Season 2 of HBO's Big Love opens on a house in chaos: Polygamist Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives have potentially been outed, and the family is reeling. Normally steady Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) debates whether to leave altogether; fundamentalist Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) spins between righteousness and revenge; free-spirited Margene (Walk the Line's Ginnifer Goodwin) frets and freaks like the 21-year-old she is. In the midst of the crisis, Bill drives out to the desert to pray and, along with The Book of Mormon, brings a copy of Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of the clashing and ultimately synergistic personalities of Lincoln's war cabinet. It's an incredibly thoughtful touch, and a nice symbol of what makes season 2 so worth watching: Big Love has dropped the last vestiges of its ostentatious quirkiness and fashioned itself into a rich and grounded family drama, filled with conflicting characters aimed toward a higher goal (in this case, love, not war).
That's not to say the series doesn't have its odd moments. The world of the Henricksons, a family whose very existence is a secret, is packed with reminders that what you see may not be what you get. The wives' three separate houses all connect in the backyard; a Tupperware container carries a handgun; Nicki's powerful prophet dad, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), calculates how much cheese he'll need for the apocalypse in a room covered with cloud-lined wallpaper evoking heaven itself. But these scenes of the polygamist lifestyle both the Henricksons' relatively mainstream household and Roman's stark fundamentalist compound are entirely earned because the family at the center feels totally real. Paxton is, as always, likable. Here he plays a man constantly in touch with his morality, and he pulls it off with a practical, unpreachy ease. But it's the women, with their jagged struggle to love each other, who fascinate. Tripplehorn is the embodiment of sensibility and desperate grace as a wife questioning the faith that forged her family; Sevigny's Nicki is like a snake in French braids. Greedy and childish, Nicki's also a crucial, ringing voice for the benefits of plural marriage, which is, after all, the basis of Big Love: She can make traditional coupling sound downright lonesome. ''Poor Joey and Wanda,'' she laments of Bill's brother and sister-in-law. ''No other spouses to lean on how are they going to make it through this crisis with only each other?'' Sevigny has a hell of a tricky job: As the least appealing of the three women, she must still be a winning booster for polygamy without that, the show wouldn't work. Glowering and swishing her prairie skirts, Sevigny tackles the job splendidly, giving a passionate, slightly poisoned heart to Big Love. B+