Faith and doubt struggle within a police detective investigating a brutal murder in Under the Banner of Heaven. The FX/Hulu series is a fictionalized version of a non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer about a 1984 double murder in Utah. It is steeped in the beliefs of the Church of Latter Day Saints (often referred to as Mormons, although the church prefers that term not to be used). The book and the story show parallel histories involving the murders and LDS history.
The focal point of the series is a fictional character, Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a devote LDS member who is investigating a brutal murder of a woman and her baby. Pyre serves as our guide into the LDS church and practices, as well as the person who must struggle with doubt as secrets become exposed. His partner, Detective Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), is a Paiute and not a member of the church. He serves as an outsider who (like most viewers) doesn’t understand LDS beliefs and culture.
The series follows Pyre’s investigation that first looks at the victim’s husband, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), who has already stepped away from the church. As Pyre talks with him, his own faith begins the process of being challenged by one who has such strong doubts. As the investigation expands, exploring variants of LDS church and teachings and the history of the church (seen in historical flashbacks to the times of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), Pyre must deal with information that all is not as he has always thought. The whodunit aspect of the series (although well done) is not the real draw of the show, however. More important is the way doubt and faith are woven into the story and the characters.
I am aware that there has been some criticism of the series from people within the LDS church. My knowledge of the church’s history, teachings, and practices is limited, so I won’t be commenting on those things. However, the concepts of faith and doubt that hold a central place in the narrative of the series is something that is common among all people. Watching Pyre try to navigate his own growing doubts while trying to remain faithful to his job, his family, and his church is what makes Under the Banner of Heaven worth watching, because we can see our own struggles in him.
Where do all these doubts come from? There are various sources. The first is the kind of doubt that arises from when religion doesn’t fulfill our expectations. Early on, when Pyre is interviewing Allen, Allen said that when he found the bodies, he prayed. But when Pyre asks why he would pray if he doesn’t believe, Allen responds, “It was my last unanswered prayer.” I found that to be a powerful line to describe the feelings of being abandoned by the God he believed in.
More doubt grows from learning more about the history of the church as Pyre digs into Lafferty’s family. (There are several brothers, some of whom have adopted radical fundamentalist teachings.) In the historical flashbacks we see the early persecution of the LDS and its founder Joseph Smith. We also see the violence done under Brigham Young to non-believers). Pyre knows some of these stories, but there are parts of the history that are often left out. This is something that is not exclusive to the LDS. Many faithful people are shocked to learn about some of the stories in the Bible that are often glossed over in Sunday School. We may also be challenged by the way the church has acted through the centuries, including blatant and violent antisemitism, and the persecution of varieties of Christians we disagree with. (Cf. the way the Puritans in Massachusetts treated Baptists, or Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.)
Still more doubts arise for Pyre when he learns that he must deal with the church hierarchy that is more concerned with image than with the truth. As Pyre looks into the fundamentalist beliefs of the Lafferty brothers, the church wants all these ideas covered up. But the powers in the church are subtle in their intimidation, including using his family against him. There are too many stories in the broader church about churches and denominations that have covered up many kinds of abuses. Often the stated reason is to protect the faithful, but when the truth eventually comes out, the lies of the coverup really do more harm to faith than the abuses themselves.
At the beginning of the series, Detective Pyre has a strong, but simple faith. He has lived in an environment in which that faith is shared by nearly everyone. Questions are rarely brought up. When he must deal with so many issues in this investigation, he must struggle with the doubts that arise. It could be that those doubt have the power to strangle his faith. Or perhaps, in the wrestling his faith will get stronger.
Under the Banner of Heaven streams on Hulu in the US and Disney+ (Star) in Canada.