When Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) steps onto the crime scene of the double-homicide case that’ll swallow him up and spit him out as someone possibly unrecognizable to himself, the horror of the tableaux before him is conveyed through his reactions. We do glimpse the first body, a young mother lying face down in her kitchen in a pool of blood. Pyre girds himself before he enters the nursery. We don’t see what he does, but his response is enough. He turns away, his eyes filled with tears. “Evil,” he whispers to himself.
Pyre takes a few moments to gather himself before exiting the formerly cozy home in the distant Salt Lake City suburbs. Outside, a uniformed officer is even more shaken up. Ordered to start collecting evidence, he balks: “I don’t think I can go back in.”
So begins FX on Hulu’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” — a moody and well-paced but schematic seven-part miniseries based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 true-crime bestseller about the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its recent past. The dead woman, Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), was the kind of person who could expect to fit right in in her devout town. The daughter of a bishop (the leader of a Mormon congregation), Brenda was a graduate of Brigham Young University, the church’s flagship educational institution, who didn’t see for herself a career past motherhood. But the clan she married into, regarded by some as the Kennedys of Utah, never accepted her as one of their own. She wasn’t local (she was from far-flung Idaho) and she aspired to join, however briefly, the male-dominated industry of TV news. Most unforgivably, she sometimes questioned the judgment of her feckless and runty husband, Allen (Billy Howle), and his five older brothers.
In many respects, “Under the Banner of Heaven” is a deeply conventional (and heavily fictionalized) police procedural in which the investigator finds himself destabilized by a uniquely disturbing case. Pyre’s non-Mormon partner, the older and grouchier Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), immediately suspects Allen, who is found covered in blood. Pyre is less sure, though his sympathies withdraw when he discovers that Allen has renounced his LDS faith. But as Pyre learns more about several of the Lafferty brothers’ turn toward fundamentalism — and the willingness of church leaders and everyone else to protect the family — he begins to feel unmoored from the small-town community he’d never had reason to question before. To set him on this journey, Pyre, reportedly a composite character, is rendered as more than a touch naive about the people around him, whose gravest sins and darkest impulses shouldn’t come as a surprise to a detective.
Unlike Krakauer, who was met with fierce backlash from the church for his book, series creator Dustin Lance Black was raised Mormon. (The Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” Black also penned a few episodes of HBO’s fundamentalist polygamy drama “Big Love.”) Black’s upbringing may explain why the TV adaptation stresses the differences between mainstream Mormonism and its fundamentalist offshoots. But with regular folk providing cover for the “fundies” in this case, the miniseries plays out as a Mormon Gothic, the atmosphere growing heavier and more fetid as some of the Laffertys convince themselves that they’ve uncovered the true gospel, which includes some rather Old Testament practices. Modern frustrations, such as taxes, encourage a further retreat into delusions of persecution, until defiance of the law transforms them into reality.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” is most compelling when it explores the circumstances that paved the way for the Lafferty brood’s self-conversion and smartly concludes there’s no single reason for it. The Lafferty patriarch’s abuse of his sons is partly to blame, normalizing violence in the home. The larger religious expectation of wifely submission plays a role, with older brothers Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan (Wyatt Russell) flying into a rage when their ideas are disputed by those they consider beneath them (a.k.a., women). Then there’s the blind eye that neighbors and fellow congregants turn toward bruised faces, extreme rhetoric and other red flags.
Black wants viewers to know where the complicit are coming from. The miniseries frequently flashes back to defining moments in 19th-century Mormon history, when Joseph Smith and Brigham Young faced violent opposition and early believers were massacred for their faith. But Black may be assuming too much familiarity with these personages on the part of viewers, and the scenes detract — at least in the first five episodes screened for critics — from the main story line’s momentum. As the Laffertys become radicalized, Pyre’s crisis of faith and challenging home life become comparatively less engaging. The spectacle of men so covetous of uncontested, godlike authority that they end up destroying their own families simply overwhelms the marital disagreements of a protagonist who’s never allowed to be anything but a hero. Garfield lets us in on his character’s sensitivity and existential injuries, but it’s largely Howle who provides the series’ emotional anchor.
In interviews, Black has said he doesn’t expect his show to be broadly embraced by Mormons. But he does take care to depict details of LDS life that convey a relatable or gently humorous humanity. Pyre prays in his office, and he’s not the only officer to do so. Depending on his changing mood, Taba will — or will not — curse around his partner. (“Language, please!” admonishes Pyre at one point.) More relevant to the case, Pyre knows how to navigate around the more anti-law-enforcement figures as an agent of the state — even when he’s out of his depth, as he and Taba draw closer to the kind of men armed and ready to defend their way of life.
Although the miniseries takes place in the same year that “Ghostbusters” and “Purple Rain” were released, the production offers few obvious signposts indicating the mid-1980s. The decision to underplay the temporal setting suggests that we’re meant to see this as a timeless story, and in many ways, it is. It’s slightly irksome that the show voices the bulk of its feminist critiques through the fathers of daughters, such as Pyre and Allen — the safest and most conservative bid for sympathy imaginable (though Brenda gets a few lines herself in flashbacks). But there’s something hard to shake about the series’ portrait of a tightknit community that acts exactly as designed: shielding its most visible members from consequences at the expense of their victims. The names, faces and ideologies may change, but the impulse to protect the powerful is still too much with us.
Under the Banner of Heaven (seven episodes) premieres Thursday with Episodes 1 and 2 on FX on Hulu. New episodes will stream weekly.