The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an enduring object of fascination in popular culture. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who grew up one state over from Utah in Colorado, took musical theater by storm with The Book of Mormon, a characteristically lewd comedy about LDS missionaries in Uganda. There aren’t many practicing Mormons in the cast of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, but the church nonetheless looms over every aspect of the show, from the Muslim convert who takes issue with its history of racist ideology to the woman excommunicated for having an affair. Even more recently, a student group known as the Black Menaces went viral on TikTok for asking their peers at Brigham Young University how they feel about feminism, gay marriage, civil rights, and more.
That fascination extends to prestige television, where creators have ample time and space to explore it. From 2006 to 2011, HBO aired Big Love, an ensemble drama about a practicing polygamist and his three wives living quasi-undercover in suburban Salt Lake. Big Love clearly followed in the footsteps of The Sopranos, mining a similar contrast: an exotic, illegal subculture dealing with domestic mundanities. But, like most outside accounts of the LDS faith, Big Love was also interested in a much broader contradiction. The modern image of the church is almost aggressively straitlaced: the teetotaling that extends even to caffeine; the missionaries’ mandatory collared shirts and ties; the many, many mommy bloggers. And yet the mainstream church of more than 16 million members is directly adjacent to lurid and violent acts of social rebellion, both in its canonical history and its current fringe.
These conflicting stereotypes are the subject of journalist Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a book that starts as a work of true crime and expands into a popular history of the entire church. They’re also the subtext of the seven-episode adaptation that premiered this Thursday on FX, written by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black and initially directed by Hell or High Water’s David Mackenzie. If the premise of Big Love was that even religious extremists could lead surprisingly normal lives, Under the Banner of Heaven inverts it: Even the most by-the-book congregant, the show argues, can have ties to wildly unorthodox beliefs—whether they’re conscious of those ties or not.
For its journey to the screen, Under the Banner of Heaven gives that congregant a face and a name: Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), the devout Latter-day Saint assigned to investigate the shocking, bloody murder of young housewife Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter. The murders, perpetrated in heavily LDS Utah County in 1984 on the anniversary of the state’s Mormon settlement, are tragically real. Jeb is a fictional character, carefully constructed by Black to personify the faithful aghast at the crimes committed in their name.
A former pageant girl from Idaho, Brenda had married into the Lafferty clan, a brood of five boys that Jeb’s partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), a non-Mormon of Paiute descent, calls “the Kennedys of Utah.” He’s being only partly sarcastic. When Brenda first meets the Laffertys they’re the picture of Mormon propriety: pious, industrious, clean-cut, and close-knit. Her love story with Allen (Billy Howle), the youngest, ends with him soaked in her blood. What happened in between explains not just Brenda’s murder, but the thin line between believer and zealot; faith and madness; and, most provocatively, church and cult.
As a work of fiction, Under the Banner of Heaven has tools at its disposal that Krakauer did not. Like Hulu’s The Dropout, the show can use its creative license to shrink a sensational story back down to an intimate scale. Before long, teasing out the Laffertys’ interpersonal dynamics becomes the central mystery. Through interviews with family members and friends, Jeb identifies various inflection points in the Laffertys’ fall from grace. Where did they go wrong? Was it when domineering patriarch Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl) left on a senior mission, creating a power vacuum? Was it when Dan (Wyatt Russell), the second-oldest son, buckled under the pressure of being left in charge, turning to radicalism for guidance? Or was it something deeper—something latent in the Laffertys and the values they embraced that was there all along?
Dramatizing Under the Banner of Heaven also comes with tradeoffs. While a narrative approach can shade in Brenda’s ambitions of becoming a newscaster, or the financial strain that leaves eldest son Ron (Sam Worthington) prone to outside influence, the show has a harder time incorporating exposition about the origins and evolution of the church. Krakauer’s scope stretches from the prophet Joseph Smith and his fateful revelation regarding “plural marriage” to the succession crisis that followed his early death to the splintering off of various sects, most notoriously the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. Much to the chagrin of the LDS leadership, the FLDS embodies every negative trope the church has worked so hard to distance itself from; for decades, the openly polygamist offshoot essentially operated the remote outpost of Colorado City, Arizona, as a theocratic city-state. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a life sentence for multiple counts of child sexual assault.
Under the Banner of Heaven can’t simply lay this all out for us. Instead, it awkwardly inserts 19th-century reenactments into its 20th-century story, often introduced by figures like Allen abruptly transitioning from criminal interrogation to history lecture and back again. (Joseph Smith himself is a major presence, played by Andrew Burnap.) The five episodes screened for critics include a trip to Colorado City, and we watch one character receive what they experience as a divine revelation; part of what makes the church so vulnerable to schism is its belief that lay members can directly communicate with God, a built-in challenge to its official administration. It’s hard for Under the Banner of Heaven to communicate big-picture context like this as effectively as it does emotional texture.
When the show is able to effectively synthesize these two elements, it’s usually through Jeb. Capping off a run that includes an Oscar nomination and a pivotal role in a billion-dollar movie, Garfield heads into an acting hiatus on a high note. A seasoned cop marks an expansion of his range, but Garfield’s signature softness and sensitivity are essential to Jeb’s decency and deepening horror. A father of two young girls who cares for his aging mother, Jeb is deeply invested in his faith as a source of moral guidance and communal support. But the deeper he gets into the Lafferty case, the more disturbed he grows that the same doctrines could, in the wrong hands, be used to justify acts like Brenda and her child’s murder.
It’s important to stress, as Krakauer does, that none of the issues at stake are exclusive to the church. That’s part of what gives Under the Banner of Heaven its subversive charge: Its cast looks nothing like those the mass media typically holds up as examples of religious fundamentalism. They’re middle-class, affluent, and of course, white—a fact that’s not a coincidence. The church allowed Black men into the priesthood (essentially, to be a Mormon in good standing) only in 1978, just six years before the events of the show. Women are still barred; those in same-sex relationships can face excommunication.
The church also has the distinction of being remarkably recent as far as religions go, meaning there are copious records—both internal and external—of its entire history, and its transition to legitimacy is not far outside living memory. (In 1842, the anti-Mormon governor of Missouri was shot in the head, likely by a member of the church; in 2012, a Mormon sat at the top of a major party’s presidential ticket.) The church is not the first to go from a widely derided splinter group to an established global network; it is, however, the first to come out of the United States, a country from whom it inherited its inner tensions. America, too, has difficulty confronting its unsavory past, even when it makes itself felt in the present. Under the Banner of Heaven is an outside intervention, though it’s ultimately a story about what festers within.