Hulu’s seven-part miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven” is all about Utah and Latter-day Saints, and it gets most things right. Not everything, of course.
It’s a fictionalized account of the investigation into the 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month old daughter, Erica.
And it’s an absolute certainty that some are going to object to the way The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its history are portrayed.
But an effort was made to get things right. The producers even went back and looped the dialogue so that the actors aren’t pronouncing Zion as “Zi-ON,” but “Zi-en.” And there are references that only Utahns are going to get.
SPOILER ALERT • What follows is chock full of spoilers. If you don’t want to know what’s in the episodes before you watch them, STOP READING NOW.
Episode 1: “When God Was Love”
“Under the Banner of Heaven” wasn’t filmed in Utah, but Episode 1 opens with a panoramic shot of Utah Valley, including a shot of the Provo Temple. The scene soon focuses on Detective Jeb Pyre (Andre Garfield), who’s at home with his wife and daughters when he gets an urgent call alerting him that the bodies of Brenda and Erica have been found.
It’s July 24, 1984, and the Pyre (pronounced Pie-ree) daughters are disappointed they’ll miss the fireworks that night. “They do fireworks every year on Pioneer Day, so we’ll just see them next year,” says their mom, Rebecca (Adelaide Clemens).
Before Jeb (Andrew Garfield) heads out, the Pyres have a quick family prayer. One of the young daughters asks God to bless the missionaries and President Spencer W. Kimball. The miniseries correctly and consistently captures the Latter-day Saint mode of prayer.
PYRE ARRIVES AT THE CRIME SCENE, and he and the other officers are shaken. Pyre tries to hide his tears. Viewers see blood but don’t see the bodies; the horror is communicated by the officers’ reactions.
Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), the husband of Brenda and father of Erica, appears outside the house covered in blood. He’s arrested at gunpoint.
When Pyree’s partner, Det. Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) arrives at the station, a uniformed officer asks him, “Did we interrupt your date with Sister Moonshine, detective?” It’s rude, racist and authentic to Utah in the 1980s.
Pyre tells Taba that Allen is the suspect and that he’s from “a big LDS family. As in — highly regarded.” It’s the first of multiple references to the Laffertys being more prominent than they actually were. Pyre knows the Laffertys because he was once in the same LDS ward as they were.
Pyre takes the lead in the interview with Allen, “Mormon to Mormon.” Allen says he didn’t kill his wife and daughter, adding that he’s worried there’s “someone out there hunting my family. … For the past year or more, men — peculiar men — were taken with my family.” They had “long beards … like Bible or Book of Mormon prophets.”
Taba isn’t buying it. Pyre insists that men with beards could be something “meaningful” because “the church vigorously discourages them.”
Taba wants to get a confession out of Allen. “No offense to your secret LDS handshakes” — a reference to LDS temple ceremonies — “but it looks to me he prefers my company to Mormon to Mormon.” Pyre agrees.
Allen tells Taba, who’s not LDS, “If you want to find who’s responsible for this, look to them — the Mormons.” And, he says, he left the church, although Brenda was still a faithful member.
Pyre slams into the room quoting LDS scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants and asks if Allen was married in the temple and if he still has a temple recommend. Pyre’s attitude toward Allen turns severe when he learns he’s no longer Mormon.
ALLEN SAYS BRENDA WAS “the perfect Mormon girl” — and there’s a flashback to Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones) competing in the Miss Twin Falls, Idaho, pageant. (And singing off key.)
She doesn’t win, and she doesn’t care. She wants to go to a “big city” to be a TV news anchorwoman. Her father tells Brenda that God has a plan for her, which doesn’t include moving to New York or Chicago.
‘Of course his plan isn’t for me to move to Chicago or New York with all the rats and, like, Democrats and crazies,” Brenda says. (The line is realistic for then — and now). “I’ll go to a big city with values — Salt Lake City.” To attend BYU. She’s under the impression that BYU is in Salt Lake City. Which is weird. It is, of course, 40 miles south in Provo.
Brenda wanders around SLC, looking at the Church Office Building, the statue of Brigham Young in front of what was then the Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Building), and the temple.
ALLEN FEELS RESPONSIBLE for Brenda’s death, he says, because he got her caught up in his family drama. He tells Pyre, “If you feel certain” that the LDS Church is true “you don’t know a thing” about it. “My only regret is that I didn’t drive her out of Zion to save her from our people.”
