The fourth season of HBO's sweeping melodrama was brought down to Earth a bit this week, even though the beginning of the episode seemed like an overstuffed Robert Altman movie.

I know this whole Bill-runs-for-office storyline is annoying some fans — because it seems to forget Barb's outing in the first season, because in these days of dirt-digging and mud-slinging no one could possibly expect a secret that big to stay hidden — and for the most part those fans are right. The whole thing is a little too much. It's just not terribly believable that a years-practiced caution would be so impulsively thrown to the wind. But last night I was glad for the whole thing, because it gave the show a big and rousing platform to discuss the tragedy of the Lost Boys, crime-prone young men who are cast out of FLDS compounds and left to survive on their own.

Mostly I'm glad that the show finally dug into Bill's past. We'd known since the beginning of the show that he was cast out of Juniper Creek, but didn't know any particular details of that part of his history. That he was a troubled kid with a rap sheet wasn't surprising. That Bill Paxton was such a dish in his younger years? Big surprise! That was really the most valuable thing we learned last night. Though, maybe it was just that dark greaser mugshot that made him look good. Because here, for example? Not so much.


But whatever. Yes, Bill was cast out by his father and now he's, inadvertently to some degree, done the same thing to Ben. That weird, noodley kid did some strong acting last night, looking more poised and mature, though sad and shaken, than he ever has before. Props also to sis Amanda Seyfried, who does beatific concern so well. I'm not sure when we'll see Ben next, though I'd bet that it's going to be a big part of the end of this season or the beginning of the next one. I don't exactly see happy things happening.

Meanwhile, with the wives. Everyone's mad and a little bit grossed out by Margene, who was being weirdly indignant about being in trouble. She kept trying to shake it off, trying to get people to let it go, because really it's not such a big deal, right? Except, well, yes of course it is a big deal. Jeanne Tripplehorn did fabulous work as Barb went from sad to mad and back to sad again, once again feeling the crushing weight of this bizarre and booby-trapped family life she's chosen for herself. Also, let's take a moment to say: Toldja so, vis a vis Barb and the Injun. She and Tommy had a strange bonding session in a sweat lodge during which we learned that Tommy lost his wife and two children to a drunk driving accident and that Barb really likes to sweat. The whole sweat lodge thing seemed a little over the top, I mean they did it on 90210 for god's sake, but I do so love to see Tripplehorn chin-deep in the business of acting, so I didn't really mind. I don't know where the Tommy thing might go, but I suspect that Barb is on the hunt for something wildly different from the norm. Might this finally be the start of her long-overdue escape from polygamy?

Nicki was all tangled up in the campaign stuff, serving as a mole in the competition's office and beginning to have some moral doubts about the sneakier work that Bill asks her to do. She likes being his special little "secret weapon," but also isn't quite sure what to make of the fact that she's the only one ever asked to do the devious, underhanded stuff. You bad, Nicki. Just deal with it.

So amid all the Ben hullabaloo we saw Bill's campaign suffer and rally, both helped and hurt by the tricky presence of Sissy Spacek's Marilyn the Lobbyist. She wanted in at the Indian casino, but Bill doesn't trust her. So he set up a fake meeting with Tommy just so she could hear Tommy say no, but then she found out that she was set up, and boy is she pissed. So Bill really has made a nasty enemy, definitely worse than his local campaign rival, who tried to call Bill out on his sinister past, but ended up galvanizing him instead. Oops! Sorry, strict dad from Everwood. Good luck in four years.

Bill's crazy parents showed up again, this time a bit meaner and sadder than we usually see them. Lois's heart was broken when her beloved little Benny told her about Bill's exiling, while nasty old dad was just pissed that Bill had a big fancy casino and had never invited him to come play, for free. Naturally they showed up while Marilyn was there and all the wives were fighting with Ben. So many things to juggle! A lot of the episode felt a little Noises Off backstagey, doors slamming constantly with entrances and exits, fast-paced problems piling up on top of each other with alarming speed.

The hour was definitely was chock full of nuts, on occasion a bit too full, but again I found it all worth it for Bill's impassioned Lost Boys-defending speech at the run-off debate. Apparently the fictional nominating committee did too, because he won the darn thing. Which means he'll now be running a real election for the seat, presumably against a Democrat. Which means... he'll probably win, right? Though Bill would be wise to not to get too swept up by the whole thing while Margene goes slightly nuts, Nicki tries desperately to get pregnant, and Barb sits in the bathroom weeping and trying to create her own sweat lodge. Obviously Bill will be ignorant of this stuff until just before it's too late, because that's how this show works. And how Bill works. It was refreshing to see him actually shoulder the blame and apologize for something last night, but I don't think his honestly self-reflective period will last terribly long.

Creepy thing that happened: weirdo Ben kinda hit on Nicki's timid, moon-faced daughter. Again with this show and the murky incest stuff! I guess it goes to show that no matter how mainstream you try to make that life — with nice new houses and a swimming pool and big cars and all that — the whole multiple marriage thing can ultimately become warped and ugly, full of strange complications and forces that pull and tear at you from all directions. I bet you the show will go one more season after this and then, in the end, we'll have some of the family in tatters. How else, with all of these fractures spidering and spreading out, could it really go down.

I don't think the sprawling Henrikson clan can possibly stay one cohesive unit with all this shit up in the air, though I'm not sure who'd like be the first person to leave. My money's always been on Barb, but now maybe it could feasibly be Nicki the Manic or Margene the Flirt. Margene who had a little Betty Draper/Henry Francis-style meet cute with that silver-smooth congressman. I just feel as though someone, other than Ben and Sarah, is going to walk away soon. I both can and can't wait to find out who.

So what'd you think? Any questions? Any favorite moments that I missed (I'm sure there are many)? Mostly I'm just glad that Professor Lasky was back. I like him.