The title “Under the Banner of Heaven” comes from John Taylor, third president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). “God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with Heaven we will be ranged under the banner of Heaven against the Government.” Taylor was— like his predecessors Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, the church’s famous founder — a professed polygamist. “The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife; God says different.”
Plural marriage is only a small plot point in the FX true-crime limited series “Under the Banner of Heaven,” centering on the 1984 murder of a Mormon mother and her infant daughter. But it’s ultimately what gets Dan Lafferty (Wyatt Russell) excommunicated, and that is a very big deal in LDS-land. “The Laffertys — they’re kind of like the Utah Kennedys,” explains Detective Pyre (played by Andrew Garfield). Laughs his partner, Detective Taba (Gil Birmingham), “Good thing I voted for Nixon.”
Pyre, a devout Mormon with twin 8-year-old girls on the brink of baptism, and Taba, a recent Vegas transplant whose non-white skin tone stands out even more in the community than his caffeine consumption and profanity use, are tasked with solving the grisly killing of 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty (English actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, star of Hulu’s romantic drama “Normal People”) and her 15-month-old baby girl. Suspicion initially falls on Brenda’s husband, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle) — he does arrive on the scene bathed in blood — but the most logical explanation isn’t necessarily the correct one, is it?
The more we learn about this prominent Mormon family — especially Allen’s older brothers Dan and Ron (Sam Worthington, who co-starred with Garfield in the 2016 film “Hacksaw Ridge”) — the more unsettling things get. When Allen first brings Brenda home to a family picnic, the women — including Ron’s convert wife Dianna (the terrific Denise Gough, so memorable as a pill-popping Mormon housewife in “Angels in America” on Broadway and in London), and Dan’s wife, Matilda (Chloe Pirrie), a former Catholic and forever outsider who brought two kids to their marriage — are wonderfully warm and welcoming; the men, meanwhile, all comment on Brenda’s looks. Sure, she is a former beauty contestant, but she left all that back in Idaho to chase her broadcast journalism dreams: “I’m going to Salt Lake City, I’m going to Brigham Young University, I’m going to be on television,” Brenda tells her bishop father. (Edgar-Jones’ Midwestern accent, incidentally, is spot-on.) But the Lafferty men let their eyes linger just a beat too long. At one point, they call Brenda “property.” That’s just a little preview for what comes later.
In the 2003 book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith,” author Jon Krakauer covers the double murders alongside the history of the LDS Church. But 150+ years of religious history is a lot to pack into seven one-hour episodes (five were provided for review); Oscar-winning creator/executive producer/writer/director Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) does his best, but even the most devout viewer is bound to get impatient with the persistent pioneer-era flashbacks. And the historical reenactments — horses and buggies and rifles, oh my! — sometimes come off a bit cheesy.
Even though you know who did it before Pyre and Taba do (it is a real-life case, after all), you’ll be itching to get to the end. Garfield is earnest and compelling in the latest of a string of religiously motivated roles, after playing a Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist medic in the World War II film “Hacksaw Ridge” and the infamous Christian televangelist Jim Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” You’re rooting for him all the way… even after he saddles his wife, Rebecca (Adelaide Clemens), with all the business of birthday-party planning and pineapple upside-down cake-making — not to mention taking care of his mother (Sandra Seacat), who’s quickly descending into dementia. Even after he declares himself the “priesthood” holder — i.e., the last word and authority in the house. Ick, obviously.
But you’re still rooting for him. That Garfield charm goes a long way.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” premieres April 28 exclusively on Hulu with its first two episodes, followed by one new episode weekly.