After watching BIG LITTLE LIES‘ second episode, it’s okay if you forgot for a minute that this show is ostensibly a murder mystery. Because at no point does the drama really come back to that major plot point, or even reference the ongoing investigation, or the fact that someone is dead in any significant way. Instead, “Serious Mothering” delves into the aggressive, quite frankly frightening world of parenting in posh Monterey.
There are a few brief scenes of the Greek chorus of police witnesses giving statements once again this week, but they’re not there to advance the murder plot as much as offer color commentary on the brewing battle between several high powered Otter Bay Elementary parents. And surprisingly, its absence doesn’t feel that important. The rest of the episode is more than entertaining enough without it. And it’s hard not to star wondering whether the murder is actually that important to the story the show’s trying to tell in the first place.
One of the central themes of Big Little Lies is that this is a story of women living through, for and around their aggressively perfect children. These are overly pampered, super scheduled, spoiled kids who literally have everything. And yet somehow they’re still just their parents writ miniature, working through six-year-old versions of the same problems and mistakes. And while this suffocating privilege isn’t an explicit plot point – it’s nevertheless a major theme. It infuses every scene – an innocuous conversation in the car is framed by shots of the fancy tech inside, the oversize iPad each child wields. Madeline’s precocious daughter Chloe has a hidden iPhone in her doll in case she needs to call or text her mother at school.
So it’s not surprising that so much of this episode – and apparently the events leading up to that murder that the show really forgot to mention much this week – is driven by the interactions and behavior of the Monterey elementary school set. And the politics and day-to-day interactions surrounding first grade? Are intense. We are reminded that these are still mere children learning how to navigate a new stage of life. (The difficulties of transitioning from kindergarten to first grade are so daunting that a class stuffed animal mascot is introduced, which the kids can take home for “sleepovers”.) But we also see that this experience now comes with a completely new set of challenges and protocols to navigate. (One of the kids has to ask if Harry the Hippo “likes to be hugged” before accepting him.)
But the real conflicts here are, naturally, driven by the parents. The kids are merely used as proxies in the adults’ ongoing battles to prove that they are exceptional people. Jane’s son Ziggy is still anxious about how he’ll be treated at school, since he was accused of attacking a young girl, Amabella, last week. The kids in his class? Seem remarkably fine with him – most think he’s nice and want to play with him. The parents? Not so much. Perry and Celeste debate whether their boys should be allowed to associate with him. Madeline crusades on his behalf to the other parents. And Jane’s just trying to convince her son that no one will think he’s a monster on his second day of school.
The situation escalates when Renata, mother of the girl who was attacked, has her daughter pass out birthday party invites at school – to every child in the class except Ziggy. Madeline is furious – not only over the “injustice” of the act, but the method in which it was done. Madeline is a person who constantly considers the optics of things, and this, as a gesture, looks awful. The two women have the argument that’s been brewing since last week, which ends with Madeline declaring that her daughter won’t be attending the event. And since Chloe is “basically the pied piper” of the first grade social set, her absence will likely be quite damaging to Amabella’s party attendance. Renata furiously tells Madeline not to mess with her daughter’s birthday; Madeline responds with several expletives, and war between the two begins.
We also get a clearer look at the sort of twisted, bizarre situation that is Celeste and Perry’s marriage this week. The two end up having a heated argument about their sons’ first day of school. Things turn violent – Perry slaps her, Celeste hits him back, and he ends up throwing her into a wall. After that, the encounter turns sexual. Apparently they are not only locked in a cycle of physical violence, it also happens to be a kink that they share as a couple. And it’s hard to figure out exactly how much agency Celeste has here – yes, she’s clearly complicit in what’s going on, and this is obviously not the first time this has happened between them. Maybe this is just something that’s par for the course in their marriage. But Celeste also looks obviously miserable, and seems on some level ashamed of what they’re doing together. Is this a survival technique for her? Or is this just a dark fantasy that she enjoys? It’s hard to say.
Oh, and Harry the Hippo manages to mysteriously get a leg ripped off while he’s home for a sleepover with Celeste’s sons. It seems safe to assume that these boys are internalizing those violent undertones in their home somehow.
Elsewhere, Madeline and Ed finally have it out about the fact that she’s more than a little obsessed with her ex. This storyline represents a slight variation from Big Little Lies the novel, which generally presented Ed as a constantly supportive and understanding perfect husband. Here, not so much – but the story is better for it. Here, Ed is angry that despite the fact that they’ve built an obviously fantastic life together, all Madeline seems to be able to do is complain about her ex-husband. He’s concerned that he isn’t “the one” for her, because she’s still so fixated on what Nathan’s life looks like now. He doesn’t want to be runner up in her life. Madeline attempts to explain her still-lingering resentment about the fact that her ex – was a generally deadbeat dad, among other things – has somehow turned into father of the year with a yoga membership, now that he has a new family. On some level, this makes sense – Nathan seems like he was terrible, and he himself admits that he was stupid and young back then. But Madeline loves to nurse grudges, and this is clearly the longest-running one she has. One gets the sense that nothing Nathan – or, by extension, Bonnie – could do would ever be enough to make up for all the things he didn’t do the first time around.
By the end of the episode, Madeline and Ed have patched things up. She tells him that he is the one for her – especially after he confronts Nathan and backs up her feelings the way she always wanted. They slow dance together in their living room. It’s very sweet, though we maybe shouldn’t trust this particular “presentation” of Madeline any more than any of her other selves. Madeline, after all, leans pretty hard into specific “ideas” of herself – the “full time mom”, the “creative artist”, or the “good wife”. She’s extremely concerned with appearances and performative display. Is this a genuine moment? It’s easy to want to say yes, because quite frankly Reese Witherspoon and Adam Scott are great together. But there’s something about this moment that feels a little uneasy.
“Uneasy” is maybe a great word for Big Little Lies as a whole. Under the shiny surface, something darker is gliding around. And even though we can’t see what it is yet, we know it’s there. Perhaps the unease is part of what makes the rest of it so enjoyable to watch. We can pretty much never get to the murder at this rate, if you ask me.
Season 1, Episode 2 (S01E02)
Big Little Lies airs Day 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