Episode 3 recap: ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ goes inside a Latter-day Saint temple

The series about the Lafferty murders gets the temple right, and raises the issue of ‘blood atonement.’

The investigation into the 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, continues in Episode 3 of “Under the Banner of Heaven” — which is sure to create controversy because there are scenes that take place inside a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple.

The episode, titled “Surrender,” does get the temple clothing right and correctly portrays a brief bit of the temple ceremony.

And the subject of blood atonement comes up in the based-on-fact, but fictionalized, drama about the infamous murders in American Fork.

DETECTIVE JEB PYRE AND A UNIFORMED POLICE OFFICER are in a car heading out to look for the missing Detective Taba (Gil Birmingham). Another officer radios to tell him Pyre (Andrew Garfield) that Dan Lafferty (Sam Worthington) has a police record, and so does Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), the husband and father of the two murder victims, for unpaid traffic citations, which got him arrested the day after he married Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones). And he served time on a related contempt of court charge.

(Michelle Faye | FX) Andrew Garfield, left, as Jeb Pyre in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Pyre and the other officers find Taba’s car. Pyre puts on a bulletproof vest and goes out looking for him. They find the not-so-abandoned house in the woods. A voice, later identified as Sam Lafferty (Rory Culkin), yells out, “Get your boots off of this holy land or your blood will spill.”

Pyre finds Taba in back of the house. “You scared the crap out of me,” Taba says. He has suffered an ankle injury, but he’s happy to see Pyre.

A uniformed officer grabs one young girl — Jennie Lafferty, the daughter of Sam and Sarah Lafferty — in the woods, and puts her in the back seat of a police car. She says she became separated from her family in the woods, and she doesn’t know who’s in the “fort” now.

There’s a quick flashback to Allen, Brenda and family members on the steps outside the Salt Lake Temple after their wedding.

Sarah Lafferty (Brit Irvin), Sam’s wife — who’s dressed like a pioneer woman — runs up to the police car and shrieks about how Jennie is a “liar.” Sarah says, “Heavenly Father’s army will separate Earth’s wheat from the tares in the end of days,” and she tells Taba, who’s Native American, “In the latter days, the dark-skin of the Lamanites will blossom like the rose and become white and delightsome again. This invasion is one of his signs, so I’d get myself to a baptismal font, quick.”

Sarah says that “Heavenly Father’s laws are black or white. Brenda — she’s an ugly shade of gray.”

PYRE ASKS SARAH WHAT HAPPENED IN THE TEMPLE, and there’s a flashback showing men and women in white temple clothes and Brenda being anointed. She says to her sisters-in-law, “a woman older than Jesus’ sandals just put oil very, very close to my private parts.”

Which is an accurate representation of what happens in the temple, the age of the temple worker aside.

(Michelle Faye | FX) Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Brenda and a couple of her sisters-in-law laugh, but Sarah angrily scolds them for talking and “making light of sacred things.” When Brenda mentions free agency, Sarah says, “Nothing holy is free!” In the present (1984), she tells Pyre that Brenda is a “pretender” who is “drawn to converts like Dianna and Matilda more than real LDS women.”

Dianna (Denise Gough) is Dan’s wife; Matilda (Chloe Pirrie) is Dan’s wife.

A temple worker tells those in the session that “under no condition, even at the peril of your life, will you ever divulge” what happens in the temple. And the temple worker leads those in the session as they simulate a throat-cutting gesture.

That is accurate to 1984, although the throat-slashing gesture has since been eliminated from the temple ceremony.

Sara says that Brenda is a “tare,” adding that “some say that the only way to forgive a tare is through the doctrine of blood atonement. ... It means to cleanse one of their sins by spilling their blood out onto the ground.”

As police gather around the house, Pyre says, “I’m pretty sure to Sam, this looks exactly like the Haun’s Mill Massacre.”

There’s a flashback to Missouri in 1838, when a non-Mormon mob shot and killed 17 Mormons and wounded 15 more — men, women and children. The scene isn’t lurid, but it is barbaric.

Pyre approaches the house, unarmed with his hands up, asking Sam to talk to him “brother to brother, saint to saint.” He tells Sam that Joseph Smith “ensured the future of our faith” by surrendering peacefully. Sam refuses, but cops break into the cabin and take Sam and his young sons — who are armed with rifles — into custody.

A man runs out of the back of the cabin and escapes into the woods.

(Michelle Faye | FX) Det. Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) at home with his daughters in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

BACK AT THE PYRE HOUSE, Pyre’s mother, Josie (Sandra Seacat), goes missing during the girls’ birthday party. Pyre’s wife, Rebecca (Adelaide Clemens), searches the neighborhood and eventually finds Josie getting off a UTA bus. The bus driver recognized Josie from church and dropped her off near the house.

