So much about BIG LITTLE LIES centers around women, motherhood and the idea of having it all. These Monterey women are all parents, and they all struggle with it. They also grapple with who they are, separate and apart from their children, and how their own neurosis can burden their kids’ lives.
Oh, and if you’re still counting? Three weeks in, and we learned less about the series’ central murder than ever this week. There were fewer appearances by the Greek chorus of witness interviews. It’s almost like the show’s completely forgotten that this whole “someone’s dead” thing is the hook they used to initially reel viewers in. It’s hardly likely that too many people are complaining though. The dynamics between these women, and their struggles with their own personal demons are much better television than any old murder investigation.
Part of the reason for that is that there are no “good” characters. Everyone – even designated villains like Renata – are varying shades of grey. And, to be fair, in this version of the narrative Renata isn’t even a villain, per se. She’s just a woman, and a mother, with a different set of circumstances from Madeline and friends. If you haven’t read the Big Little Lies novel, this is a noticeable shift. In the book, Renata is much less three-dimensional, and much more clearly coded as an adversary for our three main women. But in the television version of this story, no one is wholly good or bad.
For example, even Perry, Celeste’s abusive husband, is capable of having moments of insight and self-awareness. After another violent incident in which Perry physically grabs Celeste during an argument, she finally threatens to leave him if he touches her that way again. However, rather than a moment of empowerment, this sequence just feels like a fight they’ve probably had countless times before. Why is Celeste – a woman who clearly has so much going for her – choosing to stay with a man like Perry?
Afterward, Perry buys Celeste a massive diamond necklace by way of apology, and her reasons for staying become a little clearer. He promises to get better for her, and looks repentant, before the two have make up sex in the shower. Of course she wants to believe that Perry can get better – and, for Celeste, romance, passion and rage have become irrevocably intertwined. The camera lingers on the bruises on her arm, though, and severely undercuts what might otherwise be seen as a sweet moment. No matter how much jewelry he buys her, Celeste’s bruises are still there.
Their visit to a new marriage counselor is, surprisingly, the best scene in “Living the Dream”. The two struggle to discuss the problems in their relationship, using euphemisms, vague language and even outright lies. (Celeste flatly denies that their fights get physical at the start of their session.) And interestingly enough, it’s Perry – who seems fragile and lost in this moment – who is the first to open up about the abuse in their relationship, along with his anger and fear. Of course, none of this excuses the fact that Perry’s an abuser. But listening to him talk so openly about his fears that Celeste will leave him, and his confusion about his own behavior, is an amazingly well-crafted moment. And not for nothing – but this is the first time we see why Celeste might stay. She’s essentially given up her entire life – her job, family, friends – to move to Monterey and live the life Perry wanted. She also admits that she’s ashamed of the “dirty secret” in her marriage – not only that they fight so violently, but that she enjoys the angry sex afterward.
Elsewhere this week, Jane is also caught up in a seemingly endless cycle from her past. When she forgets the due date for Ziggy’s family tree school project, she enlists Madeline’s help to fix the problem. Her friend – who largely takes a backseat to other stories this week – arrives armed with poster board and markers. Unfortunately, however, the event unfortunately reignites a long-simmering conflict between mother and son: the identity of Ziggy’s father. Her son demands to know his dad’s name – ostensibly he needs it for the project, but you can also tell this is just something he’s always wanted to know. And this is how we finally find out what all those flashbacks of a devastated-looking Jane in a blue dress are about.
It turns out that Ziggy’s father went by the made-up name of “Saxon Banks”. Jane met him in a bar and they got “pleasantly drunk” together. They got a hotel room together, but then “Saxon” became very aggressive. The word “rape” is never used, as Jane explains the story to Madeline – the first person she’s ever told about this – but it’s obvious that’s what happened. “I tried to resist but he was way bigger than I was,” she says. Apparently, the encounter was so violent that Jane feared for her life. And then, Ziggy was born. Jane admits that she’ll never be over what happened to her – and her disturbing daydream of shooting an intruder in the head more than proves this. But she’s determined to give her son a good life.
Suddenly, Jane’s concerns about whether Ziggy attacked Amabella make more sense. Not that any parent ever wants their kid to be guilty of choking a classmate. But surely Jane, who alone knows that Ziggy’s father is a violent predator, would be concerned that her son might also have violent tendencies as a result.
As for Renata, this week we see more of her character than ever before, in a twist that moves the series’ narrative a little further away from that of the novel it’s based on. Here, Renata is fleshed out much further than on the pages of Liane Moriarty’s novel. She’s a high-powered, successful career woman – and though she’s positioned as more of a villain opposite Madeline, it’s not necessarily a spot her behavior warrants. For all her flaws, Renata is just a woman with different priorities, and this episode does a great job of showing different sides to her.
Perhaps it’s because she spends so much time focused on her career, but Renata is obsessed with a capital O with her daughter’s happiness. When she discovers that Madeline’s daughter Chloe and six other kids are all going to Disney on Ice rather than attend Amabella’s birthday party, Renata is willing to grovel to arch-nemesis Madeline to try and fix things. That’s how serious a less-than-perfect party is, in Renata’s world.
Yes, it seems clear that she’s also fixated on the idea that more goodies – whether they’re Frozen-themed gift bags, cake fondant crowns or kids whose presence she’s bought off – are what will make (and keep) her daughter happy. It’s also a problem she seems to have herself – for all her infinity pools and power phone calls, Renata doesn’t seem happy with herself or her life. She’s worried that she’s “turned into one of those people she swore she’d never become”, after having a child, and she complains that she’s not longer spontaneous or exciting. It’s difficult to imagine a younger Renata as a person going on skydiving adventures, particularly when her ideas of “spontaneity” nowadays seem to be wildly over-performative bathroom sex with her husband. Perhaps Renata misses the idea of her youthful self, more than the reality.
So far the lesson of Big Little Lies seems to be this: whether you’re a career or a full-time mom, the grass isn’t as green on the other side as you think it is.
Season 1, Episode 3 (S01E03)
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