The true crime drama, Under the Banner of Heaven, is currently streaming on Hulu. Starring Andrew Garfield, the series was released in April 2022 but went largely unnoticed due to the plethora of content across streaming platforms. Created by Dustin Lance Black, the seven-episode show is based on the 2003 nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer.
Like the book, the series primarily focuses on the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), particularly its fundamentalist factions, and a violent crime committed by two members of one such group. The prevailing emotion throughout Under the Banner of Heaven is a pervasive feeling of dread.
The story begins with Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) being called away from his young daughters to investigate the gruesome murders of 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter in July 1984. As the series progresses, the sense of foreboding intensifies with each step taken, leading deeper into darkness.
Andrew Garfield is extremely convincing as a devout church member grappling with cognitive dissonance – the conflict between his ingrained beliefs and what he knows to be true.
The real-life murders of Brenda and Erica are not a mystery, so the series explores how such heinous violence could be committed in the name of faith. The show also sheds light on how the LDS church concealed its connections to fundamentalist groups that emerged after the official ban on polygamy in 1890.
Under the Banner of Heaven unpacks Krakauer’s expansive book through multiple timelines, which is most successful in the first of the three storylines. In this part, Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and his partner, Detective Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), methodically unravel the layers of the case through interrogations with the younger Lafferty brothers, each presenting a different perspective on the events.
This includes Brenda’s grieving husband Allen (Billy Howle), reserved Robin (Seth Numrich), and extremist Sam (Rory Culkin), who lives off the grid. Taba, a Native American of Paiute heritage, offers a hardened and skeptical counterpart to Pyre’s devoutly religious and empathetic approach while also highlighting the racial dynamics of the predominantly white town of American Fork, Utah.
The second timeline skips over Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and follows Brenda’s uneasy integration into the Lafferty family. Brenda, an aspiring journalist from less conservative Idaho, marries into the Lafferty clan, known for their staunch adherence to Utah Mormonism and their dark history of abuse under the terrifying patriarch Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl).
At its finest moments, the series delves deep into the perpetually intriguing and perplexing tension between human instinct and religious instruction.
The brunt of Ammon’s violent rage is directed at his eldest sons, Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan (Wyatt Russell). Their repeated mistreatment seems to contribute to a gradual descent into anti-tax libertarianism, spousal abuse, and polygamy. The final timeline delves into the early days of Mormonism and its founder, Joseph Smith, who was also a polygamist.
Eventually, Pyre (Andrew Garfield) learns that the murders were carried out by Ron and Dan Lafferty, who received “divine revelations” instructing them to kill Brenda and her baby as part of their religious duty. The motive for the murders was rooted in their belief in “blood atonement,” a controversial doctrine that suggests some sins can only be forgiven through the shedding of the sinner’s blood.
Andrew Garfield is extremely convincing as a devout church member grappling with cognitive dissonance – the conflict between his ingrained beliefs (that men hold authority over their households and the church is the ultimate authority) and what he knows to be true (that his wife is his equal and that Brenda and Erica deserve justice).
Daisy Edgar-Jones, too, masterfully captures a sense of unyielding spirit in her heartrending portrayal of Brenda, a devout Mormon with burgeoning feminist ideals. At its finest moments, the series delves deep into the perpetually intriguing and perplexing tension between human instinct and religious instruction – how individuals perceive right when told wrong and how they are drawn toward the truth.
Andrew Garfield’s true crime miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven is streaming on Hulu.
The exploration of how beliefs undergo transformation and mutation further elevates the show. When this theme takes center stage, Under the Banner of Heaven transcends being just another retelling of the tragic murder of a young woman. The Andrew Garfield-led series was well relieved by critics and audiences, with 86 and 80 percent respective ratings on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
However, like the book, Under the Banner of Heaven had its share of detractors. Some folks said the show adds to the longstanding tradition of portraying Mormons as intrinsically violent and inaccurately represents their faith. Interestingly, Jeb Pyre, the detective played by Andrew Garfield, is not a real person.
The police officers who investigated the murders were Terry Fox and Dennis Barlow, who didn’t want to be showcased in Under the Banner of Heaven. However, Andrew Garfield did speak with a real detective who was a Mormon and had a similar crisis of faith while working on a case that was connected to the roots of his faith.