Brenda dies, her killers are apprehended, and Pyre loses his faith in the extra-long final episode of “Under the Banner of Heaven” — which mixes a whole lot of fiction with fact.
As portrayed in the episode, Ron and Dan Lafferty really are the killers, and they really are arrested. Ron’s wife, Matilda, and Dan’s wife, Dianna, both really survive.
But a lot of what’s in this episode, titled “Blood Atonement” and running almost 90 minutes, is far from factual.
PYRE IS AWAKENED by a call — Detective Taba (Gil Birmingham) has found the “prophet” Onias, who says that he’d hoped that Ron was the “one mighty and strong” who would save the church, and that “in the fog of hope,” he was “blinded” to who Ron really was.
In a flashback, Matilda tells Ron the Lowes gave Dianna money and helped her leave. She reluctantly tells Ron that Brenda also helped Dianna.
When Pyre (Andrew Garfield) arrives at Onias’ cabin, he’s physically attacked by an older man. Pyre fights him off, and the man says, “You have spilled my blood on holy grounds. A curse be on you and yours.”
Onias tells the detectives that “Ron brought forth a removal list.” There is a flashback to Ron (Sam Worthington) reading his “revelation” to other members of the School of Prophets. Onias tells him his list is “madness.”
Onias also says that he heard Ron call Dianna and read her his “revelation,” commanding her to return to him with their children or be “removed.” (He learned her whereabouts when his son sent a letter from Florida with a return address.) Onias believes Dianna and her six children have been killed by Ron.
BACK AT THE POLICE STATION, Pyre dodges a call from his wife. She wants him to bear his testimony in church, which he is not anxious to do. “If the brethren smell any doubt, I’ll be single — maybe by fall,” he says.
The member of the First Quorum of the Seventy who gave Brenda the blessing in Episode 6 shows up at the station, and he wants to speak to Pyre — alone. Pyre, however, says Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle) can stay in the room.
“To put a delicate matter plainly,” the seventy says, “the events leading to the revelation six years ago that our priesthood be open to negroes, all of the legal threats from the communists and the NAACP, we’ve been struggling with public perception. We don’t need any more detrimental press now. Like not publicly speculating about FLDS connections to this case.” Taba tells him the investigation has already “gone beyond speculation.”
(The communist thing seems weird, but then-apostle and eventual church president Ezra Taft Benson did repeatedly warn against them from the pulpit.)
When the seventy learns that Taba is a Southern Paiute, he thanks him and reminds him of their “shared history” of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, “joining hand-in-hand to defend Zion from annihilation.”
There’s a flashback to Brigham Young ordering the attack that killed 120 men, women and children in the Fancher party. “If so much as one gentile steps into our territory, we must make an example of them,” he says.
(It seems incredible that a general authority would point to the Mountain Meadows Massacre as a good thing, even in 1984. And there are conflicting histories about Brigham Young’s involvement, but there is no smoking gun pointing to him ordering the murders. It is true that some Southern Paiutes joined with the Mormons in the attack.)
Taba laughs at the seventy. “Us injuns are taught a very different version of that story,” he says. And Allen interjects, “No one on that wagon train had a thing to do with Joseph Smith’s murder” — an alleged motive for the massacre. The seventy says, “The scholars disagree with you”
(Actually, the scholars disagree with the seventy.)
The seventy offers veiled threats to Pyre. “Let us come together for the sake of our church,” he implores. “And for the sake of your eternal family.”
Allen accuses the seventy of trying to “sweep my wife and child’s blood under the rug for the sake of the church’s reputation.” The seventy tells Pyre to “ask Mr. Lafferty to mind his tongue” Pyre does not respond. The seventy expresses disappointment and leaves — lifting his feet, one after the other, and hitting his shoes as he leaves the room.
It’s a rather shocking use of a ritual curse. In 1830, Joseph Smith said he’d received a revelation about leaving a curse “by casting off the dust of your feet against” unbelievers.
The scene in “Under the Banner of Heaven’ is fictional, but the fictional seventy flauts another revelation Smith said he received in 1831 — that the curse should be performed “not in their presence, lest thou provoke them, but in secret.”
ALLEN SAYS THAT BRENDA (Daisy Edgar-Jones) followed him one night, convinced he was still meeting with his brothers. He wasn’t, “but that night I saw … the pain that I had caused. … I knew then that I belong to her and Erica,” Allen says.
There’s a flashback to Allen holding the baby as Brenda looks on. “My family became my faith,” Allen says.
And he tells Pyre not to let Brenda and Erica’s deaths be in vain — he needs to protect Dianna and her children. Pyre notifies police in Florida, who find the apartment where Dianna was living. They’re not there, and there is no blood.
There’s a flashback to Brenda, who’s startled when she discovers Dan (Wyatt Russell) in her home. She tells him to leave, and he tells her that she must welcome Allen’s return and bring Dianna back to Ron’s side “immediately.”
