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Big Little Lies is telling a vital story about abuse

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Celeste is sleeping with the enemy (Photo: HBO)
Celeste is sleeping with the enemy (Photo: HBO)
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Big Little Lies

"Once Bitten"

Season 1 , Episode 5

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With this astonishing fifth episode of Big Little Lies, I keep thinking about all the reviews when it came out that called it trash: high-quality trash, but trash nonetheless. By this episode, this series is so far beyond that moniker it’s hard to believe it was ever associated with it in the first place. This week we get more intimate with each of our main marriages in turn, and the results are astonishing even as they are volatile, emotional, and raw.

I can’t stop thinking about Nicole Kidman’s scene. Especially as her therapist delicately yet expertly gets her to reveal the truth about her marriage. The therapist is one of those of perfect cinematic quality (see also: Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People), but anyone less wouldn’t be able to pull out of Celeste what no amount of makeup can cover.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction this episode is as showy as it’s ever been, complete with jump scares, and alarm-like musical cues, but it makes the reveal so much more effective. We know that a fight is brewing between Perry and Celeste; we see its beginning. Then, as Celeste covers herself up, we see flashbacks to Perry beating her: blessedly brief, otherwise it would be to painful to see Perry’s fists pounding into Celeste’s body. Then when the therapist states plainly what she sees so clearly in Celeste’s marriage, and asks Celeste if she ever thought she’d die: the shot of Perry pushing her facedown in the pillow is almost too painful to witness, with the gulp of breath she takes to save her life. Honestly, it might be one of the most disturbing shots I’ve ever seen, especially since it seems like they’re having sex while he’s doing it. At the end of the therapy session, there’s at least talk of a plan, for when Perry hits her again, which even Celeste knows he will.

Many domestic-violence dramas follow a specific pattern, like Jennifer Lopez becoming a warrior in Enough, Julia Roberts escaping her OCD abuser in Sleeping With The Enemy. This one is so much more remarkable because it shows that this abuse can happen to anyone: A beautiful, educated woman in a high-income bracket. Someone we wouldn’t expect to harbor any self-doubt, yet finds herself in a relationship where her life is in danger. She’s still in love with him, and he appears to be a great father (although even in play, his encouragement to get the boys to attack their mother is troubling). Even still, she’s not ready to leave him yet. But I can’t help thinking of women who may be watching this, and unfortunately, painfully, recognizing some aspect of their own relationship, realizing that they’re not alone. It’s not just great television: It’s great, period.

And that’s only one scene in this astonishing episode: Madeline’s car accident also took my breath away. Like Celeste, she also feels powerless, although she’s trying to get control of her feelings, keeping her affections away from Joseph and toward Ed. Their attempted tryst in the kitchen captures how difficult it is to maintain passion in a marriage, and how much easier it is to do in an affair. With everything else going on in her life, Madeline’s reveal at Joseph’s bedside (and Reese Witherspoon’s performance) is heartbreakingly honest. Ed and Madeline’s aborted kitchen tryst is in stark contrast to the ease that Celeste and Perry, even with all of their problems, start the episode with a passionate quickie. Even the rage of Renata and Gordon’s impressive fight after they discover Amabella’s abuse has more passion than Ed and Madeline are able to muster. At least Ed is close enough to his wife to know when she’s keeping something from him.

In fact, the only element that rings even remotely false this episode is Jane’s trip to meet her supposed attacker. Sure, Madeline will pick up Ziggy from school one day, but what about the rest of his life? If Jane shoots this guy, what happens to him? It would seem to make a lot more sense for Jane herself to go to therapy than it would be to shoot the man who raped her. Celeste and Jane have parallel breakdowns in the car, as they’re unable to retaliate against the men who have hurt them. Celeste even races to the airport after her session, the twins in tow, in an effort to convince herself that her husband isn’t a total monster (although the show offers us a slight fakeout that Celeste may actually be escaping with her boys). Alexander Skarsgard has been killing it in this series: When Perry cries at the airport, you almost get the feeling that he’s as unhappy about the situation that she is, controlled by some evil awful impulse that enables him to continue to hurt his wife.

Celeste, Madeline, and Jane are all living lives of quiet desperation this episode. Which is why the most empowering moment in this riveting hour is when Jane runs on the beach, and Celeste and Madeline show up to run on either side of her. They’re strong, they’re empowered, and most importantly, they have each other. In the lives they lead, in the lives of all women, we know that our girlfriends are our greatest assets and allies. When Jane tells Madeline this episode that “Friendships are the masterpieces of nature,” she couldn’t be more correct, and these three can only hope that that they’ll find the strength in each other to save themselves..

Stray observations

  • Erik Adams pondered the fact that Big Little Lies is another HBO show that starts off with driving, with the three moms leading around their small charges. It’s also the place where all three of our leads have fallen apart by now. It makes a lot of sense, as mothers with small kids often feel like they spend their whole lives in the car. It’s also a small place that encapsulates their sense of isolation and confinement. It’s perfect.
  • Madeline’s cautionary rant against texting in the premiere episode comes to fruition.
  • I feel about guns the way Madeline does, so Jane’s stance that having one makes her feel powerful was also disturbing. Not because of Jane, but because of how that feeling of power may translate to people who are violent or mentally ill, for example. I stay as far away from them as possible and don’t know a lot of gun owners, so I hadn’t really considered the psychological effects of having a gun before.
  • Nicole Kidman’s Australian accent seems to peek through more this episode, but she’s doing such amazing emotional work I’m willing to let it slide.
  • Chloe’s sly comment to her parents that she knows that they’re hiding something from her is a knowing nod to how much kids absorb. Ziggy’s pretty sure that man on his mom’s computer screen isn’t just an interior designer. And, like Celeste’s therapist points out, it’s highly unlikely that her own boys haven’t picked up on the violence present in their home.
  • Best mom outfit: Kind of too blown away by this episode to even notice the clothes. Were there clothes? I guess I liked Renata’s white fringy poolside sweater, but I am way too short to be able to pull that off.