There’s something unique and terrifying about the power of religion to justify man’s darker impulses and denounce as a heretic anyone who challenges his beliefs. Under the Banner of Heaven blends the seedy underbelly of fundamentalist Mormonism with the sensationalism of true crime, creating a disturbing, consistently engrossing exploration of faith and the dark paths it can lead to. The series is anchored by a clever, empathetic, and deeply nuanced performance from Andrew Garfield in the lead role as a Mormon detective whose work on a particularly gruesome case will shake him to his core.
Detective Jeb Pyrie (Garfield) has never had much cause to question the Mormon faith he was raised with. He has a loving wife and two daughters, both on the cusp of baptism when they’ll officially join the church and (as they are told, somewhat ominously) be responsible for any sin they accumulate from there on out. It’s Salt Lake City in 1984, and his precinct is quiet, hardly bustling with violent activity. But everything changes when he is called to a crime scene where a young Mormon woman and her baby daughter have been brutally murdered. The first and most likely suspect is the husband, Allen (Billy Howle), a member of the influential Lafferty family. So he is brought in and questioned. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the root of this unspeakable act of violence is deeper than anyone could have expected and, for Jeb at least, will call into question the very tenets of Mormonism itself.
What stands out immediately about Under the Banner of Heaven is how multi-faceted Andrew Garfield’s performance as Pyrie is. There’s something that is usually inherently dull about the straight-laced cop seeking justice in the face of appalling cruelty. What’s interesting about a moralizing do-gooder that we haven’t seen a million times before? But there’s something more than meets the eye for Garfield’s detective. He has a strong moral compass, so much so that learning the truth about the darker side of Mormon leadership feels like a personal betrayal.
A doting family man with two young daughters, the brutality of this case, in particular, hits him hard. But he’s also shrewd in ways that often go undetected. He knows precisely when and how to leverage his status as a member in good standing of the Church of Latter-Day Saints; when to address someone as “sir” or “ma’am,” and when using the Mormon title of “Brother” or “Sister” will get him further. It’s a remarkably nuanced performance from Garfield, who is believable as both the unfailingly polite picture of Mormon faith and the intelligent, determined detective.
There’s plenty to like about Under the Banner of Heaven besides just his performance, though – the show delves into the strange, mysterious world of the Mormon church in a way that few others can. Ultimately, it makes a powerful statement about not just Mormonism but religion in general: Its greatest danger is that its practitioners find their own desires nestled in “God’s will” and are willing to invent whatever scripture they need to justify it. People with a strong sense of right and wrong are capable of good works even within a flawed religious framework – we see how quickly the women of the church spring into action when Pyrie needs their help finding his mother, who suffers from dementia and has wandered off. But for ambitious men, men who subconsciously feel weak and insecure, like the Lafferty brothers, religion provides the perfect opportunity for them to cast themselves as great holy figures who are justified in committing violent acts in the name of God.
Under the Banner of Heaven is a slow burn that takes its time to explore the psychological state of its villains and how their religion is designed to be twisted to meet their specific emotional needs. The traditional true-crime elements of the show are bolstered by its thoughtful analysis of Mormonism, creating an emotionally and intellectually stimulating series. Garfield once again proves his skill as an empathetic leading man, grounding Under the Banner of Heaven’s murder investigation with an intensely personal crisis of faith.