In last week’s episode, the three main women of BIG LITTLE LIES tentatively took steps toward admitting that they want more from their lives than their current situations allow. In “Once Bitten”, they realize the only way any of them will ever get any of those things involves confronting the parts of their lives that cause them the most pain. While this journey certainly isn’t easy for anyone – in fact, Madeline, Celeste and Jane are all in various stages of emotional crisis – it does give us the most compelling episode of the season to date.
As is pretty much standard at this point, we (again) get no information about the series’ over-arcing murder case, and no further clues as to the identity of the person who died. Most of us probably forget for large swaths of time that this is even still a thing, as watching the day-to-day lives of these women is certainly enough reason to tune in. But the fact that many of the series’ main characters – not just our three leads, but Renata, Perry, Ed and Nathan too – seem to be spiraling in ways that imply pretty much anyone could be either the murderer or the victim. Even for someone who has read the book, there’s still a significant amount of tension here. The show has ventured far enough afield in several instances that it’s not outside the realm of possibility that it might alter the novel’s ending in some way.
This week, the fireworks begin when Renata discovers a bite mark on daughter Amabella’s shoulder. Enraged that someone is bullying her daughter, she flies into a loud – again, oddly over-performative – rage at her husband, at Jane, at the school system she feels has failed to protect her child. As viewers, we’re possibly conditioned to think that Renata’s response is an over-reaction. After all, we know Jane much better as a character, and we’ve seen that Ziggy is a sweet, considerate child with an A+ grade in empathy from his psychologist. Of course, we don’t think he did anything to Amabella, and in that conviction, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that someone did. While Renata’s reaction is loud and aggressive, it’s also completely natural. She clearly carries a lot of baggage about being both a mother and a successful career woman, and of course another child bullying her daughter would set her off.
Jane, for her part, is (understandably) upset that everyone from Renata to her son’s teachers to the school itself seems to be implying that Ziggy is a violent six-year-old bully. This would be a lot to take on an average day, but Jane is grappling more than ever with the harrowing emotional fallout from her rape. Between fantasizing about shooting faceless attackers and spe nding time honing her aim at the gun range, Jane seems perilously close to the edge. Things spiral further out of control when she decides to take a solo road trip with a gun in her car to confront the man she believes (thanks to Madeilne’s Facebook sleuthing) may have attacked her. Her behavior throughout this episode – throwing her phone off of a cliff, cursing in restaurants, slamming her fists on a table – shows us a Jane who certainly looks capable of anything at the moment. While her encounter with Saxon Baker doesn’t show us for sure whether or not he’s her rapist, Jane’s furious scream in the car is enough to let us know that whatever happened, she didn’t find the closure she was so desperately seeking.
Elsewhere, Madeline is also looking for some kind of personal catharsis. Her affair with Joseph the community theater director is clearly not as dead and buried as she’d like to think. After their spontaneous makeout session last week, Joseph invites her to go for a drive to discuss whatever’s been happening between them, but before their discussion can get to deep, their vehicle is T-boned by a passing car. And while the two must scramble to explain why they were together when the accident occurred, their spouses clearly suspect that something’s off. But the real interesting bit here is that Madeline admits that her life isn’t the picturesque fantasy she likes to present to others. Her feelings for Joseph were real, her fear of losing her family if the truth comes out is real, and she’s struggling with the fact that she has, at best, lukewarm feelings for her husband Ed.
The most heartbreaking and compelling story of the episode belongs to Celeste, however. It’s hard to overstate how great Nicole Kidman is in this role – quiet and terrified and furious. Her face contains multitudes in every scene, and although we may not agree with Celeste’s decisions, Kidman’s performance makes them easier to sympathize with. Big Little Lies probably doesn’t get enough acclaim for its nuanced and careful portrayal of domestic violence, and the complicated, heartbreaking lives of the women who live with abusers. It’s stunningly good. This week, after another violent encounter with Perry, Celeste seeks out their couples’ therapist, looking for some strategies to better handle or mitigate his rage. Or, to put it another way, to survive being married to him.
For a large portion of their conversation, Celeste remains closed off an awkward. It’s too difficult for her to even admit that Perry hits her, or that the bruises she’s so obviously trying to cover up with makeup and long sleeves exist. While they talk, we see flashbacks of a morning argument over children’s toys that ended in another violent beating and still more violent sex. (There’s a shot that implies Perry may be trying to suffocate her with a pillow during this act.) But throughout this conversation, Celeste is insistent – even eager – to blame herself for what’s going on. She insists that she’s violent too, she hits him back, she’s left bruises as well. She stresses that Perry’s a great dad, that she loves him, that other than their toxic rage, there’s something “profoundly right” about the two of them together.
Celeste offers some backstory about how Perry stuck by her through four miscarriages and assorted emotional misery, so though she’s thought before of leaving him, she also feels they’re “bound” to one another. It’s honestly heartbreaking to watch, because it seems as though the only way out of this marriage for either of them, is probably if one of them is dead. (And since this is a show with an unnamed murder hanging over it, that’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.) At the end of the therapy session, the doctor promises that they’ll come up with a plan for the next time Perry hits her, which everyone knows is a certainty.
The episode’s ending montage offers a startling combination of images: Jane screaming in her car and racing away from San Luis Obispo, only to be pulled over by police. Madeline picking up Ziggy and Chloe at school and hosts a family dinner, where everything looks aggressively normal. Celeste grabbing her boys and racing to the airport – but, not, as you might hope, to run away. Instead she meets Perry at the arrivals gate in some weird attempt to convince herself that her husband isn’t a monster, and they hug and clutch at each other as Perry cries.
Jane has spent most of this season of Big Little Lies going for runs. We’ve seen constant shots of her on the beach, attempting to outrun her past and her problems as though cardio holds the secret to the universe inside it. This week, Celeste and Madeline join her in one of these picturesque Monterey beach scenes, the three of them racing side by side together. It’s an empowering image, as the trio’s friendship has become a glue holding all of their lives together. (And they certainly all have personal demons they’d like to run away from.) But it does make you wonder what will happen to them all once they stop.
Season 1, Episode 5 (S01E05)
Big Little Lies airs Sundays at 9PM on HBO
Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story. Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
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Lacy Baugher | Contributor