'Big Love's Creators Deconstruct The Show's Finale

Originally published on March 22, 2011 12:30 pm

There are many spoilers ahead in this piece, and by spoilers, we mean this: If you want to be surprised by the final few episodes of Big Love, you should not read or listen to this piece until you finish the season.

For five seasons, HBO's Big Love has chronicled the lives of polygamist Bill Henrickson, played by Bill Paxton, and his three wives, Nicki, Barb and Margie, played respectively by Chloe Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin. Last night, in the series finale, their story came to a dramatic — and surprising — close.

On today's Fresh Air, producers Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, who created the series, talk candidly about the show's fifth and final season, and explain their rationale for the ending.

(Final warning: Spoilers begin here.)

In the final episode, family patriarch Bill — who has already weathered extortion plots, an affair, an exile and an election — is shot and killed by a crazed neighbor. It's an unexpected plot twist, says Olsen, and one that was designed to have Bill leave the show as a hero.

"We wanted to give him a Gary Cooper exit from the show, but it went much deeper than that," he says. "We didn't want Bill to go out a loser or a failure or an unrepentant fundamentalist. And we wanted to find that thing that would render his life's existence the most successful. We felt [that] the greatest testimony to Bill would be that he had created a family that endured."

Surely enough, after Bill's death, his three wives — who'd slowly become more independent as the season progressed — decide to stay together. The closeness of the three widows, says Scheffer, was something Big Love's writers really wanted to highlight.

"The big secret of the show is that it's always been a feminist show," he says. "And even though it was dramatizing this very patriarchal system in some ways, the opportunities that women found — particularly in this very abusive system — to support each other was what drew us to the material in the first place, and gave us reason to want to explore it. ... We felt that there were opportunities for women to find support in one another."

Olsen and Scheffer, who've been a couple 20 years, hit upon the idea of exploring the dynamics of a polygamous family shortly after the second inauguration of President George W. Bush. They say they were offended by campaign-season rhetoric about what makes a family and wanted to show that any family can embody "the idea of family values." That's partially why their fictional family continued to remain together, in spite of all of the drama going on around them.

"Every time there's a whiff of discord in the family, [people think] 'they're going to bail. This one's going to bail,' " Olsen says. "And Will and I have never looked at it like that. We've never played the 'who's going to leave the marriage' game, because I think we have a firm belief that you stick it out — that marriage is worth sticking out."

It's a philosophy that guides the two men in their own marriage, Scheffer says, particularly now that they've created a show — and worked together every single day.

"It's been good for us," he says. "I think it's forged us. I don't think we'd be the couple we are had we not had this experience together."

"It's not for the faint of heart," chimes in Olsen. "You better have your ducks in a row before you enter into it."

Interview Highlights

On the sanctity of marriage

Olsen: "There's a family here. There's a relationship here. There's love beneath the acrimony. There's certainly connection. And there's certainly identity. The hardest thing in the world is to forge that independence in a marriage — not to leave it and find it on the other side of it — but to try and find that in union and in marriage."

Scheffer: "For us, the show has been about staking out a marriage. And we've thrown everything at this family, and certainly a person's independence and personhood is one of the most fundamental rights and fundamental values in life. I think that there's been this shift in American culture, where there's this idea where you can't have that unless you separate or divorce or go off on your own. And for us — we've been together for 20 years — we struggle with those issues. But there is something about staying and forging your personality in that caldron of relationship that to us has great value. And it's something that's been lost of the easy come-and-go of American culture and American reality television."

On the changes in the Henrickson family

Olsen: "I don't think we ever want to be considered poster boys for the [idea] that if you're born into an abusive relationship, you should endure and there's value in that — because I don't think that's really what the show is. But we have been dramatizing the evolution and change in a fundamentalist, patriarchal family from Year 1 to Year 5. ... And we've been watching them — all of them — struggle with their roles and the relationship of power as Bill, as a patriarch, does hold the cards. But there's growth in the guy, and that's what we're looking at — the growth in that family."

On telling Bill Paxton that his character was going to be shot to death

Scheffer: "We were in the room when Bill read the script. ... Bill wasn't happy."