Rebecca reminds Jeb that they have an appointment with their bishop that night for the girls’ baptism interview. Later, the bishop asks the twins, Annie and Caroline, if they’ve paid their tithing, if they believe “this is the one true church on the face of this planet,” and if Joseph Smith is a “true prophet, here to restore” Jesus Christ’s church. They say yes.

Pyre hangs behind to talk to the bishop. He tells him about the difficulties his mother is having, and how much pain she’s in. “What do I do?” he asks.

“To in any way help abbreviate a life,” the bishop replies, “is to interfere with Heavenly Father’s plan.” That is church doctrine. The bishop says antidepressants and antipsychotics “are not looked down upon by the Lord.” And, the bishop adds, “It’s a fact. Women struggle more with feelings than men.”

That’s something a bishop very well might have said in 1984. Possibly still today.

The bishop goes on to say, “Many of the women in this very congregation take medications on a daily basis to help with their feelings.” That seems 100% realistic. “Heavenly Father created pharmacology to help us and, trust me, I’ve seen it work,” the bishop says.

Pyre tells the bishop the evidence in the Lafferty case “points inward, towards the early days of our people. To beliefs that I’ve … only ever heard whispers of,” including “blood atonement.”

(Michelle Faye | FX) Gil Birmingham as Bill Taba and Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

The bishop tells Pyre he should not “go digging in the past” but “place your trust in today’s prophet, Spencer W. Kimball. You leave the things you do not understand on a shelf. And you trust that the prophet will never lead us astray.”

That, too, is 100% realistic. Countless members of the church have heard similar words.

Back home, Pyre tells his wife he’s concerned that drugs will “take away anything that’s left” of his mother. Becca says it’s “temporary. In the celestial kingdom, you’ll have her back. Restored.” That’s definitely LDS theology.

Pyre wants to postpone his daughters’ baptisms until he can put the Lafferty case behind him “so I can clear my head and so that my heart can be fully in it.” Rebecca disagrees because “it wouldn’t go unnoticed” in their ward. “People will think that our girls failed their interview. It will be humiliating for them. For us.”

Pyre awkwardly plays the priesthood card. “As our priesthood holder, I need you to back me up on this. And I’m not asking.” Rebecca harrumphs and says, “That old chestnut.” And she manages to make a joke. “But don’t you forget, it’s me who chooses when or if I ever hold your priesthood again.” Pyre laughs, and they kiss.

IN ANOTHER FLASHBACK, Ammon Lafferty (Christopher Heyerdahl) confronts his sons, Dan and Allen, and Brenda’s wedding day. “I’ve returned for what should’ve been a joyous day to find I’m about to lose my home over unpaid taxes and a license fee,” he says.

Dan says a license would allow the government “to have control over you.” Ammon responds that the church’s 12th Article of Faith “tells us to obey, honor and sustain the law.” (That’s not the exact wording, but the meaning is correct.) “You may be able to hypnotize your brothers, but you cannot hypnotize me,” Ammon tells Dan.

(Michelle Faye | FX) Sam Worthington as Ron Lafferty, Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty, and Christopher Heyerdahl as Ammon Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Ammon takes off his belt and beats Dan — until Ron runs up and stops him. “There can only be one patriarch in the family,” Ammon says, challenging Ron to a fight and punching him.

The following morning, Dan is horsing around with his two stepdaughters. He prays that he “will do anything and go anywhere” to gain the Lord’s favor. He becomes maniacal, shouting, “I feel it burning inside of me” and he accepts God’s will that he will be the leader of his family.

AT THE POLICE STATION, Sam Lafferty is shouting religious rants. Allen asks Pyre if he thinks Sam had anything to do with killing Brenda and Erica. Pyre says he should be asking Allen that. And Pyre asks Allen about his arrest and being jailed for contempt of court.

Allen narrates a flashback — he says he was arrested because “my brothers had pushed me into refusing to pay traffic fines. They said it went against separation of powers.” Brenda was angry at Allen, and she confronted Dan. He spouts anti-tax conspiracy theories at her, and demands that she follow his “truth.”

“There’s got to be a way to do it where we won’t all have to go to jail,” Brenda says.

“Your husband made his decision,” Robin Lafferty (Sam Numrich) interjects. “Honor your priesthood holder.”

Dan assures Brenda that if Allen gets arrested again, he won’t go to jail — because Dan is running for Utah County sheriff. “I had a vision about it,” he says, comparing himself to Joseph Smith — who ran for president of the United States. “I’m just following in his footsteps.”

