Nicole Kidman as Celeste, Shailene Woodley as Jane, Reese Witherspoon as Madeline.
The opening moments of this week’s Big Little Lies might as well have an image of Anton Chekhov’s face plastered over them, what with his old adage about guns onstage and all. Over the first few episodes, we were treated to little tastes of Jane’s locked nightstand drawer and the handgun she keeps inside it, along with flashes of a gun interspersed and overlaid with the crashing ocean in the opening credits, like a particularly threatening Sears Portrait Studio background. Now the guns are out and firing — albeit at a shooting range — and they’re coming along for a literal ride when Jane goes rogue to San Luis Obispo. There better be a shooting by the end of this series, or that poor Russian is going to be spinning in his cold Moscow grave.
It’s no surprise Jane carries a gun, really. Even among the moneyed, kombucha-drinking citizens of Monterey, she’s so haunted by her rape that she regularly imagines encountering her rapist and putting one through his skull. (Although sleeping with the gun unsecured under her pillow seems like suspect parenting, to be honest.) She readily admits to Madeline the peace of mind it brings her. “They say just holding one can have psychological benefits for people who have been through trauma,” she says. But the presence of the gun — along with Jane’s bang-on accuracy at the shooting range, where she puts five through the head of the target — weigh down this episode with heavy foreboding. Not to mention a reminder that someone dies at the end of all this.
Jane-who’s-got-a-gun is definitely a bit of a loose cannon this week. Enraged over Renata’s accusation that Ziggy is “abusing” Amabella after a bite mark appears on her shoulder, Jane is slamming her fists on the table at Blue Blues and hurling her phone off a cliff. So the notion of a road trip to San Luis Obispo (that’s the term Madeline uses, “road trip” — like they’re all going wine-tasting in Napa or exfoliating in Ojai) to check out the interior-design office of her potential rapist feels more and more like a dangerous idea. Ed worries that Jane, Madeline, and Celeste will find themselves in a bad situation, but really Saxon Baker should be afraid of the three of them.
When Jane zips off to San Luis Obispo alone, grabbing a joint (from what appears to be a rather sizable stash) and lighting up in the car, it’s easy to see that this is headed nowhere good. Inside Baker’s office, she can’t help but notice the similarity between his mannerisms and her rapist’s. But is it him? That much is unclear. Jane, weighted down with the handgun in her bag, flees the office and soars homeward, only to face flashing police lights. We don’t find out if she ran because the sight of her rapist terrified her, or because the sight of an innocent man brought about a realization of how bloated her obsession has become.
Madeline’s life, too, is careening full-speed down the highway, stoned and packing heat — metaphorically, at least. First, her attempt to copycat what she thinks is Celeste’s hot sex life ends with her panties wadded up her butt, when Chloe wanders in and catches her and Ed in the act. Next, she spots a picture of Abigail on Facebook that has a caption under it from a friend who asks if it’s for her “special project” and whether it’s “sexy/slutty” enough. And then, she’s caught in a situation all adulterers would dread: A truck smashes into the car she’s in with Joseph while he’s imploring her to leave her family and run away with him. Although they talk their way out of full-blown exposure, Ed and Joseph’s wife both clearly suspect there’s more to the story.
But the episode belongs to Celeste. It’s hard to overstate just how magically Nicole Kidman owns this role, how easily she projects the tiniest shifts in Celeste’s psyche as she combats internal contradictions about what she calls her and Perry’s “volatile” relationship. A tug at the sleeve of a sweater distills a whole host of emotions. Even in absolute stillness, her face spins through a Rolodex of emotion. With this opportunity to spread the development of a character over a seven-hour spread, Kidman is making the case for even more A-list actresses to abandon the big screen for the small.
When Perry ambles up to their front door like a Ralph Lauren ad come to life, you — like me and Celeste — might have fallen for his smooth swagger all over again, despite knowing that he’s a sick, sick man. The gloss of money and charm coats every move he makes — until he strikes, in this instance not just pummeling Celeste, but dumping a bucket of toys over her head to humiliate her. Even their non-rage-induced sex begins and ends with his hand around her neck. But through it all, Perry’s smart suits, Brylcreemed hair, and glowing white teeth all remind us that looks and money are a straight ticket to getting away with hideous, gut-twisting behavior.
Celeste’s solo visit to the couples therapist she and Perry visited previously is one of the series’ best extended scenes. Like HBO’s In Treatment, in which each episode followed the therapy session of an individual, the scene goes on so long, it’s practically in real time. At first it appears that Celeste has come alone to receive affirmation from the therapist that her and Perry’s mere attendance at therapy is sign enough of hope for their marriage. But the scene evolves as each woman’s agenda becomes clear. The therapist wants to bring Celeste to a moment of honesty about the violent nature of her marriage; Celeste wants to offer just enough information to encourage sympathetic help from the therapist. She doesn’t realize that, as with addiction, admitting the full extent of the problem is the only type of first step that counts.
The exchange offers one of the most complete explanations of what it means to be in a relationship I’ve ever seen on TV: the way a bond can be forged with poisonous and enriching strands, so tightly intertwined that a couple can’t even tell them apart.
Eventually, the therapist coaxes a silent confession from Celeste. And when she introduces the idea to create “a plan for the next time” Perry hits her, Celeste’s silence is a tacit recognition that her marital situation is untenable. Although she leaves the office and rushes to the airport to wrap Perry in a tearful embrace, it’s clear that some switch inside Celeste has been flipped.
The trailer for Big Little Lies showed Jane, Madeline, and Celeste all sprinting down a windy beach, hair whipping back in the breeze, arms and legs furiously pumping. It implied some competition between the women, as they determinedly edged past one another. Although there is certainly a hearty dose of spatting and brawling among the women of Monterey, the beach-running scene — which plays out in full on this episode — isn’t just more catfight theater, in which audiences can smugly revel in the tacky, unfeminist character assassinations women attempt on one another.
Instead, it’s clear that each of the three women is only able to push herself because the others are there to provide ballast. At its core, this is a show about female friendship in all its intricacy, including the inability some women have to share their lives’ worst aspects with even their most intimate friends. The scene, then, is a gloriously subverted image of the modern stay-at-home mother: It seems like she has all the time in the world, able to work out on a beach with her friends in the middle of the afternoon, untethered from the ding of a Slack conversation or the pileup of email. But the audience knows what they’re keeping from one another. We see that their firmly set mouths aren’t just a symptom of their elevated heart rates. We see how much they need to run because of everything that might happen when they stop.