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Big Little Lies’ Best Investigations Are Not About Murder

Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård in Big Little Lies. Photo: HBO

Spoilers ahead for Sunday night’s episode of Big Little Lies, “Living the Dream.”

Tonight’s third episode of Big Little Lies introduces a new dynamic for the series: After giving the audience some insight into the abusive, unhealthy, violent relationship between seemingly perfect Celeste and Perry in the previous episode, Big Little Lies throws in something of a curveball. They go to see a therapist. And perhaps even more surprising, they tell that therapist the truth about the dynamics of their marriage.

The scene between Celeste, Perry, and their therapist (played with cool discernment by Robin Weigert) feels remarkable for a number of reasons. It’s lengthy, and it feels both more intimate and more intense than many other moments in the series. Big Little Lies relies so frequently on grand cinematographic gestures like dramatic background landscapes and heavy-handed intradiegetic music cues, and it’s an aesthetic that certainly works for the show. But that same aesthetic makes this therapist’s office scene feel distinct from the outside world of the show. There is no crashing ocean. No one uses a phone to turn on meaningful music from some unseen speaker system.

It even feels like a different color palette — so much of the show is done in unsaturated beiges and chilly white-wine-toned yellows. Inside the office (and in Celeste-Perry scenes more generally, particularly in their closet), we get more shadow and more warmth. Light from some tinted or paned glass reflects off Celeste and Perry’s faces, alternating between illuminating them and, as Celeste leans further back into the sofa, hiding them from view. It’s not the sort of lighting that makes you think of transparency and openness, nor does the office suggest anything like the huge open-floor-plan expanses of Big Little Lies’ many envy-worthy homes. It’s a lighting scheme that actually makes things harder to see, with faces constantly visible in only half-brightness, or partially obscured by a reflection.

The scene inside Celeste and Perry’s therapist’s office also feels like an exception from the rest of the series in how it functions, and the kind of story it’s telling. Big Little Lies is a series that deals with secrets and unknowns, but there’s not a lot of nuance involved in those mysteries. We don’t know who died at the school fundraiser, but the show points to that missing information with big red arrows that say, “Mystery here!” We likewise don’t know much about the history of Jane Chapman and her son Ziggy until we get more clues in this episode, but between her penchant for angry beach running and her long glowering looks, Jane’s trauma might as well be hung around her neck like a sandwich board.

Initially, the relationship we see between Celeste and Perry seems like it will follow a similarly unsubtle path. They look like a perfect, loving couple from the outside; inside he’s an abusive husband and she doesn’t know how to get out. Which is why the scene with their therapist is so surprising — they begin evasively, describing their relationship as “passionate” and “volatile.” But without too much pressure, Perry admits that his initial description of the marriage as nonviolent is incorrect. He admits to being rough with Celeste, to grabbing her by the shoulders, and to being “physical.” He also tries to describe why he feels like “lashing out” — he’s worried she’ll leave him. He’s so insecure in himself that his fear of abandonment is overwhelming.

It’s a standout scene in part because of how many shades it gives to Celeste and Perry’s relationship, and because of the real surprise that someone as patently villainous as Perry would deign to tell a therapist the truth (or at least something approaching the truth) about how violent he gets with his wife. The moment when he admits the full extent of his actions is really astonishing, and vulnerable in a way that Big Little Lies doesn’t generally lead us to expect from these characters. It pulls us away from what seems like the easily anticipated arc of Celeste and Perry’s narrative — they’re on track to be a relatively straightforward spousal abuse story (he hits her; she can’t leave; things end tragically). This begins to look like a different story, one in which an abuser tries to tackle his own anger and insecurity, and who tries to be honest about his motivations. While Jane Chapman’s angry beach running continues to look about as subtle as the gun held shakily aloft in the show’s opening credit sequence, this scene with their therapist lends Celeste and Perry something more like humanity.

Do not mistake me — discussing the behavior with a therapist does not excuse Perry’s abuse, and that question is something the series will continue to explore over the next several episodes. Even in “Living the Dream,” the closing montage with Celeste and Perry happily slow-dancing to Neil Young comes off as a temporary gesture toward hopefulness, one that only the wholly naïve could watch and feel completely comforted by. The therapist’s office lends this closing scene of apparent harmony more emotional color. Rather than simple foreboding or an uncomplicated reconciliation, that slow dance is now weighed down with questions on all sides. Could a relationship like this ever be truly functional? Is he really trying? Does the therapist see how dangerous he is? Does Celeste? And the real mystery at the bottom of it all — do they actually love each other? Could sincere love ever look like this? Surely no, and yet …

Here’s the other thing about this first therapist scene in Big Little Lies, and the ones that follow in upcoming episodes — this is, ostensibly, a show about a mystery. It’s about a murder mystery, to be precise, and it’s framed by scenes of a detective sitting across from various interested citizens, interrogating them about what they know. Those scenes are some of the weaker elements of this series, largely because the answers seem so trite and oddly shallow. They’re supposed to be the feature of the show that drags us back to the present timeline of the frame story, that reminds us of the danger lurking underneath this tense, privileged community.

Those scenes of real interrogation don’t really work. What does work is this alternate vision of truth-telling and truth-seeking in the therapist’s office, led by the calm but unmistakably pointed questions from Robin Weigert’s portrayal of Celeste and Perry’s therapist. The choruslike collection of minor characters who offer weirdly quippy takes on the school drama are the least interesting version of investigation imaginable; they offer no new information, and their universal disdain for everyone involved empties them of any complexity. We don’t learn new information in the therapy scene between Celeste and Perry, either, but their disclosures nevertheless feel revelatory and unexpected. This vision of investigation points toward a more complicated and less logical set of mysteries than whoever kicked the bucket at the school fundraiser. The mystery Big Little Lies throws in our face from the outset is full of big, shiny personalities and big, remarkably public secrets. The more interesting mysteries are the ones we come to later: The irreducible contradictions of abusive marriages. The complications of parenting a teenager. Functional but empty second marriages. A monstrous husband who nevertheless seeks help from his therapist. While the beautiful homes and glossy murder plot may be what the series uses to grab you, it’s these more intimate investigations that really make the show tick, and that keep its gorgeous excesses from spinning off willy-nilly into the Pacific Ocean.

Big Little Lies’ Best Investigations Are Not About Murder