The second episode of FX’s new miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven opens with a Mormon family at home, all dressed in white, preparing for their daughter’s baptism. The 8-year-old girl gestures to a ring on her finger, and asks her father if she should keep wearing it after she’s been baptized. The ring is small and silver with a green shield at the center, embossed with three letters: CTR, short for “Choose the Right,” as detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) explains. It’s a distinctive ring that Mormon children are encouraged to wear, as a reminder to obey the laws and commandments from their Heavenly Father.
Like many of the symbols of Mormon culture and cosmology in Under the Banner of Heaven, the CTR ring carries an immediate weight for anyone who has spent serious time in the pews of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). As an ex-Mormon myself, descended from good pioneer stock and raised actively in the church before I left in my late teens, the image of a CTR ring brings back a distinctive sensation from childhood. I can feel the cold nickel around my finger, as I twisted the ring over and over again while sitting bored in Sunday School while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang the hymn “Choose the Right.”
Mormonism is not an active part of my reality now, but the experience is so specific and unique – from practices of the religion itself, to colloquialisms and the casserole-heavy cuisine – that it ‘s hard to explain to people. And there’s been no authentic depiction of Mormonism in the media to refer to – thus far, the pop culture record on the Latter-Day Saints has mostly been written by non-members, like Trey Parker & Matt Stone of The Book of Mormon musical. The CTR ring makes another surprising appearance in HBO Max’s Tokyo Vice, as a symbol of one character’s secret ex-Mormon past. But while that show’s unexpected Mormon subplot is a surprisingly tactful if sensationalized portrayal of the struggle to leave the church, it’s still fundamentally an outsider’s perspective, and only one small kernel of a much larger narrative.
So Under the Banner of Heaven is in some ways a milestone for Mormon representation: though none of the main cast members are active or former Mormons, creator Dustin Lance Black was raised in the church and became an industry name as the only writer of Mormon experience in the writer’s room for Big Love, HBO’s notorious series about a polygamous family in Salt Lake City. Both Big Love and the original Jon Krakauer book about the real-life murder of a Mormon mother and her daughter on which Under the Banner of Heaven is based were highly controversial flashpoints for Mormons around the same point in the mid-2000s. While Under the Banner of Heaven attracted ire for unveiling violent incidents in Mormonism’s past, Big Love caught heat for its focus on polygamy and scenes recreating sacred temple ceremonies. Big Love often strove for cultural fidelity and verisimilitude, but it was ultimately about Mormonism in the same way The Sopranos was about the mafia: a rich setting and context for a larger thematic portrait of tragic masculinity.
But the TV adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven takes the faith of Black’s youth as its direct subject in a way Big Love never did. It’s aimed at a secular audience – often reminiscent of True Detective, if Lovecraftian gobbledygook were substituted for Mormon doctrine, and in tune with the culture’s obsession with true crime, scammers, cults, and extremism – but it also whispers authentically, like the still small voice Mormons speak of, to an ex-believer like me . Some of the show’s signifiers and reference points might be more recognizable to outsiders, like Detective Pyre playing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to guilt trip an LDS suspect, or his abstention from caffeine. But there’s a lived-in attention to detail that rings true, down to the way certain characters speak.