Olsen: "Initially, we should say. Initially, Bill had trouble that his character was going to die. It's not how he envisioned the end of his character's journey nor the end of the series. And he just had a big problem with it — I think he had a vested relationship with the character of Bill Henrickson, and he feels, rightfully so, that he has husbanded that character for five years, and it hurt him to know that that character was going to die. We explained what we were going for, and he got it. But it took about a week or two for Bill to come around and see it differently."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The HBO series "Big Love" featured its final episode last night. I was kind of shocked by the ending. We're going to talk with the creators of the series, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, about why it ended the way it did and what it's like to bring a series to a close after five seasons.

Here's the spoiler alert: We're going to be giving away what happens at the end. So if you haven't yet seen the finale of "Big Love," but you plan to, don't listen to our interview today. It will be waiting for you on our website, freshair.npr.org.

"Big Love" revolved around a polygamist family, Bill Henrickson and his three wives, Barb, Nickie and Margene. Bill grew up on a fundamentalist compound that practiced polygamy. Although he left the compound at age 14, he continued to believe in polygamy and live with his three wives and three adjoining homes in a suburb of Salt Lake.

He co-owned a big-box store called Home Plus, and in season four, he got elected to the state Senate. At the end of that season, he came out as polygamist. The consequences of coming out reverberated during season five. He was facing 20 years in prison for statutory rape because his third wife, Margene, neglected to tell him she was 16 when they married. And he was losing his store.

Home life was very tense. His wives were fighting, and two of them wanted more independence. The deranged prophet of the compound where Bill grew up was trying to kill him, just one of the reasons Bill was trying to clean up the compounds.

His larger mission was to reform polygamy by introducing a bill to legalize it and by starting his own church.

My guests, Mark Olsen, Will Scheffer, co-created "Big Love" and wrote the pilot and the finale. They've been a couple for 20 years.

Let's start with a scene from the finale. Barb, the senior wife, feels strongly that she's been called to the priesthood and should have the power to administer blessings. But Bill thinks that this is a violation of their religion for a woman to have this power.

This is the scene in which she reveals to Bill that she's planning to go against his wishes and get baptized in a reformed Mormon church that allows women to enter the priesthood. Bill's reaction is to start packing his bags.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Big Love")

Mr. BILL PAXTON (Actor): (As Bill Henrickson): You're getting baptized into the reform church?

Ms. JEANNE TRIPPLEHORN (Actor): (As Barb Henrickson): Yes. I just, I didn't know how to tell you, obviously, and I didn't think it would really change that much. I really - now what are you doing?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) Going to Nickie's.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) No, Bill. That's not right.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) Not right? In the midst of this maelstrom, it's becoming obvious we don't have much in common. Marriage is about sharing. There's none of that going on between us except sharing problems, suspicions and disrespect.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) No. I've come to realize that it's unfair for me to expect you to compromise your deeply held beliefs. So why keep rubbing your nose in it? That's why I chose not to tell you. How much are you packing?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) I don't know.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) How long are you staying?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) I don't know. Could be this is just reality. Maybe things are shifting. My responsibilities lie elsewhere, other children in other houses, other churches.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) That's not fair. And this isn't right. I followed you into polygamy, and let me tell you, it was pretty alien from my beliefs. But I did it out of love.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) We're back in the public eye in a big way. This will only be seen as your repudiation of us, of me, now, at our most delicate time as a family. You just had to go and do this now.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) Yes, now.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) It's deliberately throwing a lit match on the gasoline.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) If you're going to be gone for one year or 20, I need supports, a spiritual home to draw strength from.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) And it will destroy us.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) How?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) Your church is anti-polygamist. Church members are judged by their families, and you'll be judged and held back because of us. You'll be a chipped plate, a second-class citizen. You'll be ashamed of your church for being intolerant of us and resentful of us for holding you back.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) No, please.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill) The two nights I spent in jail, I didn't sleep. I wasn't thinking about rape or being arrested or the humiliation. I was thinking about us, you and me. And now we're back to this place.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb) Well, what am I supposed to do? You have two spouses to be with at night. I have none.

GROSS: Will Scheffer, Mark Olsen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the ending of "Big Love," a great final episode. So there's so much to talk about. Now, you know, the question I kept asking myself toward the end was: How are you going to deal with the fact that each of the three wives is feeling very hemmed in by Bill?

Barb thinks she's called to be a priest and administer blessings, which Bill opposes. Margene wants to enter the outside world and maybe do relief work. And even Nickie, who is the most traditional fundamentalist of the wives, wants to expand her life, and she's been working in a shelter for abused polygamist women.