“Actions have consequences,” says Dan, adding that he is “but the hand of God. It is his mouth who commands me.” He tells her she’ll be forgiven if she obeys, pats her on the shoulder and leaves.
PYRE IS HEADED FOR FLORIDA to search for Dianna, and Rebecca says she’s disappointed he won’t be bearing his testimony in church. Jeb says that can wait until next month’s fast-and-testimony meeting, and Rebecca says she fears “some fresh, new hurdle” will arise.
Then she drops a bombshell — she went to the seventy who showed up at the police station because she was concerned about Jeb, “and now he called to tell me how you resisted him.”
“Just so you know, he told me that it was the holy spirit that sent him and not you,” Jeb says. “They’re all liars.” He questions how his wife could “go behind my back” and tells her not to speak to the seventy again without his permission.
“I must obey, right, Jebediah?” Rebecca sarcastically replies. She says her father is coming to take her and their daughters to Arizona. “I won’t keep subjecting them to this,” she says.
Pyre continues packing, and tells Rebecca that the church’s founders “saw little girls and women … as eternal servants. They were taught to be obedient and submissive, even as they were abused. Some of them raped. And you should see the things [their daughter] Annie is already writing in her journals.”
Rebecca isn’t having it. “I married a man of faith, and that’s who I planned to raise them with. Whether that’s you or somebody else.”
(Again, all of the characters in the Pyre family are fictional.)
THE FBI FINDS RON’S CAR in Wyoming, so the police chief tells Pyre and Taba to head there instead of Florida. The police chief also tells Pyre to “end this before it does any more damage to what I hope still matters most to you, brother.”
In Wyoming, police burst into the home where the car is parked, but Ron isn’t there. Chip (MIchael Lipka) and Ricky (Laurent Pitre) are, and the detectives threaten them with the firing squad, which Taba says is Utah’s method of executing child killers.
(That’s not true. Convicted murderers then could choose either the firing squad or lethal injection.)
Chip and Ricky say they stole Ron’s car to get away from the Laffertys, leaving him and Dan in a Nevada motel. They say the brothers were headed to Reno to make money so they could “finish their list.”
CHIP AND RICKY RECOUNT what happened on the day of the murders:
• The four of them went to Robin Lafferty’s house to get his hunting rifle, but Robin said it was not there. Asked what he’s hunting, Ron says, “Anything that gets in our way.”
• Dan is hesitant to drive to Brenda’s house, wondering if God really wants them to kill Brenda and the baby. Ron freaks out, pounding the car’s dashboard.
• Ron, Dan, Ricky and Chip pull up in front of Brenda’s house. Dan gets out of the car and goes to the front door. Brenda opens it and, when she realizes it’s Dan, tries to push him back outside. Dan forces his way into the house.
• Ron gets out of the car and goes inside. Dan is on top of Brenda, and he tells Ron, “If you truly heard the voice of God, you will hand me the blades.” Ron pulls out a big knife and hands it to Dan. Brenda pleads for her life, and the baby cries in the other room. Brenda breaks free and tells Ron and Dan that Heavenly Father “knows this isn’t who you are.” Dan says this is “God’s will.”
Brenda says, “God will make me whole again, and send you both into everlasting darkness.”
Dan cuts the vacuum cleaner cord and moves toward Brenda. We hear Brenda scream “No.” But we do not see the murders. It is, nonetheless, horrifying and deeply unsettling.
BACK IN THE PRESENT (1984), Ricky tells Pyre that Dan cut Brenda’s neck, and Ron gave Dan the cord to “make sure it was done.” And Dan “cut her baby’s neck, too.”
In the flashback, Ron and Dan get back in the car. They drive to Bishop Lowe’s home and break in, but no one is there so they smash things and leave. Ron missed the turn to Stake President Stowe’s house, and, according to Ricky, “Dan said it was a sign from God that they needed to stop killing ‘til they made enough cash to keep going.”
Pyre and Taba retrace the route Chip and Ricky took and find a suitcase with a razor blade in it, but it’s not the murder weapon. Pyre questions if Chip and Ricky — who said they are atheists — are lying.
Taba points back to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and says the victims had nothing to do with Joseph Smith’s murder — which is true, according to the historical record. “Your Mormon leaders wanted to send a message to America that any gentile entering Utah risked their lives. And they planned to lay the blame at my people’s feet. … My people knew that to refuse Brigham was to make an enemy of their occupier — a man unafraid to shed blood.”
(Again, there is speculation that Young ordered the massacre, but there is no proof.)
In the flashback, the Paiutes rode away and the Mormons painted their faces to look like Indians.
John D. Lee, who was later executed for his part in the massacre, lies to the settlers to get them to surrender guns and make it easier to kill the men, women and children.
In the present, Taba says to Pyre, “If you aren’t white, LDS, a man in Zion, your life is of little value. Is that the way you see me? Mormon myths, lies — is that what you want to keep putting your trust in? Or do you think we can start trusting the facts? Even if they do come from a pair of atheists.”
Taba finds a knife that appears to be the murder weapon and says Chip and Ricky weren’t lying.
