The FX and Hulu limited series Under the Banner of Heaven starring Andrew Garfield, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sam Worthington, and many more has had immensely appropriately titled episodes thus far, and episode 4 “Church and State” is no exception. As the investigation into the murder of Brenda and her daughter grows increasingly complicated and convoluted, the episode focuses on the many mysteries that are resulting from this case, and brings to light the many questions the case is creating — not just from the detectives, but from the community and church.
We pick up where episode 3 left off with Jeb Pyre and Bill Taba on their way to the home of the Lafferty’s Bishop — whose family may or may not be on Dan’s Blood Atonement list. The detectives arrive at the Lowes’ home to find it empty and destroyed. Pyre’s detective skills pay off when he finds a file with the Laffertys’ name on it containing a letter penned by Diana — eldest Lafferty brother Dan’s wife — to the current prophet expressing her concern and asking for counsel over the brothers’ “questionable behavior.” Pyre notes that a wife reaching out to an LDS church prophet to call out her family would be taken as an extreme act.
Pyre gets ahold of the prophet’s secretary and uncovers that Diana’s letter was actually passed back to Bishop Lowe and one of his local counselors, a brother named Bascom. Faith unwavering, Pyre insists that prayers are all they will need when the secretary tells him that the prophet is “praying for your investigation.” While the top-down structure of the church can provide stability and emotional comfort for some in the face of uncertainty and adversity — though this will not always be the case for Pyre, which we learn later in the episode as the detective faces the reality of the all-seeing-eye of the LDS church.
It turns out brother Bascom works at the bank where Ron Lafferty was trying to get a business loan, Pyre discovers will paying the man a visit. There is a flashback here to the meeting between the two men, where a clearly agitated Ron is being told the loan cannot be approved because it is too much of a risk — the word has gotten out in the small community that the Laffertys are dodging property taxes, and the church has received a letter from Diane about Dan’s involvement in anti-tax organizations. On top of the troubling behavior from the family, Dan is also now running for Sheriff. Ron is beyond irate, but Bascom assures Pyre that the eldest Lafferty brother’s anger was directed at Dan — not Diana for writing the letter.
Pyre becomes rattled after an incredibly unsettling and doubt-inspiring meeting with Robin’s stake president — who has the audacity to show up to the station under the guise of spiritual counsel and ask Pyre to release Robin into his custody. The stake president calls Pyre’s faith into question — admonishing the respected detective for the sake of maintaining the church’s image and preventing embarrassment. Pyre is reaching a breaking point as the lines between fundamentalist Mormon ideals and the modern version of the religion are blurred. He learns from Allen that the letter to the prophet from Diane was in fact written with Brenda’s help. Pyre also learns from Robin and Bascom that the Lafferty brothers are much more united that it initially appears — Ron had been convinced to come to Dan’s side before being denied the loan and that he was actually pissed at Diane for writing the letter. Really, the only people standing between the Lafferty brothers and their desires are their wives and their earthly father.
At a press conference for the case, Pyre and Taba are instructed by the police chief to keep quiet about the fundamentalist connections to the Lafferty brothers and the unfolding murder investigation — wishing to spare the church the embarrassment rather than find true and swift justice for Brenda and her daughter. However, Pyre is fed up with the patriarchal orders that haunt that case and his own life, and he chooses to ignore the chief and bring up his suspicions that fundamentalist Mormon beliefs are a contributing factor to the case.
While being questioned about the letter penned by his sister-in-law Diana, Robin Lafferty reveals he believes the letter was written with the aid of Brenda, but if Dan knew about the letter he didn’t seem to mind. At the time of the letter, Dan’s mind was far too occupied by his campaign for Sheriff and memorizing libertarian mantras to spout through a star-spangled megaphone in the Fourth of July parade atop horseback. After the parade, the Lafferty brothers are hanging out while Dan smokes cigarettes and kisses a woman that is definitely not his wife. A disappointed Ammon Lafferty tells his son to shut up about the laws of man and to instead study on the laws of God.
Ammon’s made things worse (of course) by telling Dan to be more diligent in his study of God’s law, as Dan takes his earthly father’s words to heart and begins scouring the library for any amount of fundamentalist teachings from early Mormon prophets. Ever the one to think someone is out to get him and his family, Dan begins to think that “too much of our history seems to have been purposefully removed from every library in Utah,” and sets off to Colorado City, Arizona to talk to fundamentalist Mormons who still practice polygamy. In conversation with a young man that is part of the enclave there, Dan receives more information on the practice of polygamy and finds people who distrust the government just as much as him. The other man assures Dan he should not be concerned with the law, because if they come around “the faithful will be arranged under the banner of heaven against them” — a quote from the early Mormon prophet John Taylor (who Dan is now the number one fan of). The man gives Dan a suggested reading on polygamy — The Peace Maker.
Pyre and Taba finally get the Salt Lake City police files on Dan, and they are just as compelling as to be expected from Dan. While driving home, Dan has his wife Matilda read aloud from a copy of The Peace Maker. Matilda isn’t as crazy about the book as Dan is and remarks that she finds the book disturbing and confusing (which are honestly good words to describe her husband as well, but I digress). Dan warns his wife that what she is reading is official LDS theology printed by Joseph Smith himself, and that according to the text a man must have at least three wives to enter the highest kingdom of Heaven. In probably the most on-brand gaslighting moment I can recall seeing in recent television, Dan tells his wife that he must be allowed to practice polygamy if she wants him and God to be happy. Thanks to distracted driving, the pair get pulled over for speeding — which ultimately results in Dan fleeing the scene, being held up by traffic and arrested, then going on a rant where he shouts for those around him to “witness the tyrants!” Dan is clearly very mentally unstable and unpredictable.
In another flashback through Allen, we see Dan telling the Lafferty brothers about the need for spiritual alignment through polygamy. Dan tells Allen that polygamy is necessary if one wants to get into the Celestial Kingdom, which sets off Ron, who is already dealing with enough without having to worry about his family practicing more illegal activity by taking multiple wives. As it turns out, it’s not hard to calm Ron down — all it takes is the suggestion that he becomes the patriarch of the family as Dan is away
on his spiritual cleansing in prison. Ron may not be as stable as he initially may seem.
While Joseph Smith started the Mormon church in 1830, polygamy was not regularly practiced in the religion for another 20 years. At first, the practice was kept relatively secret by Smith — only bringing the ideals to his close inner circle. This inner circle would regularly take multiple wives from their pool of followers while publicly denouncing the practice in order to keep up appearances in the community and avoid legal repercussions. After Smith’s assassination in 1844 the church split into two separate groups, one being headed by Brigham Young who took his followers out West to Utah and instituted polygamy as an official practice of the community. This created extreme friction between the Mormons and the U.S. Government until 1890 when Wilford Woodruff, the then-president of the church, published a manifesto denouncing the practice.
Under the Banner of Heaven premieres weekly on Hulu, with episodes 1-4 available now. You can find all of our previous recaps for the series here.