Under the Banner of Heaven, created for television by Dustin Lance Black, is a difficult watch. It begins in 1984 amidst the aftermath of a brutal murder of a young woman, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15-month old daughter. The FX limited series, inspired by the novel from Jon Krakauer and a real life case, chronicles how a Mormon family’s faith and related fundamentalist ideals tied to the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) church led to this horrifying act of violence.
“Our faith breeds dangerous men,” says the character Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle) during an early episode. Both he and his family are the key suspects in the case, and as the show peels back their secrets we learn the dark roots of the Mormon faith and how those effects rippled out poisoning the family and contemporary LDS followers. In revealing this darkness, the show pulls no punches. As characters find out or recite information related to the origins of the religion we see various flashbacks of men acting in self interest under the guise of faith and using faith to justify their sexism, racism, and murder. Investigating the Lafferty family is Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a Mormon detective whose investigation exposes him to this corruption first hand, leading him to see that the ills of his religion aren’t just confined to the past, but in its current practices, and thus causing a crisis of faith.
With such a heavy plot you may routinely want to turn off your television or laptop but the performances will keep you trudging along for the grueling journey episode-to-episode. Garfield gives an impressive performance as Detective Jeb Pyre whose warmness makes him a refreshing counterpoint to the gruff investigators one might see in crime dramas like True Detective. In one scene, Jeb questions one of the Lafferty children with a genuine gentleness that radiates compassion and you can understand why a kid would trust him. And, while Garfield brings a lot of kindness to the character it certainly isn’t his only gear as the deeper Jeb investigates the case, the more internal conflict he has with his faith. Through expression, and sometimes tears, Garfield really sells this, and you feel the weight the case is having on him, which helps add emotional stakes to the series.
Playing his partner is Gil Birmingham who is a scene-stealer as Detective Bill Taba, whose blunt honesty and non-Mormon perspective make his character a good contrast to Jeb. The two also have nice chemistry and because of this, the audience gets some levity and sincere scenes such as one where Bill playfully teases Jeb to have some of his Mcdonald’s fries, something Jeb wouldn’t normally do because of his faith.
While Garfield and Birmingham have characters that bring much-needed lightness to the series’ world, other performances do an excellent job showcasing the darkness. Actress Daisy Edgar-Jones does an excellent job portraying Brenda Lafferty; Edgar Jones imbues her character with certain assertiveness, a characteristic which puts her into conflict with the sexist and patriarchal LDS community and sinister Lafferty family.
As you reach the final minutes of Under the Banner of Heaven you’ll feel the heaviness of what you witnessed. This makes it a hard recommendation, and one that might not be for everyone, but I have to say it’s a worthwhile one if you can endure it. Throughout its seven-episode stretch the series provides a chilling reminder of how faith can be and continues to be, used to excuse monstrous actions.
You can stream all episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven now on Hulu.