The plot lead up
Near the start of the episode, Barb (the 1st wife, who was brought up LDS) receives a visit from her bishop and stake president, and they ask her whether she’s involved in polygamy (Barb’s LDS sister Cindy tipped off Barb’s bishop in the previous episode). Barb confesses her polygamous relationships to them, and they talk about the possibility of a church disciplinary council.
Later, Barb visits her mother and sister, and she begs them to lend her a temple recommend to “take out her endowments,” which doesn’t make any sense at all, because (a) she would have already received her own endowment, and (b) neither of the women she spoke to would have a recommend for a live ordinance to lend her.
Barb’s mother resists the plea to lend Barb her temple recommend, saying that it’s only been a few years since they eliminated the oaths to slit the throat and disembowel anyone who messes with the ceremonies (a few years? Try 19). Barbara chides her mother, insisting she never really bought into that superstition. Finally, Barbara gets on her knees to beg. The scene cuts to another plot line.
What they show in the temple
(Note: What follows does not reveal anything significant about the temple ceremony, but it does relate in detail how the temple ceremony was portrayed on television.)
After a few other plot lines develop, the camera switches to Barb in full temple attire performing the last sign in the prayer circled around an alter with a black top (personally, I’ve never seen black) with a white book of scriptures on top. We then cut to the veil, where Barb is asked, “What is this?” and she is offered the final token. A voice/choir arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings plays in the background, and we watch a run through of the exchange at the veil from that point until the end.
We then cut to a shot of the Celestial room, which Barb enters to join her mother and sister there (if they lent her one of their recommends, then how did they both get in?) The three of them have the following conversation:
Barb’s Mom: This is just a little foretaste of what Eternity will look like. This is what binds us to each other. Let’s just sit here for a moment and soak up this delicious feeling.
[Barb starts to cry]
Barb’s Mom: Oh, honey. What is it?
Barb’s Sister Cindy: Mother let her have a moment!
Barb: I’m fine.
First Temple Worker: [offering her a tissue] Here you are, dear.
Barb’s Mom: What? Tell me!
Barb: I can’t.
Barb’s Sister Cindy: Mommy, why don’t you just let her be?
Barb: The stake president has called me to love court. The other shoe’s finally dropping. I’m facing a disciplinary hearing tomorrow.
Barb’s Mom: Why didn’t you tell us?
Barb: I was so ashamed.
Barb’s Mom: Oh, no. I thought you were gonna leave Bill.
Barb’s Mom: Oh, I can’t bear this, the thought of losing you.
Barb’s sister Cindy: Leave him!
Barb: Oh, Cindy!
Barb’s sister Cindy: You can stop this. This is your chance to get away. Just say your sorry and be repentant. I didn’t mean it to come to this.
Barb: You didn’t mean what to come to this?
[Cindy does not answer]
Barb: Cindy, answer my question!
[Cindy hurries away]
Second Temple worker: I’m sorry. Your 15 minutes are up. [wtf?]
Barb faces a disciplinary council with Margene at her side, after suffering mightily under the guilt associated with abandoning the church she was raised in, even having a nightmare about being cast into outer darkness. Barbara sits in front of her bishop and stake president (again, wtf?). In the course of the meeting, Barb accuses them of executing orders from higher up due to her husband’s attempt to publicize a letter that the church purchased to cover up John Taylor’s authorization of polygamy. The stake president tacitly acknowledges this, and cites President Packer as saying “Some things that are true are not very useful.” (Ouch! I’ll bet Boyd Packer regrets having said that one.) The Stake President pronounces her excommunicated, while a choir sings “Nearer My God to Thee” in the background.
So the temple ceremony scene was word-for-word accurate. On the one hand, the episode related quite meaningfully what Mormonism meant to Barb — including temple participation. And the portion of the ceremony that it displays is the portion that will clarify for non-Mormon viewers the role that temple worship plays in the lives of many Mormons; viz., its emphasis on placing mortality in the context of the Eternities and the reaching to God that reflects the mortal yearning to commune with our Creator. It did not portray the parts that were easiest to ridicule or that would strike the outside observer as a residue from a 19th century Masonic ceremony. They didn’t go nuclear and cast Keanu Reeves as the veil worker (probably the worst possible outcome). In short, it portrayed the ceremony in an accurate light and context, and it could have done much, much worse by our religion. There’s a pragmatic argument to be made that they did Mormonism a favor by demystifying the temple in a way that puts Mormonism in a good light. (Personally, I don’t agree with this, but it’s arguable nonetheless.)
On the other hand, the temple scene really was superfluous. It seems to me that the authors wanted to display the most sacred parts of the ceremony, and they knew that no matter how they displayed them, they would offend Mormons. Thus, they did it as tastefully as possible to preserve deniability.
The producers clearly had less-than-pure motives, as shown by their reference to oaths that were removed 20 years ago that implied that Mormons took certain symbolic gestures literally, which they never did. Furthermore, they portray active, faithful Mormons denigrating the ceremony by lending their temple recommends to an unworthy member. I wouldn’t consider a Mormon who would lend their recommend to someone else under any circumstances to be a faithful Mormon. Nor would any church authority at all. [This paragraph added 3/17/09]
Was the portrayal of the ceremony essential to the plot? Not by a long shot. The show distorted most of the issues related to how members get access to the temple to make their story work, but they’d have us believe that once the show enters the temple, only verbatim recital will do. The purpose of the scene was simply to use a sacred part of our worship to provide television entertainment. From a religious point of view, there’s no excuse for this.
UPDATE: Quotes from the temple ceremony that used to appear only on vehemently anti-Mormon sites are now appearing in run-of-the-mill New York Post articles.