Based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven takes a look at the fictionalized version of the real-life double murder committed by the brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, both fundamentalists in the Mormon church. Starring an ensemble cast of talent, the series is led by Andrew Garfield (fresh off his return as Peter-Three in No Way Home) who plays Detective Joe Pyre. Unlike some other cases which might have the detectives as outsiders looking in on an insular community, the murder of Brenda Lafferty (a fantastic Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter happens within Pyre’s own community: the Mormon community of Salt Lake City.
Under the Banner of Heaven is at its most successful when it perfectly blends Pyre and his partner Bill Taba’s (a compelling and snarky Gil Birmingham) back and forth with the flashbacks to the beginnings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The series, helmed by Dustin Lance Black (the scribe behind Milk), dares to dive deep into the history of the LDS Church, from its bloody beginnings to the fundamental schism in the religion when it came to polygamy. Employing Andrew Burnap as the actual Joseph Smith and Tyner Rushing as Emma Smith, viewers who might not be familiar with LDS are given a riveting lesson in the truth and fiction behind some of the seminal moments in the creation of the sect.
On the other side of the field are Pyre and Taba’s suspects: the entire Lafferty family, an influential family dubbed the “Mormon Kennedys.” The family, as you might suspect, is bountiful, but the key players are Ron (Sam Worthington doing his best with an American accent), Dan (Wyatt Russell in an even more hateable role than discount Captain America), and their wives Dianna (an absolutely incandescent Denise Gough) and Matilda (Chloe Pirrie). As Pyre learns more and more about what is rotten at the core of the Lafferty family through both his own research and through the mouth of Brenda’s husband Allen (Billy Howle), so too is the audience exposed to all the different facets of Mormonism.
Depending on what you’ve been exposed to, the fundamentalist side of the LDS Church (known as the FLDS) might be all that you’re familiar with. These are made up of groups of men obsessed with collecting as many wives as possible, including child brides. These are the people who the general public would call polygamists and some might call pedophiles. But, Under the Banner of Heaven is quick to show that it isn’t all just pedophiles and fundamentalists. Pyre himself is a highly devout member of the LDS Church, but one who doesn’t shy away from seeking out the truth even when the religious leadership caution him against it. Brenda’s family is also Mormon, though it is clear her Idaho-based family and her bishop father are far more liberal with their teachings, not simply happy to marry their daughter off to an influential family.
Brenda herself is devout but questions the system that she was born and raised into, as does Pyre as he delves deeper into the case and looks at the teachings that he is passing on to his own daughters. What Under the Banner of Heaven doesn’t do is sugarcoat the LDS Church. It is very much condemning the church for its conservative approach, especially toward how women are viewed. When Brenda questions why she must give up her career and her passions for her husband, his family is surprised, what more can a woman want other than to be a mother and wife?
The case shakes the faith of Pyre, especially when prodded by his partner Taba, who is a Paiute Indian and looks at the very white LDS Church with a wary eye. He grounds Pyre and Garfield and Birmingham’s chemistry is off the charts. Pyre is soft where Taba is hard, one is spiritual while the other is not. While we see good Mormon Pyre with everyone else, with Taba, he feels safe to question the religion he was raised under, even to doubt it.
Garfield is at his peak in this series, more so than any other recent performance, and his castmates aren’t far behind him. Edgar-Jones is earnest and emotional, often caught in difficult situations, Brenda is forced to try and see the bright side of things and Edgar-Jones plays her with such a sad sweetness. Gough’s Dianna is similarly compelling, as a mother of an entire brood of children, her journey tests not only her faith but her endurance. Gough is simply amazing in the final stretch of the story, giving a gut-wrenching performance.
The series is a slow burn, if you’re searching for a mid-season arrest and charge, you’ll be waiting for a while. Jumping back and forward through time, by the time you get to the final episode, you might feel as worn out as Pyre and Taba feel at the end of the case. It’s emotionally taxing, but that just makes it that much more worth it. Enlightening and harrowing, Under the Banner of Heaven doesn’t flinch away from the darkest and strangest corners of fundamentalism as searches for justice in the supposed promised land.
This spoiler-free review was based on screeners of the entire series of Under the Banner of Heaven.