Pyre tells Taba that if Allen did it, “We charge him, we get him to Draper and in front of a firing squad.” (This was seven years after Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad at the state prison in Draper.)
The police are having trouble getting ahold of any of the Laffertys. Pyre asks his wife if they might have an old church (ward) directory with addresses/phone numbers on it. That’s 100% realistic.
The narrative flashes back to Allen bringing Brenda to meet his enormous family — his parents, brothers, sisters in law, nieces and nephews. His father, Ammon, is an overbearing, obnoxious jerk. (In reality, his father’s name was Watson.) And the family is … odd.
Allen’s brother, Dan (Wyatt Russell), says he’s met BYU girls he suspects did not keep the Word of Wisdom. Brenda says, “We don’t smoke or drink coffee or anything horrible like that.” Dan says Pepsi is also against the Word of Wisdom — a common, but false, belief.
Allen tells Brenda that his brother, Ron (Sam Worthington), “started the best construction company in Utah,” is on the Highland city council and is the first counselor in a bishopric. He tells Ron that Brenda’s father is a bishop.
Dan’s wife, Matilda (Ariane Thomson), tells Brenda she was married before she met Dan (while he was on his mission), and that her first husband fathered her two oldest daughters. “No shame in divorce if you divorced a Catholic, right?” Allen says.
An elderly neighbor knocks on the door hoping for help from the Laffertys. Ammon tells his family they’re going to clear the man’s field of rocks or the federal government will take possession of the field to build a highway. That’s never really explained, but Ammon says the neighbor is being “attacked by outsiders. … The Lord’s elect must never allow anyone to take what is rightfully ours.”
“There is a reason families 50 miles round have heard the Lafferty name,” Ammon says. “Because together, we can do anything.”
Again, the Laffertys were far less prominent than the miniseries makes them out to be.
ALLEN CLEARLY SUSPECTS Brenda was killed because she wasn’t a stereotypical Mormon woman.
“LDS women are taught to be obedient,” he says, “To serve. To obey. And, OK, Brenda wasn’t that. Did that make her deserving of this? And my baby girl?
“No,” Pyre says.
“Then you might not be as good a Mormon as you think,” Allen says.
BACK TO THE FLASHBACK, the Lafferty family — and Brenda — gather to clear the neighbor’s field. The men and the boys do the work, while Ammon and the women watch. That is until Brenda joins in and helps toss rocks onto a trailer. This does not go over well with Ammon.
Ammon tells the family that he and his wife have been called on a senior mission to Louisiana. He names Dan, his No. 2 son, to be the head of the family in his absence, which does not go over well with his No. 1 son, Ron.
Ron stalks off, and his mother follows him. She tells Ron he is “the one mighty and strong” that some Mormons believe will save the church.
PYRE ASKS ALLEN if he misses the church. Allen says he misses “our larger LDS family. … But most of all, what I miss are the days when I still believed our god was love.”
There’s a jump to Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820, when God told him there was no true church and he would have to restore it. The flashback also includes young Joseph (Ty Poupelle) talking about the angel Moroni’s visit to him (which is not clearly spelled out), being told he should marry Emma (Tyner Rushing), and digging up the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written.
Allen bring up the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but — unless you’re already aware of what happened there in 1857 — the flashback doesn’t really make it clear.
Allen says that church leaders “have hidden our truth with their secret combinations. If you really still believer your god is love, then you really don’t know who you are, brother. This faith — our faith — breeds dangerous men.”
ALLEN SAYS BRENDA “didn’t see the rules” the same way his father did. As “unbending. He judged her for that.”
“LDS women are taught to be obedient,” Allen says. “To serve. To obey. And, OK, Brenda wasn’t that. Did that make her deserving of this? And my baby girl?”
“No,” Pyre says.
“Then you might not be as good a Mormon as you think,” Allen says.
POLICE SUSPECT ROBIN LAFFERTY (Seth Numrich) — one of the brothers — was somehow involved in the murders. Led by Taba, police go to Robin’s home. No one is home, but it’s obvious they left quickly and burned documents before they went.
In real life, there were six Lafferty brothers — Ron, Thomas, Dan, Mark, Tim and Allen — and, obviously, none of them was named Robin. Two other brothers in the miniseries are named Jacob and Samuel.
