Big Little Lies Recap: Game, Set, Match

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Nicole Kidman as Celeste. Photo: HBO
Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

Burning Love Season 1 Episode 6
Editor's Rating 4 stars

Big Little Lies has never shied away from the the more, ahem, corporeal aspects of humanity. We’ve witnessed cyber sex, shower sex, sex in a closet, sex in a car, sex in a theater dressing room, sex on a kitchen island, and thwarted sex on a kitchen island. (And that’s just in six episodes, remember.) Of course, there’s also the unseemly side of physicality: Perry’s assaults on Celeste will turn any viewer’s stomach in sympathy with the continual ravages he inflicts on her body. This week’s penultimate episode chugs even higher toward what we know will be the peak of physicality — a vicious murder — with a heightened focus on all aspects of the human form: sex inquiries from kindergartners, a father-daughter laptop scrum, Poltergeist-rivaling projectile vomiting, eye-gouging, and a tennis racket to the bare, throbbing penis.

It’s like everyone in Monterey senses that something is afoot, and as former secrets bubble up from their depths, their bodies overflow with tension and expectation.

After last week’s mini-cliffhanger, we learn that Saxon Baker is not, in fact, Jane’s rapist and Ziggy’s dad, but merely an unsuspecting interior decorator who has now been traumatized by the invasion of his office by a gun-toting, collar-sniffing maniac. Jane is left to question her sanity: What was she thinking, barreling into the office of a stranger, gun in bag? Over coffee at Blue Blues, Madeline agrees with Jane that this is not the behavior of a well-adjusted young woman. But is wanting to confront (or kill) your rapist really unhealthy? It’s a question the show lets us muse. Of course Madeline has reason to be concerned — but shouldn’t Jane be given some outlet for revenge on the man who savagely undermined her physical self-determination and entirely rerouted the course of her life?

Jane’s furor is only heightened by news from Miss Barnes that some Otter Bay Elementary parent has drawn up a petition calling for Ziggy’s suspension. As Jane rightfully points out, Ziggy is 6 and there is no proof he’s done anything wrong. But there’s no opportunity for the school to defuse tension among the riled-up parent community. Jane runs into the Kleins on her way out of the school (yet again — it’s as if the scheduler at Otter Bay is purposely putting them in one another’s paths and hoping for a WWE-style showdown) and finally lets loose with the expletive-laced rant we know she’s been practicing in the shower for weeks.

The brief brawl that breaks out teeters on the fence between comedy and drama. Jane pushes Renata. Renata pushes back. Somehow, retinal damage occurs and a cry of “My eye!” lets out. We’ve been led to believe that Ziggy and Amabella are actually friends and not combatants, so the irony of their two mothers skirmishing in the schoolyard is glorious. It’s a beautiful little lesson in the “Do as I say, not as I do,” school of parenting. Plus, Dern’s tumble and cries are simply marvelous.

Jane’s mea culpa at Renata’s house marks a serious effort at detente between the rival parental factions. It also puts a slash through one potential murderer/victim combination that Big Little Lies has asked us to consider all season long. Mother to mother, the women realize they are both afraid of the same thing: that their child is being victimized and that they cannot prevent it. It’s a little too neat and easy — I’m not sure I’d forgive the necessity of an eye patch with the speed Renata does — but it nevertheless pushes their relationship into friendlier territory. When Renata suggests a play date at the next morning school run, she seems like an entirely new person, more buoyant and light, despite her partially tongue-in-cheek vow to rout out the real kindergarten bully by inviting each child over and then watching to see which one makes Amabella quake.

Although one of Jane’s conflicts has been cleared up, her internal struggle over Ziggy’s father looms large. While he precociously croons The Temptations’ famous lines, “I never got a chance to see him/Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him/Momma I’m depending on you to tell me the truth/Momma just hung her head and said, son/Papa was a rolling stone,” her shoulders lose their delightful shimmy.

For Madeline, what should be a victorious night with the opening of her production of Avenue Q instead turns queasy when Joseph’s wife confronts her in the theater aisle to interrogate her about whether or not she and Joseph had an affair. Madeline is a convincing liar, swearing that she’s “happily married” and that she and Joseph are merely friends. But Tori is not convinced — and the later fight that springs up with Ed about their sex life is tinged with remnants of the dissatisfaction that brought her to screw Joseph in the first place.

