After watching the first episode of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” I was admittedly sceptical. The first episode starts out slow, simply introducing the murder at the centre and the detective who will be solving it. Everything about the first hour of the show told me this would be a straightforward true-crime detective story. That’s not inherently a bad thing, especially as a lover of murder mysteries, but still, the show’s slow pace gave me pause. Luckily, what starts as a sluggish, straightforward mystery ends up becoming a gripping commentary on much larger issues.
FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which premiered on Hulu in the US earlier this year and will hit Disney+ in the UK on 27th July, is based on the 2003 true-crime novel by Jon Krakauer. It follows the investigation into the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter in a heavily Mormon suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. Brenda had married into a prominent Mormon family (at one point referred to as the “Kennedy’s of Utah”) who at first seem like your average Mormon family. Over time, though, the Lafferty brothers begin to turn away from the mainstream church and form a small splinter group that grows increasingly fundamentalist — and violent.
The lead detective on the case, Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), is also Mormon, which complicates matters. Unlike the Lafferty’s, though, Pyre isn’t a real person, and neither is his Indigenous partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham). Their existence in the series works well, though, as the differences between them create compelling dialogue that also helpfully explains many of the cultural aspects of Mormonism that would likely be lost on non-Mormon viewers.
The story is told via simultaneous plotlines — one following the Lafferty family and the events that led up to Brenda’s murder, and one following Pyre’s investigation. This makes for an extremely suspenseful viewing experience, although somewhat surprisingly, the suspense doesn’t come from hiding who the killer is. Rather, that detail is revealed within the first few episodes. As a result, the suspense comes not from the who but from the how, and in this case the how is a wild ride, so much so that I often had to remind myself the series is based on a true story.
Of course, the structure of “Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and it’s not trying to be. In fact, the first few episodes trick you into thinking the series will be relatively standard in its approach to storytelling. The deeper you get, though, the more that standard is utilized to dig deeper into much larger themes.
The main driver of those themes is Pyre’s internal conflict. It would be easy for him to write off the Lafferty’s as unstable fundamentalists, except for the fact that they are such a well-known family. The more he learns about what drove them into delusion, the more he is forced to grapple with larger systemic issues with the Mormon Church. This leads to a crisis of faith that is difficult for him to shake, and only gets more difficult as church leaders attempt to brush the case under the rug, forcing Pyre to decide between law and faith. Garfield received the series’ sole Emmy nomination, and understandably so, as he portrays Pyre and this internal conflict captivatingly.
The tension between law and faith also connects to a larger thread throughout about the conflict between internal and external forces. Much of Mormon doctrine is based on the idea that external forces are a constant threat to the church and to an individual’s faith. Dan Lafferty, one of the brothers, utilizes this tension to build momentum for his fundamentalist ideology, insisting that the law as it stands is slowly eroding the Mormon faith as it is meant to exist. Dan’s use of this tension forces many of the other characters to start questioning if the things that go against their beliefs are “external forces” or simply the truth.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” focuses its attention specifically on Mormonism, but it also isn’t afraid to connect these themes to American society at-large. After all, Mormonism is a distinctly American religion, and many of the themes at play — law vs. faith, internal vs. external forces — are common ideas throughout the country, and have been utilized numerous times by people like Dan Lafferty to justify violence. In fact, I’d argue that if the series has a clear thematic flaw, it is that the connection between Mormonism and American society isn’t quite clear enough.
I was pleasantly surprised that what started as a slow, straightforward mystery ended up as a series that left me thinking about much larger issues long after I watched the last episode.
Under The Banner of Heaven begins Wednesday 27th July on Disney+ It is available to stream now on HULU in the US.