In the miniseries, the crime takes place in the fictional town of East Rockwell. Creator/writer/director/executive producer/showrunner Dustin Lance Black agreed not to name the real-life investigators he interviewed during his research, and did not use the real name of the town where the murders took place: American Fork.
Taba and Pyree argue over how the case should be handled. “I’m well aware my skin is darker than most in this valley,” Taba says, “and I’m very well aware that that’s not smiled upon in a 99% LDS town.”
“Oh, come on!” Pyre says.
Brenda’s father tells Taba that Brenda was afraid of Allen because he “beat on her.” Allen says that had a big fight, but that it was not physical. And Allen points out that Joseph Smith’s father-in-law didn’t approve of him.
“I will say it until you hear me,” Allen says. “Men with beards corrupted my family. And every second you waste in here with me, your holy spirit is out there persuading more men of God to spill more blood.”
PYRE TELLS TABA, who’s new to Utah, about Arthur Gary Bishop, who “two years ago lured five boys away from their families right here in Utah.” In reality, Bishop kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed the boys between 1979-83 — the last one was killed almost exactly one year before the Lafferty murders.
Without naming her, Pyre also talks about the 1982 kidnapping and murder of 3-year-old Rachael Runyon. And he gets some of the details wrong.
Pyre suggests those killings were related to “devil worship.” Police discounted that theory in the still-unsolved Rachel Runyon case, and there was no indication that was true of Bishop’s murders.
Pyre also theorizes that Allen leaving the church would have “created a lot of grief for his family” and could be a motive for murder. “And the Laffertys — they’re kind of like Utah Kennedys.” That’s a crazy exaggeration that could only be justified if viewers are supposed to believe that Pyre’s perceptions were warped by his sheltered life in small-town Utah.
Taba gets a call from a motel telling him Robin Lafferty is there. The officers arrive in force. Robin tries to flee, but is apprehended — while he’s praying that God show the officers the error of their ways.
SPEAKING WITH HIS WIDOWED MOTHER, Josie (Sandra Seacat), who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, Pyre accurately recounts bits of Latter-day Saint theology. That, in heaven, bodies will be made perfect and people will rejoin our families.
In the next scene, Pyre is in the shower. His wife takes off her dress to reveal the temple garments she is wearing. She takes off her garments and gets in the shower with him. Viewers see her breasts as they embrace.
Among the thoughts that flash through Pyre’s mind — and on the screen — are Joseph Smith peering into a hat, using seer stones to translate the Book of Mormon from the golden plates. There’s no explanation, and only those familiar with church history will realize what’s happening.
Episode 2: “Rightful Place”
The investigation into the murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her daughter, Erica, continues in Episode 2. As do the dozens of references to Utah and the LDS Church.
As the episode begins, Pyre’s daughter is wearing a CTR ring. He tells her that her upcoming baptism will “wash way all those little baby sins, but after that, any new sin is yours to repent.” And that the CTR ring is a reminder to keep the commandments.
A NEIGHBOR TELLS the detectives that four men with “beards, like pioneer men” pulled up in front of Brenda Lafferty’s house and two went inside. Taba speculates that they could be hiding in the mountains.
And the detectives learn that the partial bloody hand prints found at Brenda’s home do not belong to Allen.
Because he’s so busy with the case, Pyre calls his ward’s Relief Society president asking for help with his daughter’s birthday party. “I will call my sisters into service,” she says.
PYRE QUESTIONS ROBIN, and he starts by playing a tape of Mormon Tabernacle Choir music in an apparent attempt to somehow call on Robin’s religious background.
Robin says he’s “a good LDS man. I’ve been a bishop and a seminary teacher.” Pyre recalls attending early morning seminary when he was a boy. (So odds are this fictional character didn’t grow up in Utah, where most kids attend seminary during the school day.)
Robin says he ran from police officers because “from 1795 on, the government began discarding God’s wisdom, restricting the very thing that our Founding Fathers held dearest — our God-given freedom. So I ran from wrongful persecution.”
Allen says he only saw the men with “old Mormon beards” once, about a year earlier. They were in a car with Robin, and Dan asked Allen to go to a meeting “about fighting taxes” with the bearded men.
