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Marriage is so political

The weather reports might have shown that it was a sunny mid-November afternoon in Southern California, but inside a Santa Clarita-based “Big Love” soundstage, a storm is brewing. Tucked within a nondescript building sit the three Henrickson houses, and head wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is quietly working at the island in her kitchen. That is, until sister-wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) slips in through the back door and nonchalantly drops that she had gone out and done something . . . huge. Only, because this is filming seven episodes into the fourth season, we can’t say what that is.

Suffice it to say that the news does not sit well with the first wife. If that wasn’t bad enough, wife No. 2, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), stops by, and Barb quickly discovers she’s been the odd woman out all along. “Nicki, you knew?” she accuses. The jaw-dropping news and the betrayal are too much for even the temperate head wife to handle: Barb bursts into an all-out rage -- “My cope container is full, do you hear me? It is full!” -- and storms out, leaving the other spouses to uneasily absorb her wake.

Welcome to the ever-volatile, ever-revolving swirl of secrets and wives. Over its three seasons, HBO’s drama about a man and his three wives has evolved from a curious polygamy premise into a nuanced family drama. The dense interlacing of tense marital strife, social commentary and even a fair share of laughs proved a potent mix its third season out, and the series picked up its first-ever best drama Emmy nomination. More recently, it was named one of AFI’s top television programs of 2009 and earned Golden Globe nods for Bill Paxton (who plays Henrickson patriarch Bill) and Sevigny as well as for best drama.

But on the eve of its fourth-season premiere Sunday (9 p.m.), the series is not content to rest on its laurels. There’s more “Love” now than ever.

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“It’s much bigger in scope,” announces Will Scheffer, who co-created and executive produces the show along with partner Mark V. Olsen.

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” affirms Mary Kay Place, who plays Roman Grant’s head wife, Adaleen. --

Hectic pace

In addition to the already existing clamor of three wives, nine children and the family’s Home Plus chain, Season 4 has Bill breaking ground on a Mormon Indian casino. Margie’s home shopping network business is booming, to the chagrin of her fellow wives. Roman Grant’s death has left a power vacuum at the Juniper Creek compound. There’s blood on Bill’s brother Joey’s hands for his transgression. Alby (Matt Ross) falls in love with the trustee appointed to take charge of the compound. Nicki’s teenage daughter, Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson), returns, as does creepy ex-husband J.J. ({Zcaron}eljko Ivanek). Sarah’s (Amanda Seyfried) getting married. Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek joins the cast for a multi-episode arc. And if that wasn’t enough, Bill decides to run for political office.

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All of this will take place in just a nine-episode season. “It was a demand about getting the show ready for January that shortened the order,” says Scheffer. That, and Olsen was recovering from open-heart surgery last February (and was then getting over the swine flu that had made its way through the writers’ room, which was why he was absent from this interview). “We would have preferred to go on in March, but [HBO] had already booked the miniseries ‘The Pacific’ for March,” continues Scheffer. “So we had to come to some sort of compromise. The compromise was nine shows.”

“There’s something almost a little film noir-esque about it, a little melodramatic,” says Goodwin of the new season. The actress is sipping a Diet Coke on break between takes; brown knit Ugg boots have been substituted for Margie’s high heels.

“We’ve become much more integrated into the deeper meaning of what polygamy is and whether it is a fundamentally viable lifestyle,” says Scheffer. “Whether this can really work in true consenting adult relationships between women and a man.”

Particularly when the spouses themselves are exploring different identities. This year, “the wives represent three different modern women, and that brings a whole new dynamic that has to be worked out,” notes Tripplehorn.

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Margie’s thriving jewelry business has her confidently increasing her profile as well as her bottom line. And Goodwin reports that the enthusiastic young wife “has finally discovered a passion that is unrelated to sex.”

“She’s feeling her oat,” says Tripplehorn. “She only has one. She’s feeling it.”

“Margene is certainly making waves with everyone this year,” Goodwin reveals. Whereas previously Margie might have “taken the high road in situations in order to keep the peace, this year she’s found her selfish side.”

She’s not the only one. “This year all the wives are a little selfish,” says Sevigny. “They’re learning to stand on their own feet.”

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Still stinging from her excommunication, Barb diverts her focus instead to the Blackfoot Indian casino. “The casino’s kind of her baby,” says Tripplehorn. “I call it Barb’s church for now, because I think that’s where she’s really growing and experiencing this awakening that she’s been wanting since ‘Big Love’ began.”

Nicki continues to be haunted by her extramarital dalliance with District Attorney Ray Henry. “She’d never been exposed to that kind of attraction before,” says Scheffer. “She’s trying to make sense with what that means.”

Roman Grant’s daughter is also coping with her father’s death. “It’s actually been kind of liberating,” says Sevigny. “She’s realizing all the horrible things he’s done to her. . . . But she also wants Bill to run the compound because she misses that power.”

Bill’s own ideas of power and liberation are wrapped in his run for state Senate. The Henrickson patriarch is hoping a win will allow his family to live the Principle out in the open, as “polygamy is a misdemeanor, and he won’t be recalled,” says Scheffer.

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“I don’t want to live this secret life anymore,” says Paxton of his character and his plural marriage lifestyle.

The campaign serves as the year’s linchpin. “For the first season ever, we have a story that starts pretty much at the beginning of the season and culminates at the end of the season in one solid arc,” says Scheffer. “Everyone has really rich stories that are coming out of this central conflict.”

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Surprises await

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Spacek plays Marilyn Densham, a Washington lobbyist who gets embroiled in Bill’s political bid. “I become his nemesis,” says Spacek. The actress’ first recurring TV role is unlike anything Spacek has ever played. “It’s quite different for the show, and it’s quite different for me,” she says. “It’s been so much fun to go into different territory. The worst thing is that I’m in high heels all day.”

The lobbyist’s strong independence -- “she doesn’t have a family, so her career is her life,” says Spacek -- intrigues Barb. “I think she aspires a bit to Marilyn,” says Tripplehorn.

The series courts its share of controversy, such as the uproar that occurred in March with the depiction of a sacred Mormon ritual. “We’re not going back into the temple, and we’re not dealing with any sacred material,” insists Scheffer. That said, “I’m sure the Mormon church is not going to like some of the material that we’re exposing.”

As in Season 3, there’s a road trip ahead, this time to Mexico, which Scheffer describes as more “unusual” than “very special episode.” And the season ends with what the executive producer calls a “game changer,” positioning Season 5 in “a whole new groundwork.”

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All these juicy story lines come with heightened security to ensure the big secrets are kept under wraps. “My little shredder is working overtime,” reports Spacek.

Though not everyone is keen to root out every detail. “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, God, what’s going to happen?’ And then they say, ‘Oh, please, don’t tell me,’ ” says Paxton. “There’s a real enjoyment in how the cards are going to be flipped in each episode. You just never know what’s going to fall out of the woodwork.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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