Big Little Lies
The Mom is a straightforward creature. It lives to serve others. It has no inner life to speak of. It will always manage to get all The Things done. It won’t complain. It is happiest when others are happy. It needs less sleep and can stave off hunger by eating the mere remnants of other people’s food. It doesn’t question its vocation. Or so the Mom Delusion would have all of us believe.
The Mom Delusion is as insidious as diaper rash. Its victims tend not to even know they’re suffering it effects. Despite the onslaught of essays about whether women can “have it all,” the hailstorm of mommy blogging — hell, the rise of fervent, singing-it-in-the-streets feminism — kids, partners, and observers can lapse readily into this mode of thinking, mostly because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moms themselves fall for it, too. We’ve been told so forcefully, so repeatedly, that being a mother is “the most important job” a woman can have, that no matter what we do, we’re caught in a cycle of questioning our identities, stressing about it, blaming ourselves, and then starting all over.
For Celeste, that feeling comes to a head in “Push Comes to Shove.” In a meeting with the mayor about Madeline’s production of Avenue Q (a story line that until now was rather snoozy) she quite literally suits up and then proceeds to hand both the mayor and Renata Klein their free-speech-suppressing asses. It’s a zing of delight that perhaps reminds her of her lawyer days, as she verbally dismembers yet another opponent. She maintains her always-composed exterior, of course, but puts it to new use, artfully luring the opposition to her way of thinking by reminding them that Monterey’s reputation is at stake.
It’s no wonder she’d buried the lawyer, the woman, and the individual inside her for so long. Perry makes it clear when he questions Celeste about her involvement in the case that he doesn’t approve of her working. Then, in their impeccable walk-in closet, hauntingly surrounded by the spoils of their wealth, he reminds her of the stress that led her to leave law in the first place, subtly threatening her with a reminder of the mental-health issues she once suffered as a result. Their situation had appeared confusingly consensual in previous episodes, as if Perry and Celeste’s relationship was perhaps more complicated than aggressor and victim. Indeed, when she retorts, “You gonna hit me now?” he genuinely questions her, “Do you want me to hit you, Celeste?” But now Perry is using every tool in his kit — sex, manipulation, promises of another child — to keep Celeste just where he wants her: in striking distance. When he viciously grabs her neck at the end of the episode, just as one of the twins is entering their bedroom, the act of violence feels poised to spin out of their control and out of their bedroom.
Yet you can feel Celeste growing more brazen by the second, and here Kidman is really proving the power of a quiet performance. After the meeting in the mayor’s office, Celeste alternates between silently crying and gleefully honking Madeline’s horn, between elation at a job well done and guilt that it feels so good — the curse of the working mom. She admits that “being a mother is not enough” but feels evil for it. Despite her intelligence, her looks, and her money, Celeste is suffering from the Mom Delusion. It’s a testimony to the show’s writing and Kidman’s talent that what could have come off trite and glib instead feels both universal and personal. But Celeste’s story won’t transform simply because the heroine has had a Big Realization. Her solo visit to the couples therapist proves that she’s normalized Perry’s controlling behavior to the point of delusion.
Meanwhile, Madeline’s perfect-mother veneer doesn’t just crack after Abigail officially moves in with her father. It completely shatters. Feeling replaced by the walking Free People catalogue that is Bonnie (who, delightfully, receives the screen time she deserves this week), Madeline has become a whirling torrent of confusion. She’s enraged at Nathan, who wants to have dinner with all four of the parents to discuss “parenting paradigms” and “chasms” in Abigail’s development. She’s wearied by Ed and his Elvis impersonations. And she’s lusting after the theater director, Daniel.
The flashes between the story Madeline tells Celeste, in which Daniel kisses her and she merely acquiesces, and the real story, in which her legs are wrapped around his waist and her hands are wandering his body, explain a lot about the half-truths that often pass as openness between friends. Celeste is entertained by Madeline’s exploits because they feel so small and girlishly rebellious. (The difference between reality and perception is a motif that Big Little Liars too often wrings dry.) Meanwhile, this kiss didn’t occur in a vacuum; as Daniel later reveals after he confesses that he’s in love with Madeline, the two had an affair that she considers kaput — except she’s previously tried to call it quits on the fling and it just didn’t stick.
Buried in the midst of all this is the revelation that Madeline is searching for Saxon, Jane’s rapist — and she thinks she’s found him. An interior designer from San Luis Obispo, he’s tall, blond, rakish, and bears an odd resemblance to a certain violent husband. Plus, his name sounds familiar to Celeste. Are you all thinking what I’m thinking?
Jane’s been locked inside the mental anguish of her rape for the past six years, throwing herself into parenting Ziggy and believing that could be “enough.” But she confesses to Madeline that ever since she told her the story of Ziggy’s conception, her body has been waking up. Wriggling her eyes at a tatted-up coffee-shop patron, we get the hint that Jane is having a Matthew Crawley moment in her nether regions. As the only woman on this show not participating in unorthodox sex acts, it’s unclear whether or not this will enlighten us or is just an opportunity to show a little more booty.
If there’s one catch to adapting Liane Moriarty’s novel into a seven-hour TV series, it’s the occasional drag of the narrative arc. That’s especially true for Jane. We peer into her psyche so frequently — that cliff! Those footprints in the sand! That firing gun! — that her once-intriguing story line now feels like it’s clobbering us on the head. (Also: Madeline’s affair doesn’t appear in the book, and its addition adds a bit too much sexual drama for one small town.) So when Ziggy’s teacher speculates that he may still be bullying Amabella and recommends a child psychologist, it’s hard not to feel as burdened as Jane herself does. The therapist gives him the all-clear — Ziggy isn’t violent, she says, and he may actually be a victim of bullying himself. It’s hard to know whether or not the bigwigs at Otter Bay Elementary will buy it, so we’re left to guess who the real bully might be, just what the hell all this is leading up to, and how many more of Monterey’s citizens will end up in therapy before Big Little Lies is over.