Andrew Garfield looking upset as Detective Pyre in Under the Banner of Heaven

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ Explores Religion and True Crime Through a Captivating Lens

When it comes to true crime stories turned into dramatic television programs, it can be hit or miss. While I do have an obsession with shows like The Girl From Plainville or Inventing Anna, both have their faults and don’t do a great job of exploring their subjects.

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But then there’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, the FX on Hulu show is a dive into the real life murder of Brenda Lafferty and her young daughter. Andrew Garfield plays a fictional detective named Jeb Pyre, a Mormon who is facing a crisis of faith as he is investigating what happened in the Lafferty case.

Where Under the Banner of Heaven shines is in its ability to marry true crime with a fictional story that helps act as guide through the real-life events. So, let’s talk a bit about why the show works from a true crime standpoint in ways that others have failed.

Andrew Garfield and Gil Birmingham for under the banner of heaven
(Extra)

Exploring Utah

The series jumps into the case as Jeb does but flashes back and forth throughout time between Brenda’s time with the Lafferty family and her questioning of the patriarchal hierarchy in the Mormon religion, and even goes back to the time of Joseph Smith and the origins of the religion that leads into the warped ideas that eventually inspire some of the Lafferty brothers to kill Brenda.

Like many true crime series, we know the outcome given the popularity of Krakauer’s book. But mixing in new fictional characters to explore the themes of questioning their faith provides the audience with a focal point in the story. Under the Banner of Heaven, as a whole, has an energy to it that gives us more in depth look at Brenda as a woman, but it doesn’t use her as the main character. Having that be Jeb means that we are aware that some of this story is fabricated, but we’re still learning about who Brenda Lafferty was outside of just focusing on her gruesome murder.

Fictionalized true crime stories have historically been bad about putting the emphasis on the victims. Thinking of things like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, we got another look at Ted Bundy and not a look at the victims, who still have no sort of justice. What works with Under the Banner of Heaven comes with Daisy Edgar-Jones’ portrayal of Brenda. She’s giving us a look into this woman who wasn’t afraid of questioning her religion and the men in her life, and the show gives her the story in the midst of Garfield’s Jeb trying to figure out what the true story is.

A perfect world would obviously be the one where a horrific story like this never exists in the first place, and Brenda Lafferty would never have been murdered by her brothers-in-law. But so far, Under the Banner of Heaven has been giving her the time and focus she deserves in this story, and I hope the show continues to highlight Brenda’s story while still mixing in the motive behind what the Lafferty brothers did.

(image: FX/Hulu)


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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.