Dan did run for sheriff. And Smith did, indeed, declare his candidacy in 1844, shortly before he was assassinated.

Brenda puts her head in her hands and asks what Dan intends to do about the Constitution. He says all but the first 10 amendments are going to go — including the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 16th which authorized a federal income tax. “It all sounds pretty crazy, if you ask me,” Brenda says.

“But he didn’t ask you,” Sam says angrily. “And he wouldn’t.”

Allen says, “A lot of LDS husbands might’ve been mad at her for intervening. But Brenda was trying to protect me from going astray.”

IN ANOTHER FLASHBACK, Brigham Young (Scott Michael Campbell) tells Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) they should raise an army. Emma Smith (Tyner Rushing) argues with him, and Joseph sides with Emma.

But, according to Allen, after Joseph Smith escaped jail in Missouri, he “started to sound more and more like Brigham,” talking about strengthening their army. “If blood must be spilled, let it be theirs and not ours,” Joseph says.

Allen talks about the church’s “very first destroying angel” — Orrin Porter Rockwell (Zachary Ray Sherman), who’s not named — and asks, “Isn’t that how the Missouri governor got filled up with lead?”

Actually, maybe not, even though there’s a brief scene with Rockwell pointing a gun through a window at Lilburn Boggs. Boggs was the governor who issued the 1838 “extermination order” — that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.” Rockwell, who was the bodyguard to Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young, was accused of the crime and arrested, but there was no evidence against him and he was eventually freed. Boggs recovered from his wounds, by the way.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Pyre says. Allen replies, “They got to you, didn’t they?” ... Did they tell you to put your questions on the shelf?”

ALLEN SAYS HE WANTED BRENDA TO BE HAPPY, so he offered her “a significant sacrifice.” When she visits him in jail in a flashback, he offers to give up his family if they start their own. But he wants her to turn down a job offer and stay at home.

“It’s Channel 11 news,” Brenda says. This makes no sense. KBYU-Channel 11 then was broadcasting a student newscast. Brenda has graduated.

“Let’s have a bunch of babies,” Allen says, “and then you can be a newscaster.”

Back in the present (1984), Allen decries LDS women being told that having “dozens of children … would somehow make them more holy, more righteous. … I certainly didn’t see it like that at the time — that I was building Brenda a new cage. A new prison. But I was, wasn’t I?”

(Michelle Faye | FX) Rory Culkin as Samuel Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

PYRE AND TABA QUESTION SAM, and it doesn’t go well. “I am the Lord God of Israel’s chosen servant,” Sam says, launching into a religious diatribe.

“Tell me,” Taba says, “what kind of chosen one cuts the throat of a 15-month old.”

Sam says he’s one of the “destroying angels … sent to spill the blood the blood of those on his list onto the ground.”

“There’s a list?” Pyre asks. He wants to know who’s on it.

Other than Brenda and Erica, Sam won’t say who’s on the list, who the other destroying angels are, or where Ron and Dan are.

Robin pounds on the door of the interrogation room where he’s being held. He heard what Sam said about Brenda and Erica, and he demands to know if they’re dead. He accuses the detectives of trying to trick Sam into a “false confession.”

Pyre compliments Robin on his “masterful performance.” When Robin tells him to go to hell, Pyre says that Mormons “call it outer darkness, the last I checked.” That’s pretty much true, although it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Pyre shows Robin photos of the crime scene and the bodies of Brenda and Erica. Robin has an outburst, tries to hurt himself and declares he “had no part in this.” He adds that “Sam could not have done this.”

Robin says there are “many more names” on the list, but he “can’t be sure” who they were. He mentions the Lowes and the Stowes, “our bishop and our stake president and their wives.”

Robin says Sam was angry because the Lowes and Stowes interfered with “my brothers’ research into LDS teachings.” In reality, Ron blamed them for supporting his wife when she left him and took their children — which we’ll see in a later episode.

Pyree and Taba race to the homes of Bishop Lowe and President Stowe.

IN STILL ANOTHER FLASHBACK, Brenda is pregnant. In 1984, Allen says that, “Once she became pregnant, her heart changed shape.”

In the flashback, Brenda phones Dianna (Ron’s wife) and says she “heard the whispering of the spirit and I felt impressed upon that we must do whatever it takes to keep all of our family together. To fight for each member’s exaltation, no matter what it takes.”

And, she tells Dianna, “I’m going to need your help … to keep them off this wicked path.”

Episode 4 of “Under the Banner of Heaven” — titled “Church and State” — starts streaming Thursday, May 12, on Hulu.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.