BIG LITTLE LIES Review: “Burning Love”

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BIG LITTLE LIES is not particularly great at being a murder mystery. Nor, as it turns out, is it good at being a shallow, soapy tale of the emotionally barren rich and privileged. The series does still have moments of being both of those things, thanks to the Greek chorus of town witnesses and the occasional catfight. But Big Little Lies has ultimately turned out to be a thoughtful, weighty drama, unspooling a story about three very different women, and the facades they choose to live behind. (To put it another way: It turns out the show did have something to say, after all.)

With just one episode remaining, we still aren’t any closer to knowing which character is dead or who killed them. But the knowledge that death is coming for someone has added a certain narrative tension to the rest of the series, giving even the most throwaway scenes added emotional heft. We’re left constantly asking ourselves whether a given character’s emotional spiral could be enough to push them to kill someone, or if they’re suddenly becoming more sympathetic because they’re marked for death. Are the parents who constantly talk about “wanting to kill” so-and-so person capable of it? Maybe. Even for those who read Liane Moriarty’s novel, the series has done a pretty great of keeping us guessing. Because Big Little Lies the show has gone above and beyond to flesh out secondary characters and provide more nuanced depictions of relationships. Even though book readers ostensibly already know the ending of the story, it very rarely feels that way while watching.

This penultimate episode is an amazing example of that trick. Rather than give in to the temptation to finally give us some more information on the murder mystery – now that we’re so tantalizingly close to the end – “Burning Love” doubles down on showing us more truths about the people in this story. Both in terms of who they want to be, and who they really are. As plot specifics go, this episode is actually kind of a slow one. Particularly when compared to last week’s episode, which was my favorite of the whole season to date. Much of “Burning Love” feels like a set-up for the series’ finale, but the episode is still full of satisfying moments.

 

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO

Jane is back from her impromptu trip to San Luis Obispo, and confesses to Madeline that this Saxon Baker wasn’t the man who attacked her. Madeline, for her part, feels incredibly guilty for setting Jane off on this revenge search in the first place, and becomes increasingly concerned when she learns that her friend did in fact take a gun along. Jane insists that she doesn’t think she would have used it, but she doesn’t sound 100% sure of herself. Jane’s already tenuous emotional state is further shredded when she’s informed that there’s a petition circling Ziggy’s school advocating for his suspension. Righteously furious, Jane can’t believe that anyone would be targeting a six year old who hasn’t been proven guilty of any sort of misbehavior in this way. And even though Ziggy’s teacher agrees with her, there’s not much the school can do about it.

In a surprising move, Jane later stops by Renata’s house in an attempt to make peace. She apologizes for shoving her, and admits that she understands how Renata’s been feeling. After all: They’re both mothers whose children are being victimized by an unknown assailant, and they can’t do anything about it. Renata’s sudden embrace of sanity feels a bit convenient, particularly given the fact that the woman is wearing an actual eyepatch, but this display of parental maturity is surprisingly refreshing. It’s not something we’ve seen a lot of on this show, when so much of being a mother is about appearances and competition, but it’s very effective. It’s wild that this scene – between two women who’ve been sworn enemies since the first moments of the first episode – should turn out to be one of the most mature conversation that Big Little Lies has featured to date.

Elsewhere, the premiere of Avenue Q brings up a lot of issues for Madeline. Not only is she forced (again) to remember her affair with director Joseph, she’s pulled aside and interrogated by his wife about whether anything happened between the two of them. A consummate liar, Madeline manages to pull off the “happily married” defense with considerable sincerity, but Tori looks unconvinced. Later, Madeline and Ed have another argument about the lack of passion in their marriage. He insists that they never talk about it because it would make it harder for Madeline to pretend that their lives and marriage are perfect. After some booze, Ed morosely admits that most of the pretending is to his benefit, as he’s much more boring than other men she’s been with. Since it’s obvious that these two really do care for each other despite all their problems, their mutual dissatisfaction in this area is difficult to watch. But it’s also unclear how this is something they can fix.

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Given everything else going on with them, you might think a family dinner at Nathan and Bonnie’s house would be a huge mistake, and you’d be right. Madeline, already self-medicating with Xanax to get through the evening at all, learns that her daughter Abigail is planning to sell her virginity online in some sort of aggressively millennial fundraising appeal for Amnesty International. The ensuing family argument about it – featuring Madeline colorfully vomiting on both the table and Bonnie – is extremely entertaining. But Reese Witherspoon just kills the following scene when Madeline admonishes her daughter that screwing up on purpose won’t fix what’s wrong with her life, and she knows, because she’s done it herself.

As has become par for the course on Big Little Lies, the best scenes of the episode belong to Celeste. Returning to her therapist, she is confronted again about what kind of future she sees with a man who hurts her. “When are you going to leave him, Celeste?” Dr. Reisman asks. The therapist implores her to get an apartment and stock it up, so that when she fully realizes that Perry’s a real threat to the safety of her children, she’ll have somewhere to go. Though she initially balks at the suggestion, Celeste does listen when her doctor talks about how difficult getting custody of her children might be unless she starts talking to her friends, and documenting what’s happening to her. And after another violent confrontation that leaves Perry with a broken urethra when Celeste fights back, she realizes that Dr. Reisman is right about him being a threat to her safety. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you,” he hisses at her when they return home from the hospital. It’s enough – finally – to spur Celeste into action. The episode closes with her looking at an apartment, and pretty much every viewer in America cheering her on. Now we only have to hope that she manages to live long enough to enjoy it.

TB-TV-Grade-A-

Season 1, Episode 6 (S01E06)
Big Little Lies airs Sundays at 9PM on HBO

Read all of our reviews of Big Little Lies here. 
Read our reviews of more of your favorite shows here


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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Keep up with all of Lacy’s reviews here.

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