It’s disorienting to remember that Romeo’s balcony-side protestations take place just a few days before the fatal plunge of that happy dagger into Juliet’s heart. Meet-cute, courtship, marriage, brawl, mix-up, disaster, and death. All in less than a week. With Shakespeare doing the writing, the stakes feel so high that you don’t even notice the absurdity of it all until you stop and reflect.
This episode of Big Little Lies begins on the morning of the first day of school at Otter Bay Elementary, and ends on the evening of the second. It’s a remarkable choice, not because such a fast clip of treachery and upheaval is uncommon in TV dramas, but because making it all feel so real and urgent is a slippery trick, especially when characters declare things like, “The war is on!” It definitely isn’t Shakespeare, but damn if it isn’t good.
For Jane, this is 48 hours of mommy hell. Fresh off the public shaming delivered by Septa Renata, her son, Ziggy, isn’t keen to dive back into Otter Bay, a sentiment most of us would share if our first day at school concluded with an “I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil!”–style condemnation. Ziggy wants to know why exactly he and his mother have moved to Monterey — information Jane isn’t keen to share while shuttling a 6-year-old out the door. Still, it raises the question: What would possibly lure a single mother away from the family that is helping raise her son? Why move to a new town where she knows nobody and seemingly doesn’t have enough work?
Jane’s later response to Tom, the charming owner of the charming seaside café where the moms escape to after school drop-off, doesn’t ring as entirely truthful. Of course she wants a better life for her son. Sure, the schools are great. But that can’t be the whole story, right? The moody flashbacks of Jane wandering the beach in a blue party dress, coupled with present-day Jane pounding the sand on a desperate run, are obvious signals that there’s more to learn about her past.
Jane’s trouble in “Serious Mothering” is compounded by two incidents. The first — Ziggy’s exclusion from Amabella’s birthday party — she can shrug off with a bit of quick spin: Ziggy doesn’t know Amabella very well, so it isn’t all that strange that he wouldn’t garner an invite to a party that will supposedly be even better than last year’s bouncy house. (As if anything is better than a bouncy house.) But it’s hard to tell who she is trying to convince of this bit of selective truth-telling — Ziggy or herself.
The next day, when Jane’s called into the principal’s office to learn that Ziggy — in an act orchestrated by the Leon Bridges–listening, wise-beyond-her-good Chloe — kissed Amabella as a way to “make up” for the invitation debacle, it’s easy to see why she breaks down in tears. Just two days into the school year, her son has already been branded a strangler and sexual assailant. Because this is 2017, the situation is addressed more like a Geneva Convention–shattering international atrocity than a schoolyard smooch. (As the principal so astutely frames it, “In my graduate thesis, I coined the term ‘helicopter parent.’ But these gems, they’re fucking kamikazes.”) Bonnie’s outright refusal to even consider that Skye was involved — “I don’t believe my daughter would ever sanction nonconsensual touching” — drives home how much these parents have imprinted adult perceptions onto children’s behavior. Sanctioning? Consent? This is the language adults use when they’re intent on whipping up desirable social identities for their children, and on hoisting their own egos up the flagpole.
If Jane brings the waterworks to this episode, then Madeline is its fire, raging her way through a series of revelations, inconveniences, quips, and run-ins with one very zealous traffic director. While the tenor is serious enough — her indignation at Bonnie’s poor decision to take Abigail for birth control is justifiably righteous, for instance — Madeline’s rage is almost delightful. She spins up the way most of us want to but can’t find the cojones to, turning herself into a Tasmanian devil of satisfying bitchiness, telling a sanctimonious yoga instructor not to shush her, and putting said traffic director in his place. “You can go fuck yourself on the head” is headed for the canon of perfect TV comebacks.
Of course, Madeline is acting out against life’s little injustices, because its bigger ones are knocking her around much harder than she’d like. Although she courts the image of chief muckraker, every fire she stokes singes her just a little bit more than she can bear. Lingering resentment over Nathan’s evolution from deadbeat dad to doting husband and father is obviously at the heart of her rage. She’s deeply distressed by Abigail’s admiration of Bonnie — whose soul might as well be tie-dyed — and she converts that energy into a Hadron Collider of fury, blasting Ed, Renata, Abigail, and everyone else who crosses her path.
Meanwhile, the rage lurking inside Celeste’s perfectly aligned house spews out within the first few minutes of the episode. To justify her matchmaker-ish meddling with Ziggy and Amabella, Chloe later explains to her mother, “It’s what you guys do when you get mad at each other. Big hug, kiss, bang, everything’s better again.” She also unknowingly offers a twisted, pint-size interpretation of the rot lurking at the center of Celeste and Perry’s relationship.
The fight starts like any other marital spat, with Perry accusing Celeste of not keeping him informed of the boys’ school schedule. It’s the sort of disagreement that couples often find themselves in the middle of without knowing how they got there. Perry keeps at it, though, telling Celeste that he thinks she kept the information from him so she can have the boys all to herself. Furiously packing his suitcase for a business trip to Vienna, the argument escalates until Perry suddenly snaps, slapping Celeste across the face with a terrifying clarity of purpose.
The speed with which Celeste slaps him back suggests this isn’t the first time things have turned violent, and that it might not be an entirely one-sided exchange. “Sometimes I think he likes to fight because it leads to sex,” she explains to Madeline over wine, without revealing the physical violence that accompanies their fighting. “Sometimes, I think I like it too.” Indeed, Celeste and Perry’s latest bout leads to rough, pounding sex against the wall of their otherwise orderly home.
The scene is sexy and revolting all at once, since it’s entirely unclear whether Celeste holds any power. Perry grips her wrists so tightly, and enters her so violently, that it’s difficult to say whether it’s consensual. Is she channeling his rage into sex to save herself? Is he raping her? “Don’t,” Celeste told him seconds earlier, but was she talking about the hitting? The sex? Both? She later Skypes Perry in the middle of the night, waking him to the site of her gauzy, black robe falling off her shoulders, and her fingers splayed on her own breasts. Compared with Madeline and Ed’s sweet, slow dance in their basement, the scene feels vile and violent, despite its participants’ dual complicity.
Nearly every review of Big Little Lies has mentioned how well it avoids the pitfalls of affluence porn. Despite the oceanfront backyards and luxury cars lined up outside Otter Bay Elementary, the show empathizes with the extraordinarily affluent in a way that the rest of us can find palatable. Here, with one of the most unpalatable scenes in recent TV memory, Big Little Lies might launch a thousand conversations about fictive domestic violence, especially considering the national debate that followed Sansa’s brutal rape on Game of Thrones. But before we toss out indictments of Big Little Lies as overly indulgent or unsettling in its uncertainty, it’s worth noting one thing: This happens everywhere, even in the shiny glass houses we think we can see inside of.