers compete for her attention. Ron and his wife Diana are welcoming even as Ron teases Brenda. Dan’s wife Matilda rambles about how she met Dan on his mission trip to Scotland and how her two daughters are from her first husband.
A scared man arrives at the house, begging for help as he worried that “they’ve come for me.” Diana lets him in, not knowing what else to do. Ron goes to Ammon and they fight while Brenda observes from afar. It turns out the man is their neighbor, who is currently fighting with the federal government for control of his land. If they don’t clear it for planting, the government will take it to build a highway. Ammon rallies the family to help, telling his family that while he and the neighbor have had their differences, he draws the line at outsiders coming after members of the faith.
The entire family clears the field, with Brenda pitching in with the men as Ammon watches. After they complete the task, Ammon announces he is leaving with his wife on a mission for the church. He appoints Dan to take care of the family business over Ron, who is older, which doesn’t go over well. It gets worse as he appoints Robin as Dan’s second in command.
Throughout the episode, and especially during Allen’s interrogation with Jeb, flashes of Mormon history are shown. Fifteen year old Joseph Smith has a vision from God to marry Emma, after which the Holy Spirit will reveal secret truths to him. Emma’s father Isaac disapproves, but she and Joseph believe God himself has ordained their relationship. The two run away and found the Mormon church together.
We flash to Mountain Meadows in 1859, a massacre of non-Mormon settlers by Mormon forces. A soldier finds the skeletal remains of hundreds along with their possessions in a field.
Under the Banner of Heaven will drop weekly on Hulu, with episodes one and two available now.