IN A FLASHBACK to the Lafferty parents leaving for their mission, the family matriarch tells Dan’s wife, Matilda (Chloe Pirrie), that, as a Latter-day Saint, her duty is to help Dan stand tall without him knowing she’s holding him up. “Dan needs holding. Understood?”
According to Allen, “Dad only made Dan head of house to get back at Ron for going his own way. And Dan wasn’t ready. And neither was his wife, Matilda. They were in over their heads.”
Brenda encourages the shy Matilda, telling her that when she gets stage fright, “I just listen for the promptings of the holy spirit.”
Allen tells Robin that Brenda wants to have a family. “Then why’s she going to BYU?” Robin asks. And, in reference to Brenda, Robin tells Allen, “Mind your property.”
ALLEN RELATES AN AWFUL STORY that his father liked to tell to motivate his children. In a flashback, we see Kirtland, Ohio, in the 1830s, when it was the headquarters of the LDS Church.
Non-Mormons are strangling a Mormon boy’s dog after it killed a lamb. Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) runs to the rescue, and offers to pay for the lamb. He gives them his gold watch as a deposit.
One of the non-Mormons takes the watch and shoots and kills the dog. “Beware,” Joseph says, “that you don’t find yourself in conflict with God’s law, for man’s will soon align with heaven’s here.”
“Mind the laws we got here,” the non-Mormon says, “or face prosecution like the dog you are.”
The moral of the story, according to Allen, is that “the more challenges we faced … the more we could be sure we were on the righteous path.” And that we must build Zion “no matter what.”
ROBIN IDENTIFIES THE ANTI-TAX GROUP fronted by the bearded men as Patriots for Freedom. Robin says they were trying to help his family with its “unjust tax burdens … by filing lawsuits” against “unconstitutional federal taxes.”
Robin also rails against “Jimmy Carter, socialism, haughty women who don’t know their rightful place, gentile tax collectors who invade our lives, our homes.”
Referring to non-Mormons as “gentiles” is really a thing Latter-day Saints do.
MONEY IS TIGHT, so (in a flashback) Dan tells Matilda to pay the water and power bills and ignore a tax bill and licensing fees. Dan says their troubles are a test from God.
Some time later (also in a flashback), Dan arrives home to find a tax collector in his home. The man says multiple notices were sent, but they received no response. He’s there to seize assets. Dan tries to negotiate, but it’s too late for that.
Dan shouts and screams at the tax collector, who sprays mace or pepper spray in Dan’s face. Dan loses control, trying to bash the tax collector with a pipe.
Dan yells at his wife, and Matilda points out that he told her not to pay the tax bill. She said she prayed, and was told by the “holy spirit” to obey her husband. Dan says he believes her. Matilda replies that what has just happened shows that Brenda was right.
In the present (July 1984), Robin tells Pyre, “The world seduces women to abandon their virtue and then their ambition grows and spreads like a disease, distracting them and those around them from their responsibilities.”
IN ANOTHER FLASHBACK, Brenda confronts a BYU professor (maybe an instructor?) about why she’s not allowed to be a news anchor at the university’s TV station, KBYU. She asks, “Why do you think people in Salt Lake County want to see men read our news reports more than women?”
This doesn’t make any sense at all. BYU isn’t in Salt Lake County, and KBYU’s newscasts were not male-only. And at the time, women were co-anchoring most newscasts on Salt Lake City TV stations. Nonetheless, the professor tells Brenda, “the choice of host is about finding an authority they’ll trust.”
Brenda prods him to ask the higher-ups if she can anchor the news; he tells her to get behind the anchor desk as a tryout; and he locks the door to the studio with just the two of them inside.
She reads a news story, and the professor tells him she did well. But he won’t commit to trying to get her on camera, and he touches her hand. So she asks him, “Do you lock yourself in here with the boys, too, or just with the girls?” She uses that, sweetly, to demand he fight for her.
During this exchange, Brenda uses the ultimate Latter-day Saint swear: “Oh, my heck.”
A bit later, Brenda is seen delivering the news on TV. Allen is proud; his family members do not look pleased.
ALLEN TURNS TO THE BOOK OF MORMON, telling Pyre that it’s “not that extraordinary for Mormons to make sure folks were in their rightful place.” Pyre replies that even if that’s true, “a Latter-day Saint does not kill someone for stepping out of their rightful place.”