And there’s a return to the tremendously disturbing flashback as Mormons murder members of the Fancher party — including children.
PYRE AND TABA ARE IN RENO looking for Ron and Dan — and most of what follows is complete fiction. Yes, the Lafferty brothers were arrested in Reno, but they were taken into custody while they were standing in the buffet line at Circus Circus.
Pyre dreams that Dan comes into his hotel room and slits his throat. He’s awakened by a call telling him that Dianna and her children have been found alive by police in Florida. After they were taken to a safe location, Dianna left, and her kids won’t tell police where she went.
Taba tells Pyre to think like a Mormon and figure out where Dan and Ron are. Which is kind of weird. And things get weirder still when Taba suddenly drives onto a side road, stops the car, gets out and walks into the desert. Pyre asks him if he’s looking for “a sign from God,” and yells, “What the f—!”
Taba tells him to take a moment and look at nature, then says, “If there is no God, isn’t this just all the more miraculous?” And then he sucker-punches Pyre in the stomach, telling him, “Be here and listen. The gut is wiser than most people think. It’s a compass. It’ll give you all the wisdom you need.”
Pyre tells Taba about the dream in which Dan kills him, and he relates it to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. There’s a flashback to Brigham Young awaiting the arrival of federal troops sent to arrest him, seize church assets and end polygamy. And the flashback includes John Taylor (who succeeded Young as church president) saying, “We must deceive the gentiles into believing that we have disavowed” polygamy.
This is speculation. There are those who believe it, but there is no proof.
TAYLOR ALSO SAYS he had a revelation about the One Mighty and Strong who would save the church. Pyre speculates that one of the Lafferty brothers is going to kill the other so that he can be the One. “Both brothers cannot leave Reno alive,” he says, urging Taba to turn around and drive back there.
As they close in on Ron and Dan, an FBI agent says, “If necessary, we neutralize them.” Pyre says they should be taken alive because “if one drop of their blood hits the ground, they die thinking this is all God’s plan.”
In the present, Ron says he’s received a revelation that Dan is a “false prophet” and he “must perish.”
“So you’re going to blood atone me then,” Dan says. Ron replies, “No, brother, because your deceptions are so wicked you should not see your blood spilled. You shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As the cops close in on them, Dan says they should pray on it together, and he drops to his knees. Ron strangles Dan. Dan hits himself repeatedly to draw blood, which drips on the floor.
Pyre forces his way into the restroom and takes Ron into custody. Dan gasps and starts breathing again.
This did not happen in Reno. Months later, Ron attacked Dan while they were both in the Utah County jail, and tried to beat him to death. Dan survived the attack. Ron later handed him a “revelation” he’d received telling Dan to let Ron kill him. Dan agreed, and allowed Ron to strangle him with a towel through the bars separating their cells. Dan once again survived. Ron received another revelation telling Dan to let Ron kill him, but Dan didn’t go along with that one.
INTERCUT WITH THIS is a fictional storyline that has Dianna (Denise Gough) driving back to Utah from Florida to save Matilida (Chloe Pirrie).
Diana arrives at her mother-in-law’s house. Matilda says Dan is coming back to get her, and Dianna says she’ll be killed if she stays. Coreen (Megan Leitch) comes into the house and is surprised to see Dianna. “You can abandon Zion,” Doreen says, “but you can never escape its wrath.” Dianna and Matilda leave.
At a gas station, Dianna is filling up her tank when Sam Lafferty pounds on her car and says, “Mom called. Said you invaded our home, stole my brother’s property.” He drags Matilda out of the car.
“Do you step on women’s necks because it makes you feel taller?” Dianna yells at Sam. “Because your mother told you you were a chosen one? That our country is to blame for your failings? It’s a lie! You’re not special! You’re not chosen! You and your brothers simply failed! You are a small, weak, child of a man!”
Matilda breaks away from Sam. Dianna urges Sarah (Sam’s wife) to leave him and come with her and Matilda. Sarah doesn’t budge, and Sam drives off.
AS THEY’RE LED OUT OF THE CASINO in handcuffs, Ron looks vacant and stunned. Dan looks smug and arrogant. A cocktail waitress who helped them calls out, “Forgive them, Dan, for they know not what they do.”
Dan yells to the assembled crowd, “Was Abraham a criminal? Or Brigham Young? What laws of heaven have I broken? None!” Ron remains silent.
TABA TELLS PYRE about a religious song he was taught by his grandfather. And he tells Pyre he thinks “it’s OK to sing it now and again, even if I don’t believe it has power anymore.”
It’s advice about how to keep going after losing his faith.
Jeb arrives home, and his daughters hug him and warmly welcome him. He gives his wife a big kiss; all four members of the family hold hands and pray together. Jeb opens his eyes and looks around — he’s clearly not into the prayer.
In the final scene, Jeb takes his mother out in the wilderness, and she calls the vista a miracle. Jeb says just being there with his mother “may be miracle enough for me.”
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