So all the wives seem to really move on and stop having to answer to Bill, and your resolution was to shoot Bill. Like, at the last minute, he's shot and killed by a neighbor who's flipping out after the neighbor and his wife separated. And I didn't think of that at all.

So can you tell us how you decided to resolve the conflicts between the wives and Bill by having Bill killed?

Mr. MARK OLSEN (Co-creator, "Big Love"): You know, it's a tough question because I'm having problems with the premise of the question.


Mr. OLSEN: No, no. We approached that action of Bill's demise from a very different paradigm. We didn't feel, contrary to much of our viewing audience, that the wives were necessarily hemmed in by Bill.

Barb and Bill certainly this year have had a fundamental disagreement about some theology, and it goes to the core, both of their cores, since this family is largely theologically based or, you know, religiously based.

But her love for him also endures. So I've never looked at it as everyone is chafing under Bill's authority, remove Bill from the equation and the wives are OK. It was actually quite the opposite, that, believe it or not, we were trying to dramatize a family still, at the end of five years with all the ups and downs, that fundamentally continues to work.

At the end of the day, this family is an institution that, in theory, we hope the audience if not is rooting for is at least invested in.

GROSS: So why did you have to kill Bill to do that?

Mr. OLSEN: Well, believe it or not, we wanted Bill to go out a hero. We wanted him to go - I mean, on the most surface level, we wanted to give him sort of a Gary Cooper kind of exit from the show, but it went much deeper than that.

In the writers' room at the beginning of this year, knowing that we were going to be wrapping it up, we were looking down the road, and we didn't want Bill to go out a loser or a failure or an unrepentant fundamentalist.

And we wanted to find that thing which would render his life's existence the most successful. And we felt by far the greatest testimony to Bill would be that he had created a family that endured. And we felt the best way to establish that would be to then remove him from the equation via Carl and find out that a year later, two years later, these women are still bound together, are bonded deeply, in something like a family.

So that was the whole reason. That was our raison d'etre for Bill's demise.

GROSS: The ending is very much about sisterhood. You know, the three wives stay together and seem closer than ever. Was that a big part of the equation when you were figuring out how do we end this thing?

Mr. WILL SCHEFFER (Co-creator, "Big Love"): Absolutely. I mean, for me, I think the big secret of the show, which I think a lot of people got at the beginning, but some people were late to understanding, is that it's always been a feminist show and that, even though it was dramatizing this very patriarchal system that, you know, the show was really about sisterhood.

And it was one of the things that drew us to the material in the first place and gave us reason to want to explore it because apart from all the crimes against women that are committed on the compounds and the nature of the system, which is inherently patriarchal, we felt that there were opportunities for women to actually find support in one another.

And it was a large part of the literature and the interviews that we took part in, that you heard a lot of that from sister-wives. And it was a fundamentally fascinating dichotomy, you know, that we felt was very interesting.

Mr. OLSEN: And not only did we know that going into it, but as writers, sometimes you discover things through, you know, gifts that the actors or actresses bring to the material.

But sometimes your pens, or now your fingers on a keyboard, tell you where the heat is, tell you what's really true about something. And there's no denying that - I think certainly for Will and I, but for every writer who ever set foot in the "Big Love" writers' room, those wives scenes, we call them the wives meeting scenes, when everyone has their calendars and their planners and whatnot, they're just the heart and soul. You know, they're the heart and soul of any given episode and somewhat of the series itself.

I don't want to say they write themselves, but there's great joy in crafting those, and you just know, from the minute those words hit the keyboard, that that's where the gold is, and that's where the strength, so much of the core of this family and this material is.

GROSS: Now, I just have to interrupt here and say that in the final season, there was so much dissention within the family. I thought the family was falling apart. I thought Barb was going to leave for several reasons.

One is, I mean, she just wanted to be more independent, and it was very hard for her to be that way. She wanted to be a priestess, and she couldn't. And there was so much resentment between a couple of the wives, and, you know, Nickie was being more weird and more unpleasant than ever.

And I think if people are just - who don't know the series are just listening to you talk, you'd think it was this, like, really harmonious family. And things - I thought things were just, like, falling apart at the end. There was so much conflict.

Mr. OLSEN: You know - and most people have felt that. I have to say we are aware that most people have felt that. And it surprised me to a certain extent that every time there would be some - I understand there's degrees of discord.

