In 2013, Lifetime aired Escape from Polygamy, a mind-numbing original TV movie about two young people, Ryder and Julina, who fall into forbidden love within their polygamous community, only to find out that Julina is promised to Ryder’s father. This not-so-subtle update of Romeo and Juliet was predictably terrible, but that (presumably) didn’t stop it from inspiring this week’s similarly titled six-episode docuseries Escaping Polygamy.
Airing on Lifetime Movie Network (stemming from a documentary the network aired last year) rather than Lifetime itself (maybe because Lifetime is trying to straighten up and fly right, now that all eyes are on UnREAL) Escaping Polygamy aims to take on the more abusive, brainwashing, and emotionally devastating aspects of polygamy — the antithesis to TLC’s Sister Wives. In the docuseries, three sister (Andrea, Jessica, and Shanell) who escaped polygamy themselves are now on a mission to help other women who are desperate to leave but can’t find a way out. This, in itself, is compelling enough: we are always fascinated by other societies, subcultures, and relationships, and doubly so when the society in question has been deemed dangerous, and when “we” are in a position to save them.
That’s the general idea behind Escaping Polygamy, though the show is much, much darker than you’d expect. The women in the series are/were part of the “Kingston Clan,” a very secretive society that’s better known as the even creepier-sounding “The Order,” a well-documented polygamist group in Salt Lake. The Order has its own businesses and bank, but exists “camouflaged” within Salt Lake society. Throughout the episodes, the women explain the harrowing aspects of The Order: “I was married to one of my cousins when I was eight years old”; “I was physically abused almost daily”; “At 14, I was courted by my 42-year-old uncle.” One woman details her worst beating, smacked by a 2×4 because she didn’t get to the van fast enough, and another talks about how she was raped and would watch her father beat up her family members. They want to get out, but they don’t know how.
That’s where Andrea, Jessica, and Shanell come in. In the pilot episode, they arrange to save a young woman named Leah, who literally runs away from the compound, diving into a SUV, unsure if anyone saw or followed her. Escaping Polygamy doesn’t just end with getting Leah away from The Order, because she’ll continue to need support; as she tells us early on, “I don’t have anybody.” The episode occasionally jumps back to Leah’s story, following up and checking in as she gets settled in a rented room in a house, with a job cleaning houses — which is “not always great money” and not enough for her to afford a car, but, Leah says as she waits for a train, “I’d rather be waiting at this train station… than be sitting at home raising five kids with a man who is married to five other women.”
Escaping Polygamy can definitely be sensational and dramatic — this is Lifetime, after all. At one point, the women rush to cram an escapee’s belongings into a moving truck against a tight deadline (and just when you think they’re done: a bag breaks, spilling her possessions all over the front lawn!). And in the second episode, a rescue quickly goes off the rails and the police are called in. But for the most part, Escaping Polygamy is captivating and even somewhat important, full of small details that will stick with you: Leah going shopping for clothes but still worrying about showing her legs and arms, or the observation that The Order’s houses all have the same “rotten vegetables” smell. These details make the series, and Escaping Polygamy understands when to tone down its natural inclinations to go big in order to provide a better educational narrative.
For one, the series doesn’t condemn the concept of polyamorous relationships as a whole. Instead, it confines itself to denouncing the specific polygamist community of the Kingston Clan, one which relies heavily on incest in order to keep the community’s blood “clear” of other races and nationalities, meaning that women are “being groomed to marry their uncles.” In the case of one potential escapee, we’re told that she’s running away not because she’s a defiant teen but because, quite simply and sadly, “she doesn’t want to marry her cousin.” And the show doesn’t just concern itself with helping women escape; it also documents the struggles of a young man named Ethan who was kicked out of The Order and, with no family or support in the outside world, became heavily addicted to drugs.
In the second episode, thanks to a mysterious (and, yes, convenient) tape that winds up in someone’s mailbox, we’re able to see some disturbing footage from inside one of the compounds: young children, not yet old enough to pronounce words correctly, reciting brainwashing dogma (“Brother Paul is the man on the watchtower,” “I know that this is the work of the Lord”). It’s clear that Escaping Polygamy wants to visually expose the Kingston Clan’s polygamist cult the same way Going Clear did with Scientology. LMN may not be the network to execute such an ambitious project, but this is a good start.