Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven season 1

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Paul Asay

TV Series Review

East Rockwell, Utah, had never seen such a crime. Not even close.

The body of 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty was found on the kitchen floor, her throat slit. Her 15-month-old daughter, Chloe, was still in her nursery, beheaded.

Allen Lafferty, Brenda’s blood-covered husband, is quickly apprehended and dragged down to the police station for questioning. And while Allen claims he’s innocent, Det. Jeb Pyle doubts it. Allen recently left the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, known by most outsiders as the Mormon Church. And with Jeb a proud LDS member himself, he figures that if Allen isn’t right with God, then he might not be right with his family, either.

“If you’ve turned your back on your heavenly father, I’m confident that forensics will have proved your guilt by tomorrow morning,” he tells the suspect.

But Allen knows otherwise. He believes that the evidence will point elsewhere. And if you follow that evidence far enough, it might even point back to the DNA of the LDS Church itself.

The Devil Didn’t Make Me Do It: God Did

Under the Banner of Heaven, based on Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book of the same name, is a true-crime miniseries. But Krakauer’s book and the series itself have bigger quarry in mind. They’re trying to dig into what they would see is the murder’s root cause: religion.

And to see why, we’re going to have to get into some spoilers.

The real crime at the heart of the story—the murders of Brenda and Chloe Lafferty—were committed by two of Allen’s brothers, Ron and Dan. Both had fallen into extremist movement that embraced some of the earliest and most controversial tenants of Mormonism. Ron, at least, was excommunicated from the LDS Church (which had rejected such teachings) as a result. After his excommunication, Ron believed he had received a revelation from God telling him to “remove” several people that had (according to his handwritten notes) “become obstacles in [God’s] path”. Brenda and Erica were included in Ron’s list of obstacles.

Now, plenty of unhinged killers have used religion as an excuse to commit terrible acts. But Under the Banner of Heaven (both the book and the miniseries) suggests that this act is rooted in Mormonism itself.

In the miniseries, grieving husband Allen Lafferty pulls the narrative all the way back to 1830, when Joseph Smith allegedly uncovered a set of golden plates brought to him from the angel Moroni. It lingers on the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, when Mormons (along with some native Americans from the Paiute tribe) slaughtered more than 100 people, including women and children. Mormonism may pretend to be a kinder, gentler faith, populated by good, upstanding people who don’t even drink coffee. But make no mistake, the show tells us plainly, the LDS church is built on polygamy and blood.

“If you really believe that our God is love, then you don’t know who you are, brother,” Allen tells investigator Jeb Pyre (a fictional character created for the miniseries).

That pushes Under the Banner of Heaven past the realm of a pure true-crime story and into that of a crisis of faith. Jeb—a committed Mormon—must not only solve two brutal murders, but he’s asked to grapple with his religion’s own difficult history and legacy. “What if tonight is just the first edge of a bone that’s working its way out of our own desert floor?” He asks his wife in the opening episode.

Tackling the Tabernacle

It should be noted that Jeb asks that question while showering with his wife, after we see a bit of her breast as she climbs in with him. That’s far from the show’s only content issue. We see blood and corpses. We hear strong profanity. This is a harsh story told harshly.

But what stuck with me most was Under the Banner of Heaven’s religion—or lack thereof. And while the show explicitly targets Mormonism, one need not squint too hard to see a critique of religion itself in a more general sense.

“I think religion is fine if you have some distance and temper it with common sense,” Krakauer told indiewire.com. “A danger is that religion, by design, is trying to create the opposite, to make faith trump intelligence and rational thought. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and absolute belief corrupts absolutely.”

Common sense, of course, is a wonderful thing—a gift from God. And I certainly believe that God asks us to use all of us when we follow Him—our heart, mind and soul. The dichotomy that Krakauer sets before us is thus a false one.

And the show’s historical wanderings—while interesting and, in their own way, important—weaken the series itself, pulling viewers out of the concrete crime at hand. It feels as if it’s delivering a sermon itself. Whether you agree with the sermon or not, it makes for a less effective story. Few tune into Hulu to be preached at.

Under the Banner of Heaven features some fine performances (anchored by Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield). But it’s a brutal, bloody narrative that doubles as a rather shrill screed. And it’s not a banner I wish to follow, even on TV.

Episode Reviews

Apr. 28, 2022 – S1, Ep1: “When God Was Love”

A terrible murder has been committed: Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Chloe, are found in pools of their own blood. Suspicion immediately falls on Allen Lafferty, Brenda’s husband. And when the devout investigator Jeb Pyre learns that Allen left the Church of Latter Day Saints, he grows doubly suspicious. But Allen insists that “men with beards” were showing a significant interest in his family, and he believes that they may be responsible.

The episode (and series) is explicitly tied to Mormonism, and we see tons of scenes reflecting the characters’ faith. Jeb and his family engage in a family prayer before he heads off to the crime scene. He kneels in prayer in his office—interrupted by partner Bill Taba. In flashback, we see that Brenda was also a devout Mormon—albeit one who departed significantly from the Lafferty’s stricter interpretations of the faith.

We see the Laffertys practice their own version of Mormonism, too. Led by harsh patriarch Ammon, the large clan clears a neighbor’s field so that it won’t go to the hated government (despite the fact that Ammon and his neighbor clearly harbor bad blood). And when Ammon announces that he and his wife are going on a senior mission trip, he leaves the family in charge of Dan—his second oldest son (much to the dismay of Ron, his eldest). We see and hear references to other Mormon practices, too, including their rejection of caffeine. Jeb sneaks a few forbidden French fries from his partner.

In even deeper flashbacks, we see teen Joseph Smith and his girlfriend found the LDS Church with an alleged divine revelation. (The show suggests that the couple’s love was a big motivating factor in the sect’s formation: While the woman’s father disapproved of Joseph, Joseph went over Dad’s head to insist their relationship was sanctified by God Himself.)

In another flashback, we’re taken to the aftermath of a horrific massacre. We see corpses and smoking debris, and the camera zeroes on the body of a mother cradling her now skeletonized baby. The modern-day murder is pretty horrific, too. We don’t see the bodies distinctly, but we do see plenty of blood at the crime scene—one so horrific that a police officer says he doesn’t know if he can go in again. We learn that Brenda was strangled with a cord before having her throat cut; her baby was beheaded. We hear that Allen used to beat Brenda; Allen insists that it was just one fight that got out of hand. A snake is run over by a tractor: We see its mangled body squirm.

Jeb takes a shower and is joined by his wife. We see a bit of her breast as she climbs in. We learn that several Lafferty brothers were attracted to Brenda when they first met her, and they lightly flirt with her as her then beau, Allen, looks on; Brenda was attracted to Ron, too. One Lafferty wife says that her husband—Dan—was sweet on her sister. “He even gave her the holy dunk,” she says. “Who knows what else he gave her.” After clearing a field (and being told that no one could “pee” until it was cleared), we see the brothers lined up along a fence, urinating. One jokingly turns to another and urinates on his feet.

We hear references to drinking at secular colleges. There’s a reference to gossip being the “devil’s playground,” and we’re told that there’s no shame in divorce “if you divorced a Catholic.” Characters say the f-word once and the s-word twice. We also hear “d–n,” “h—” and “g-dd–n,” once each.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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