But every time there's a whiff of discord in the family, people were opining: Oh, they're going to leave. Oh, they're going to bail. This one's about to bail.

And, you know, Will and I have never looked at it like that. We've never played the who's-going-to-leave-the-marriage game because I think we have a firm belief that to a certain extent has been called into question by everyone's response to this material, that you stick it out, that marriage is worth sticking out.

And there's a family here. There's a relationship here. There's love beneath the acrimony. There's certainly connection. And there's certainly identity. And we've always felt that the hardest thing in the world is to forge that independence in a marriage, you know, not to leave it and find it on the other side of that, but to try and find that in union and in marriage.

So we've - and yes, Barb and Bill, we met at hammer and tong. And Nickie was a rag this year. But I think honestly, my favorite scene of the finale and perhaps of the series is that little car ride that Barb and the girls go on in the finale. It's just - because it says it all. It says it all. Nickie is just as sour as can be in that backseat, and Margene is as loving as she can be, and all their problems are there. But you see the love that exists.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And I have to, you know, chime in and say that for us, the show has been about staking out a marriage. Yeah, we've thrown everything at this family, and certainly, you know, a person's independence and personhood is one of the most fundamental rights and the most fundamental values I think in life.

And so I think that there's been this kind of shift in American culture, where there's this idea that you can't have that unless you separate, divorce, go off on your own. And for us marriage - we've been together 20 years, and marriage is important, and it's a key value in our life. And we struggle with those issues...

GROSS: I've got to interrupt. I appreciate what you're saying. Your relationship, the one that you have with each other, I assume, is a relationship of equality, which is not the relationship in "Big Love." You have three women who on some level have to answer to the husband. They have to share the husband.

He sees himself as the final arbiter of what the women are allowed to do. He has to give them permission to be free if they want to be, you know, independent. He's the wage-earner. He's the decision-maker. He's the final authority. He's the powerbroker. It's not a relationship of equals.

Mr. SCHEFFER: No, it's not, I mean, and that's what we've dramatized. And we've pushed that - we've questioned that essential structure to its limit.

And I think that, you know, one thing that we're positing in this finale is that: What would have happened if this structure were allowed to develop outside of the shadows, outside of the compound.

GROSS: The structure meaning polygamy?

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. I mean, it's something that we posit, you know, in this final year especially. And I don't think we necessarily make any final judgments about it. But look, in a way, this show has been a metaphor for marriage, period.

And that essential value of staying and struggling it through - look, we're not saying that people on the compound and women on the compound should stay in this kind of structure but that this particular relationship that we've chosen to dramatize, this particular family, this family in the context that we've created for them, we've seen them begin to grow and change in ways that we didn't necessarily expect.

Mr. OLSEN: Clearly, I don't think we ever want to be considered poster boys for the fact that if you're born in an abusive relationship, you endure, and there's value in that, because I don't think that's really what the show is.

But we have been dramatizing the evolution and change in a fundamentalist, patriarchal family from year one to year five. And we've been watching them, all of them, you know, struggle with their roles and the relationship of power and whatnot as Bill, as a patriarch - I mean, you're quite right. He does hold the cards. But there's growth in the guy, and that's kind of what we're looking at is the growth in that family.

GROSS: My guests are Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, the co-creators of "Big Love," and they've also written many of the episodes and "Big Love" has just ended in a very surprising way, bringing this HBO series to I think a very fulfilling close.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Spoiler alert: We're talking about last night's final episode of the HBO series "Big Love." My guests are the co-creators of the series, Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen. The series ended with Bill, the main character, getting shot to death by his neighbor.

So what was it like when you told Bill Paxton that his character was going to be shot to death in the final episode? Like, were you in the room? Did you tell him, or were you in the room with him when he read the script so you could see the look on his face?

Mr. SCHEFFER: We were in the room when Bill read the script. And we had all of our, you know, main, key actors, we gave them the red pages, as they were called. Mark and I gave them personally, and we were sitting with them while they read them. Bill wasn't happy.

Mr. OLSEN: Bill had trouble with it. Bill - initially, we should say. Initially, Bill had trouble with the fact that his character was going to die. It's not how he envisioned the end of his character's journey nor the end of the series.

And he just had a big problem with it. I think it was partly - I think it worked on a lot of levels. But I just think he had a vested relationship in the character of Bill Henrickson. He feels, and rightfully so, that he has husbanded that character for five years, and it hurt him to know that that character was going to die. It hurt him.