The much-anticipated dinner at Nathan and Bonnie’s is a work of physical bravado on Reese Witherspoon’s part. Humming with the pleasure of a “little something” she took to calm her nerves, Madeline gushes over every minute detail of what can only be described as Bonnie and Nathan’s Balinese wonderland chalet. The tiny forks! The yummy wine! The little ceramic mugs! (Which Bonnie can’t help but describe as from “Meh-hee-co.”) The dinner is on track for success, thanks to Madeline’s Xanax haze and Bonnie’s inability to recognize a backhanded compliment. Until Nathan reveals Abigail’s “secret project”: a plan to auction off her virginity online and donate the proceeds to Amnesty International.

When Bonnie previously told Nathan about the project, his response was purely physical. Like any father picturing some lowlife emerging from society’s underbelly to take advantage of his daughter, he goes through the natural stages: disbelief, anger, and a willingness to make an absolute fool of himself by ripping the laptop from her arms and putting a stop to things. (Apparently nobody in the house considers the fact that Abigail’s laptop is not the only source of internet in coastal California.) Their brawl goes so far as to wake highly sensitive Skye, who rightfully screams her little head off upon discovering her entire family engaged in a bedroom tussle.

But Madeline’s reaction speaks even more directly to the heart of any parent. She spews a fountain of kale-green vomit next to the dining table, then across it, and finally directly at Bonnie. The last spout, with the claim that “it must be the shrimp,” feels intentional, like Madeline is finally giving Bonnie what’s due after exposing Abigail to her hippie-dippy, peace-mongering ways. It’s a nearly perfect scene, exposing the scramble to maintain decorum even among those we practically hate and the leveling quality that being vomited on has among even the most Zen. Witherspoon carries it off beautifully, hiding the tiniest smile behind her napkin after spewing. And Bonnie’s shout of “Goddamnit!” gives us a teeny glimpse of what lies beneath her mindful sheen (and impressive turquoise collection).

There may be animus among this crowd, but again, it feels like a potential pairing of murderer and victim has been voided. Which leaves us with …

Celeste and Perry are still riding their merry-go-round of domestic horror. As she explains in yet another brilliant scene with her therapist, “When he hurts me I get the upper hand. The more he hurts me the higher I go, the longer I stay, until …”

The therapist responds with a question Celeste wasn’t prepared for: “When are you going to leave him?” She responds that she doesn’t think a therapist should be behaving this way. “I’ll get you the number of the Better Business Bureau and you can report me,” the therapist responds. In the meantime, she wants Celeste to find an apartment, stock the fridge, and have it prepared for the day she realizes Perry will kill her, so she can take the kids and flee.

More wrenchingly, she then digs at Celeste with the questions any opposing lawyer would use in a custody battle: Why didn’t she tell anyone he was abusing her? Why did she extol his virtues as a dad? Why didn’t she document the abuse with photos?

Celeste questions the ethics of a therapist so vehemently urging such action on her patient. In doing so, the scene encourages viewers to wonder if we’ve been going about therapy all wrong. As a society, we’ve kept therapists behind a fence. They can proffer advice and probe our emotions, but God forbid they truly care for a patient. Here we see how going a bit too far serves, and perhaps saves, lives.

Perhaps emboldened by the session, Celeste pushes Perry away when he paws at her breasts later that night in their closet. They need to get to the theater for Avenue Q and for once, she isn’t relenting to his demand for the physical affirmation he so disturbingly demands. The moment shifts from disagreement to distress to what is very nearly spousal rape, until Celeste turns to leave. As Perry grabs her hair, she picks up the tennis racket he so charmingly carried last week when he skipped his game to be with her, and swings it at his exposed penis. It connects. Just knowing that a swing of one can send a tennis ball careening at 120 miles per hour should fill you with dread — or maybe glee — for Perry’s twig and berries.

That night, when Perry ominously murmurs, “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you,” alarm bells finally go off for Celeste. Taking the therapist’s advice, she finds an apartment that of course overlooks the roaring Pacific and just barely offers a peek at the lights of her oceanfront house. Finally, we might think, she’s about to get out from under that well-coiffed monster.

Now we just have to hope she makes it through next week’s finale alive, so she can revel in her newfound freedom.

Big Little Lies Recap: Game, Set, Match