In the opening minutes of FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) is at the scene of a brutal murder in a quiet Utah town where neighbors don’t lock their doors at night. In a display rare for a police thriller, both officers are deeply shaken, one sitting on the ground in disbelief.
“We need to stand up,” says Pyre, a deeply devout Mormon. “Gather yourself, for their sake.”
That idea of performance is at the center of Under the Banner of Heaven. Its first two episodes premiered exclusively on Hulu April 28, with future episodes releasing weekly. The show is based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book of the same title, detailing the brutal 1984 murder of a woman and her infant baby by two brothers from the Lafferty clan, a prominent family in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — widely known and often described in the series as the Mormon church. The series also explores how sins fester behind closed doors when families and institutions insist on appearing “upstanding,” prioritizing public presentation over personal values.
The show raises questions of doubt and certainty that will be relevant to viewers of all faiths and backgrounds, relying on Garfield’s winning performance. Garfield portrays Pyre (a fictional construct) as eager to appear upright, yet at times struggling earnestly with the true meaning of his faith. After previously portraying televangelist Jim Bakker (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) and Jesuit missionary Sebastião Rodrigues (Silence), Garfield seems drawn to roles exploring questions of faith and doubt. Does true faith look more like unbending certainty, the show asks — as in the case of the Lafferty brothers — or like making peace with uncertainty and doubt?
The narrative slowly unfolds within the structure of a detective serial. Pyre’s faith is increasingly challenged as he uncovers how religious strictures can fester and metastasize into something much darker, ultimately undermining and corrupting the structures of family and community. The radicalization of the Laffertys, enabled by powerful institutions, follows a path familiar to both students of history and readers of the news today: from anti-tax protests, to attempts at controlling women’s bodies, the inevitable result is violence.
Under the Banner of Heaven succeeds best when it trusts its audience to grasp the complex dynamics playing out on screen rather than overly relying on exposition and voiceover. Audiences might also be challenged by the show’s use of historical reenactments to depict the early days of the Latter-day Saints: Actors depict Joseph Smith, Emma Hale, and Brigham Young in flashbacks. While the flashbacks don’t quite gel with the show’s current-day action, they demonstrate a key theme of the show: When sharing our history, we are wielding a form of power — the power to include and the power to erase. A repeated mantra by institutional authority figures is the instruction, when confronted by a challenging piece of history, to “leave the things you do not understand on the shelf.”
These historical scenes are also important in detailing the brutal oppression Latter-day Saints experienced during the early days of their faith. Therefore, maintaining an “upstanding” appearance is a form of protection. So is maintaining power.
When the younger brother Dan Lafferty runs for sheriff, he argues with utmost conviction that victory in the election will represent the manifestation of God’s will (“The Lord guides my political vision,” he insists). Clean-cut star Wyatt Russell’s performance in this role works to subtly critique and undermine our expectations of who we trust to wield power in the United States. Dan’s hypocrisy and selfishness become increasingly apparent as the show unfolds. (Perhaps when everyone tells you that you’re a Kennedy, one character suggests, you assume that you’re not just fated, but entitled to be in power).
It’s likely the show will be just as controversial as Krakauer’s book, which was rebuked by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for what they called misinterpretations of their faith. (For one, the church consistently states that the “fundamentalist” members of the church central to the narrative do not espouse a more “fundamental” version of the faith, but rather a misapplication and misinterpretation of it).
In any case, viewing Under the Banner of Heaven solely as a critique of Latter-Day Saints and their faith would not just be unfair to practitioners of that faith, but perhaps the least insightful interpretation. The series is ultimately a warning to all of us that no matter where we come from, both history and faith can always be misapplied and weaponized. The seeds of radicalization are present all along, and a failure to view our own weaknesses in the harsh light of truth can allow something dangerous to grow in the shadows. If we think the propensity for radicalization is present only in the “other,” and refuse to critically examine our own history and biases, we are engaged in a fiction.