We explained what we were going for, and he got it. He heard that. But it took about a week or two for Bill to come around and see it differently.

GROSS: So if Bill Paxton didn't want his character to be shot to death, if he thought that that was a mistake, do you know how he envisioned the ending, what were the alternative endings he saw in his mind?

Mr. OLSEN: Well, kind of, kind of because it's what he wanted every year, and he wanted more of it. I think literally he wanted he and the wives to go head off into the sunset together. Maybe if they were all on horses and cowboy hats - you know, he's always had this very romantic vision, and I mean that in a good way, of he and his wives.

I think it stunned Bill himself to find out that so many women across America were angry at him and his character.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: No, it did. It did. I think it hurt his feelings. And I think he was surprised. You know, to varying degrees, Will and I were surprised at that response, as well. But he's always had this vision of Bill and these wives kind of as rock stars, as the Beatles. And he wanted them to go on in a very kind of romantic way.

GROSS: In the writers' room, when you try and figure out what is the ending going to be, did you all agree, yes, absolutely, Bill, the patriarch of the family, is going to be shot to death, that's what we're going to do? Or were there alternate endings that were proposed that you considered and then decided to reject?

Mr. SCHEFFER: I remember that when this idea, you know, kind of fully - that we knew we were going to end it this year and that we had this kind of ending in sight that people were generally - and the wives would go on afterwards, you know, that that was the epilogue that we always envisioned, everyone was pretty supportive and on-board with it is what I remember.

And, you know, I know we ran it by HBO just to make sure that they were behind it ending this way, and they were very supportive. They loved it.

And then we had second guesses. You know, should we really do this? You know, and it was like that kind of back-stepping that you do. But we were well into having conceived the last year and sort of dotted all the I's and crossed the T's that we started to think: Is this really - do we really want to do this?

You know, but I think at the beginning of our writing period this year, when we said this is what we want to do now, it's time, everyone was pretty on-board.

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, Will's right. We staked out that territory. Like a lot of the major decisions that we've done story-wise on this show, it kind of bursts out of one of us, it lands almost fully formed, and we stick to it.

I remember very vividly we were driving home on a section of the 210 highway -before the writers, when we were in the writers' room. And we were just batting ideas. It was the last season. How's it going to end?

And I have to say I think Will's the one who came up with: Bill dies, the wives stick together. I mean, it was just that simple and that clean. And that has always been the touchstone, the lodestar.

As Will says: Once you come up with a theory, once you come up with a goal, you'll spend months second-guessing it. There was a good three-week period where we were evaluating: No, maybe actually Barb gets cancer again, and - and by, like, episode nine or 10, we had this incredible - I have to say incredibly moving scenario where she goes to Oregon, the family goes to Oregon, to see Sarah one last time. Barb's gone through the ravages of chemo, and the wives and Bill let her go in the Pacific Ocean.

You know, we toyed with a lot of stuff. But it always kept coming back to it -no, that strong card got - that trumps. That original instinct just tends to trump. It all makes sense with that choice.

GROSS: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the co-creators of "Big Love," will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the creators of the HBO series Big Love, which concluded its fifth and final season last night. So consider this a spoiler alert.

The series revolved around a polygamist family: Bill Hendrickson and his wives, Barb, Nicki, and Margene. Bill grew up on a fundamentalist compound run by a self-appointed profit who considered himself the leader of the true Mormons, although the Mormon Church totally disavowed the group and its polygamist practices. Bill left the compound when he was 14 but continued to believe in polygamy.

Let's hear the scene Mark Olsen described as perhaps his favorite scene from the finale. Barb has traded in her old station wagon for a new sporty convertible, something totally out of character for such a practical woman. In this scene, Barb takes her two sister wives for a drive on the highway in her new car. Barb and Margene love the sense of freedom; the disapproving Nicki is in the backseat.

(Soundbite of HBO series, Big Love)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHLOE SEVIGNY (Actor): (as Nicki) It's cramped back here.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) I figured I didn't need the extra space since I'm no longer hauling kids and groceries full time.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) Our responsibilities have changed, as both you and Bill keep reminding me.

Ms. GINNIFER GOODWIN (Actor): (as Margene) Make it go really fast.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) Where do you want to go, downtown?

