Big Little Lies Recap: Escaping the Past

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Reese Witherspoon as Madeline.
Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

Living the Dream Season 1 Episode 3
Editor's Rating 4 stars

There’s something about sending your baby off to first grade — releasing him or her into the tumultuous whirlwind of schooling years — that must trigger a reevaluation of your life’s path up to that moment. Once you’re mom to a human who’s now operating independently, it’s gotta be tempting to look back and wonder just how the hell that happened — and whether or not you like who you’ve become in the process.

In this week’s episode, all the Big Little Liars seem desperate to understand the decisions made by their younger selves. For Renata, whose high-power veneer cracks into pieces whenever Amabella’s happiness hangs in the balance, the weight of a less-than-perfect birthday party is too much to bear. Amabella certainly seems a little dismayed to hear that Chloe and five other children won’t be attending her blowout (legit Disney princesses, a bouncy house, and a crown apparently made of birthday-cake fondant), but doesn’t take the slight for any more than it is — attendance at a kids’ birthday party. But it clearly means more to Renata, who uses the expression “she has a conflict” to describe Chloe’s absence, as if she’s referring to a corporate meeting to discuss new invoicing methods.

It’s obvious that Renata has fallen into the trap of buying more and more goodies to maintain Amabella’s happiness. After all, she tries to buy her way back into Madeline’s good graces and win Chloe’s attendance at the party by offering “a great sleepover weekend trip to Disneyland, all expenses paid, VIP passes, the works, backstage passes to Frozen” for all the kids. But when Madeline — who is more interested in winning the mommy war than this particular battle — turns the offer down with a heavy dose of extra-treacly faux charm, Renata snaps so hard it gives you secondhand anxiety. “I’ll even get Snow White to sit on your husband’s face,” she offers Madeline. “Maybe Dumbo can take a squat on yours.” And then she follows up with a threat worse than corporeal death — social ostracism: “You’re dead in this town, as is your fucking puppet show.” After the click, Renata hurls the phone into the serene infinity pool that is basically mocking her with its reminder that all the money in the world can’t make people like her.

As she explains later in Gordon’s office, Renata is worried she’s “turned into one of those people she swore she’d never become” — basically the plight of all adults who resolve never to buy a minivan until they realize the glory of All! That! Seating! after becoming a parent. Indeed, Laura Dern plays the anxiety-riddled professional so well that it’s impossible to imagine a younger Renata skydiving. Now, spontaneity means unhinged, wall-shaking sex in her husband’s corporate bathroom. But honestly, it feels like they’re trying a bit too hard.

Madeline, too, must reckon with her past when Abigail manipulates her way into announcing — via a school counselor, natch — that she wants to go live with her dad. “I think it would be better for me,” Abigail coyly mutters, “… spiritually.” For Madeline, who was left by Nathan in the early weeks of Abigail’s life, this rejection kick-starts an internal tailspin as she wonders why exactly her daughter would abandon her for the man who abandoned them both.

The big reveal of the episode is the story of Ziggy’s conception: a tale just as sordid and gut-twisting as Celeste and Perry’s, albeit with a very different arc. When Ziggy demands to know his father’s name for a family-tree project (“What is his name for Christ’s sake?”) Jane ends up spilling the story, which she has never told anyone, to Madeline.

She met Ziggy’s father at a bar, and after they were both “pleasantly drunk,” he got them a room at a fancy hotel overlooking the ocean. But after some flirtation, he “changed.” “I tried to resist but he was way bigger than I was,” Jane explains. Without ever using the word “rape,” it’s obvious that’s what happened — although Jane herself may not quite see it that way. The flashbacks are alternately a little overwrought (as flashbacks often are) and extremely distressing. Hair in a tumult, mascara streaked down her face, Jane sits on the toilet in the hotel room. A man is seen forcefully entering a woman from behind. She staggers down the beach at sunrise and wades into the ocean. And most gripping, a close-up of Jane’s sweaty face, half-covered by a sheet and with a blank stare.

He called himself Saxon, Jane explains, but when she later Googled him she couldn’t find anyone matching the name. There was a time she thought she had moved on from the trauma. But as she freely admits to Madeline, she now knows she will never get over it. (She later imagines herself shooting a prowler attempting to break in.) Instead, she concludes she just has to keep on keepin’ on, for Ziggy’s sake.

Now, the fear Jane harbors about whether Ziggy might have violent tendencies makes perfect sense: He is a product of a violent act, and the child of a violent predator. Of course she worries when he’s accused of strangling Amabella. It’s a reincarnation, writ small, of how he came to be. Looking at him, she’s faced with the confounding contradiction of deeply loving the product of her rape while also deeply fearing that, by bringing him into this world, she may have created another monster.

For Celeste and Perry, a look back over their youthful decisions yields the painful realization that they’re living in a hellish heaven of their own creation. As Celeste explains in an effort to convince herself that their violence is justifiable, they “love each other very much,” but just need some help dealing with their abundant anger. “There’s a line between passion and rage,” Perry explains to a couples’ counselor they visit for the first time, “And, I don’t know, sometimes we cross that.” But the problem between them isn’t as abstract as he first describes it. He has again physically assaulted Celeste — this time maniacally grabbing her shoulder after discovering her plans to take the twins to Disney on Ice, about which she didn’t consult him. Unlike the last incident, when it was unclear how much responsibility Celeste carried for the violence, this time it’s clear that she doesn’t always hold herself accountable. “I will leave you,” she threatens. “You touch me like that again and I will fucking leave you.”

The real surprise is how forthcoming Perry is in their counseling session. While Celeste assures the therapist that the violence is “only emotional and verbal,” Perry essentially comes clean. For such disturbing stuff, it’s a beautifully played scene, with Kidman sneaking small glances at Skarsgård as if she needs his guidance to reply to the therapist’s queries, and Skarsgård deftly convincing both the counselor and the audience that Perry is just as perplexed by his behavior as anyone else might be. How the hell did two gorgeous, rich, beachfront-property-owning Californians go from true love to hiding bruises? Perry, Celeste, and the viewer are perhaps all equally baffled — quite an emotional feat in a story of domestic abuse.

As the episode comes to a close, Celeste wanly declares over some dish washing that she is both happy and sad. But Perry’s declaration of love softens her heart a bit, and like a Sonos commercial, he whips up a song on the radio and invites Celeste to dance. “For the first time in a long time, I’m hopeful,” she whispers to him.

Oh, Celeste. I’m not that hopeful.

Big Little Lies Recap: Escaping the Past