Allen disputes that. “It’s all over our history. And our scriptures,” he says. “God told Nephi that’s it’s better for one man to perish than for a whole nation to dwindle in unbelief.”
That’s directly out of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4:13), when God told Nephi to kill Laban in order to retrieve brass plates containing scriptures and genealogies.
“And if God commands it, an obedient saint will exile, will steal, will kill,” Allen says.
ALLEN WANTED TO MARRY BRENDA “from the very first moment I set eyes on her.” In part, “because you can’t get into the celestial kingdom if you’re single.”
In a flashback, we see Allen in Idaho with the Wright family at Christmastime. Brenda’s father, Jim (Darren Goldstein), asks Allen who runs things at his house; Allen says his father is in charge. Jim tells him that women are just as capable.
Allen goes outside with Brenda’s younger sisters to shoot off fireworks. Back in the house, Brenda argues with her parents, who don’t support her relationship with Allen.
“Ask anybody in Salt Lake what it means to be a Lafferty,” Brenda tells her father. “They all went on missions and started their own businesses. And their family tree goes back to the pioneers. I mean, it’s like marrying into royalty.”
If Brenda actually said “royalty,” she must have been blinded by love.
Her mother, LaRae (Vanessa Holmes), calls Allen “insubstantial.” Jim tells Brenda he’s concerned that Allen’s family believes “men ought to run things. … It’s the ‘80s now. I want you to use your education. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have a life, too.”
While he’s shooting off fireworks, Allen sets fire to a shrub next to the house.
WHY WAS ALLEN AFRAID of letting Brenda go near his family? Allen says that, when Ron was a kid, he had a dog he loved. But one day Ammon came home to discover his sons hadn’t done their chores.
“So he got us all to stand in a circle, then he called the dog into the center. And he picked up Ron’s own baseball bat … and he beat the dog to death to teach us boys a lesson about responsibility. About our rightful place.”
There are disturbing flashback images of Ammon swinging the bat. We don’t see the dog, but we hear the sickening blows land.
Allen says he worried that when Ammon returned from his mission, he might decide “that Brenda needed to be taught a lesson about her rightful place.”
Pyre asks Allen if he’s certain that “the men who did this were all strangers. Is it possible that they could’ve been family?”
“No,” Allen says. “I can’t ever be certain of anything again.” But he was certain that church membership was not the best thing for his daughter. “I could not see how the best for my little girl was being caught up in a church that would force her to make covenants to obey all men for the rest of her life.”
INTERSPERSED THROUGH THE EPISODE are scenes of Taba going into the mountains to search for the bearded men. He meets a U.S. Forest Service officer, who calls him a Lamanite (a term from the Book of Mormon for dark-skinned Native Americans). The officer leads him to a place where men shot up trees, firing an incredible number of times. The men were “LDS pioneer types, with beards.” And there were girls with them.
Oh, and the officer calls Taba “Chief.”
Taba is searching, and Pyre is concerned that he hasn’t heard from his partner. Robin tells Pyre that if police officers are in danger, “they only have themselves to blame. The government came after us — not the other way around.”
Robin’s diatribe is intercut with flashbacks to 1832 Ohio, with a mob dragging Joseph Smith out of his house. One of the mob members says there is a witness to Joseph’s “crimes and whoredoms committed over and again with an unmarried woman.” The mob spokesman threatens to cut out Joseph’s tongue or castrate him, and tells him to leave Ohio with his followers. Joseph is tarred and feathered, although that’s not portrayed on screen.
As the saints are leaving Ohio, Brigham Young (Scott Michael Campbell) is in the back of a wagon stowing away dozens of guns. And Joseph says, “If they resist us again, we will tread upon the ashes of the wicked. That they are destroyed from the face of this earth.” It’s an echo of a Book of Mormon scripture — 3 Nephi 35:3: “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of Hosts.”
When Pyre accuses Robin of killing Brenda “for daring to resist you,” Robin seems puzzled. “What do you mean?” he asks.
In the episode’s final scene, Taba comes upon an old house in the woods. When he tries to look through a hole into the house, a gun is pointed back at him.
Episode 3 of “Under the Banner of Heaven” starts streaming Thursday, May 5, on Hulu.