Ms. GOODWIN: (as Margene) No, out of town. Healthier far away, way out.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) Could you put the top up, please?

(Soundbite of sigh)

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) Just relax. Enjoy the ride. It's the last time we'll all be together for the first time in Honeybee.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) You named you impractical little car Honeybee?

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (as Barb) Mm-hmm.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (as Nicki) I think In Your Face would be a better name.

Ms. GOODWIN: (as Margene) All right everyone, be quiet. Let's go.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Now, there's a lot of other things that have happened in this season and in previous seasons, where I wonder when did you know that this was a trait of the character. For example, in this season, in this final season, we learned that Margene, who's youngest of the wives, was actually underage when she married Bill. She was only 16, which means that when she was 16 and consummating the relationship with Bill it was statutory rape legally. And Bill is shocked. He didn't know she was 16, she had kept that hidden. And he's actually being charged with statutory rape and facing up to 20 years in prison.

When did you, the creators and writers of the show, know that Margene was underage? Did you know that in season one?

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah. I'm trying to protect ourselves in this answer so it doesn't seem like we're seat of the...

GROSS: Why do you need protection?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it doesn't seem like we're seat of the pants, fly-by-night, anything goes kind of guys. But yeah, truthfully, no, we did not know that. We learned that, as it were...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: ...midpoint through the season. We were cracking the Christmas episode in the writers' room. Will was not part of the writers' room at that process. He was off in his office doing a draft of our season opener, so he was absent from most of our discussions as we were doing our infamous Christmas episode.

And we had all the stories there. We had it all laid out, but it wasn't the engine wasn't turning over. There was something fundamentally wrong. You know, Will and I come from large families, and particularly on my side, they're very messy Christmases. There was a kind of mess that had not quite landed yet in that episode.

And I remember going back to Will's office going, we've got to send Jamie out to draft. We've got to send her out to outline, but it's not quite there. What's missing? And Will just out of the blue blurts out: Marge reveals she was 16 when they got married. You know, and it was one of those things it, yes, it was in the very, very in the moment, but in the best possible way that it not only turned over that episode, it made sense of the season. It made sense of that character. It just made sense of everything.

And you, one of the Will was talking about it a few moments ago, you discover more as you go along about the characters. You certainly have your roadmap but many things happened on the way to Rome and you can go off in different directions, as we certainly have. But you're always trying to fill in backstory. And you allow yourself that freedom. You allow certain undelineated areas of character to exist to become hosts of material as you go forward so that the creative process remains alive and vivid and you're not just doling out consequences of pre-existing facts.

So, short answer. On the one hand, it was very in the moment. But on the other, it was one of those things that felt just inevitable the second it came out of Will. It just - it felt like this inevitable that we were lucky enough to receive, you know, in time to harness it.

GROSS: Now let me ask you another question about when you knew about a certain plot development or personality trait, character trait in Big Love. Alby, who, a great character in the series and a great performance by Matt Ross, Alby is - starts off the series as the son of the self-proclaimed prophet of the fundamentalist compound. And he's a self-proclaimed prophet, he's a cult leader and he's no good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He's a really evil guy. And Alby, the son, becomes more and more evil and, may I say, demented as the series goes on, and he's responsible for crimes and sadistic acts. But we also learn he's a very repressed deeply in the closet homosexual who happens to be living his life as a polygamist heterosexual. The reality and the truth of who he is aren't getting along very well and obviously being eaten alive by that. When did you guys know that Alby was a deeply closeted repressed homosexual?

Mr. SCHEFFER: I think we knew that from the beginning. It was sort of I don't think we knew the behavior as well as we kind of learned it in the first year because he, you know, I think that's when we start to establish this kind of specific ways that he, you know, kind of behaves as a repressed gay man in this particular context of this, you know, horrible fundamentalist life on a compound.

Mr. OLSEN: Well, it was baked into the DNA of that character in the show. That character was always intended to be the represent the ascension of Warren Jeffs in Colorado City. And although nothing has ever been proven, to my mind Warren Jeffs has always had a certain effeminate air that comes off him. It just it's what he exudes. And we borrowed that. I mean we knew that. We knew that was part of what Matt was doing. It was part of why we cast him, part of what he presented that was so interesting.

And there was a long discussion. There was a long deeply collaborative discussion with HBO if we really wanted to go in this direction with this character and we said absolutely.

GROSS: I'm wondering if the connection that you made between Alby's repressed homosexuality and his sadism and brutality was challenged by some viewers, particularly gay viewers, who might feel that back in the days when homosexuality was considered a pathology and was even defined medically as a pathology. In some movies, if you were gay and you were repressed, that would explain, you know, you were evil. There was something evil that you were going to express during the course of the film. And I think some people are really uncomfortable with that.

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah. I think that's a totally valid point. I do. And it's one that we entertained a lot when we were discussing the direction to take Alby's character. Do we want to use this as a vehicle to dramatize someone who is repressed and finds a way through that thicket to claim their soul and to claim their ultimate identity, which is a very valid choice, even in that world.

You know, there's many ex not that Mormons are fundamentalists themselves but there's, you know, many gay ex-Mormons who have gone through really hard times and certainly stand for the proposition that that is a valid dramatic choice. But I think we felt that the other choice was something that we were much more interested in nailing in this particular material. And I don't think it I would rephrase the question a little bit or the assumption behind the question.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OLSEN: It's not so much that because one is repressed one is necessary - or gay and repressed one is evil back into the 50s pathology, but I do think Will and I are basically comfortable that if one is gay and repressed there is a certain tragedy to that in the same way that any soul that does not find its expression, does not find its purpose in life's expression and a degree of authenticity, whatever that lid is that's placed on top of them is a tragic lid and the life lived on the other side of it will be to greater or lesser degree somewhat in a shadow or a fraction of what the fullest expression of that soul could become.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And I think, you know, I have to say that, you know, we're middle-aged gay men and, you know, we were born into a '70s kind of culture. I, you know, Vito Russo's book about the stereotypical, you know, behavior of gay characters in popular culture was, you know, on our radar, our reading list, and it was something that we were completely a part of. And so I think that making a piece of popular culture in 2007, when we kind of were fully invested in Big Love, we had come through a lot of iterations of the portrayal of gays in popular culture, you know, over the years.

And so we thought we were doing something kind of subversive and fresh and exciting by portraying a gay character in this context who was still being so abused by a culture and so repressed that people still kill themselves, you know, which was always a kind of critique that we kind of had against a lot of versions of popular culture like The Children's Hour in the '50s.

And you know, and I think that, you know, what we thought we were doing and what we were excited about was in this particular culture the conditions aren't unlike the 1950s, you know, and so people do still kill themselves. People are separated from the mainstream enough so that they don't value themselves as gay and women. And there are these kind of conditions that still result in this kind of horrible repression that Alby's impossible life, you know, kind of dramatizes.

So we thought we were kind of saying look guys, we've been through this. You know, we've lived through this; we've seen popular culture hopefully move on from this, but it's still happening in certain places in America.

GROSS: My guests are Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, the creators of the HBO series Big Love, which ended its five-season run last night. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the co-creators of Big Love, the HBO series about a polygamist family, which concluded last night after five seasons.

In the final episode of the previous season, of the penultimate season of Big Love, the character of Bill comes out publicly as a polygamist man. This is right after he wins the election for state Senate, and that public coming out, the repercussions of that play throughout the final episode.

As gay men yourselves, did you have any kind of coming out experiences that you let reverberate in Bill's coming out as a polygamist - not to compare homosexuality and polygamy, but there's still this sense of this like, you know, public coming out?

Mr. SCHEFFER: I think that, you know, there's a certain point as a gay man, as a gay artist, as someone who's sort of coming to terms with themselves and coming to terms with what they want to do in the world where, you know, at a certain point it's not enough to be private about it. It's not enough to sort of hold it inside and go through one's life without telling one's parents, one's, you know, one's family, one's community. And, you know, it's something that becomes almost essential to your soul that it's expressed. You know, and in order to be a whole person you feel like you've got to state it and you've got to state it publicly.

And that's something that I think became important to Bill's character and I think that that was something that you saw him make the decision about, not only for political reasons where he felt like polygamy was being misrepresented by the compounds and the public - I'm talking about the fictional world, you know, the way that the compounds were representing polygamy in the public eye, that he had to make a statement about what he felt his family meant and he had to sort of put another persona on polygamy.

Mr. OLSEN: I think the decision that we made fourth season for Bill, the character, to make an assessment of his life and determine you know what, I'm running for office because I'm going to take this platform, a public platform, and declare who we are and put a new face on polygamy.

I think it comes from, well, certainly I can speak to my life and the issues that relate to and the tsuris engendered by keeping this secret, you know, it becomes overwhelming. As the years accrete and you're still compartmentalizing and you're still trying to juggle who knows, who doesn't know, how do I keep these separate factions apart and how do I keep them from not speaking to, you know, it just, and that was Bill's life. That was what he had come to. And he made an assessment that the problems that he was facing in his family were to a certain extent related to that secret keeping.

And Will's right. You know, it was gilded with other colors. He was - he didn't want the public face of polygamy to be determined by the face of the compound's any, you know, in the same way that we kind of look at each other. It's like must the Gay Pride Parade began with the float with the transvestite?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: You know, can't it begin with the businessman, you know? So yes, there's a lot of other colors that go into it and impulses. But I think anyone who is pushed into, you know, pushed into that corner and is keeping those deep personal secrets about something that goes to the very core of who they are, just has that inextirpable impulse to be free, to be free of it.

GROSS: So you've been married for 20 years, and gay marriage has been legal a much shorter time than that. So when you were married 20 years ago, was that a religious ceremony or an improvised ceremony?

Mr. OLSEN: We - there's two dates. There's June 21st, Mark into Will's apartment. And which was what - 1991, 1990 whatever it was?

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. Almost 20 years ago.

Mr. OLSEN: And then when there was the brief window here in California. We actually just moments before the November election on Prop 8, we had a justice of the peace quickly assemble in our editor's room and made it official.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. We had, you know, claimed domestic partnership at City Hall way early way into our relationship, so I think we thought of ourself as married, and as the kind of debate has, you know, kind of raged around us, we've made our own determination of how important marriage was to us as a couple and what kind of vows and contractual elements we wanted to put into place and what kind of standing before our family and our community and before, you know, God and the universe that we wanted to have in terms of this commitment we have to each other.

Mr. OLSEN: Before God, the universe and HBO.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So "Big Love" just ended after five seasons.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. I...

GROSS: I'm going to miss the characters. Will you?

Mr. OLSEN: Desperately.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Very much.

Mr. OLSEN: No. Will, you have not earned the right to say that.


Mr. OLSEN: Just two months ago you were like I don't want a sixth - I'm so sick of these characters. I'm so sick of these characters. And I'm like...

Mr. SCHEFFER: I didn't say I was sick of the characters. I said I was...

Mr. OLSEN: Don't go there. Don't go there.

Mr. SCHEFFER: ...tired of writing the show.

Mr. OLSEN: All right. Well, all right.

Mr. SCHEFFER: I love the characters.

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, it, you know what? It's - we're going through withdrawal right now, or at least I am. I'll speak for myself. Those characters, and particularly when you're running a show and taking it this distance, they are in your head 24/7. Yeah. You're on the toilet, the characters are talking in your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: You're shaving, the characters are in your head. You're doing the dishes, you're talking to the characters. You're - they live with you, you know, in your soul. They are as real as any member of my family, you know, and as real or realer than the friends I once had when I had time for friends before the series began.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: You know, and so it's a wrenching process to let go of them. We love them desperately.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. I didn't know how hard it was going to be to wrap it up. You know, I was sort of I remember like around episode seven, before we had, you know, revealed the ending to the actors, you know, some of the other producers would come in and they'd be a little bit mopey and I'd be like, what are you talking about? We've got a show to put on, people, you know. And I just was like really kind of not feeling it. And then when we got - as soon as we told the actors - I think it was around episode eight or around then, out of 10, I just had the most difficult time. I mean Mark will tell you, I was crying nonstop from that point on and it was just much more wrenching than I ever imagined it would be, to give up the characters, you know, and give up the show.

GROSS: So one more question. You've been together for 20 years. You're married. Is doing a series together good for a relationship? Would you recommend other couples try it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHEFFER: It depends on the couple, certainly. It's been good for us, and I think it sort of goes towards what we've been saying. You know, it's been difficult. I wouldn't have it any other way, certainly. I think it's forged us. I don't think we'd be the couple we are had we not had this experience together.

Mr. OLSEN: I would also say though, you - it's not for the faint of heart. And you'd better have your ducks in a row before you enter into it.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you so much for the series.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Thank you so much, Terry.

Mr. OLSEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer co-created the HBO series "Big Love," which ended its fifth and final season last night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.