The slap! I can still hear it, echoing in my ear canals. Can still see Mary Louise’s rimless readers, bought at Costco for a great discount, I’m sure, flying off her sadistic little face. Her smug expression as she turns back to face Celeste, confident that, although she’s just been smacked, she’s actually the victor. A good slap can carry a bad show for a whole episode, and it can rocket an already excellent show like this one into a new stratosphere. Think about it: Legend Nicole Kidman just walloped legend Meryl Streep in her legendary face, and that wasn’t even the best part of this episode.
Everyone in Monterey, it seems, is about to snap. Their kids are designing school projects entirely based on their mothers’ collective frazzle. Bonnie most of all, but Madeline too, and certainly Renata. Celeste moves closer and closer to a breakdown as this episode unfolds, and only Jane, who has suffered enough anguish over the past near-decade to deserve permanent cloud-lounging bliss, seems somewhat situated in her life — bar the overzealous rape-apologist pseudo-mother-in-law she’s never wanted and now has showing up uninvited.
Big Little Lies is essentially Madeline’s show; the novel too was mostly told from her point of view. She’s the hub of the collective wheel of Monterey moms, and her own life, complicated as it may be, has always acted more like glue than substance itself. She’s Jane’s protector, Celeste’s big voice, Renata’s compadre in fury. But now she’s shuffling toward a cliff, cigarette in hand, about to stumble over if somebody doesn’t give her arm a good yank.
Madeline has gone about her apology to Ed entirely like an advice columnist might advise. She’s confessed, zealously declared herself the entire problem, looked into couples workshops. But what she wants now is what she’s always gotten after acting out, a little pat on the head and a tiny smile, an indication that everybody knows Madeline is a wild thing so *shoulder shrug* let’s all have a little indulgent head shake and then move along. Ed can’t give that to her — it’s too soon for him to drive on down to Big Sur for some conscious recoupling, and not in the cards that they’re going to suddenly start screwing around again.
Most troubling for Madeline, though, aside from the fact that she thinks Ed is “far from here,” is what her green-tinted vision sees as a potential dalliance between Bonnie and Ed. So far she’s caught them having a coffee (not suspicious) and shimmying their shoulders Hillary Clinton style in front of about 100 adults and 40 children at Amabella’s disco party (also not suspicious). And although Bonnie didn’t “steal” Nathan from Madeline — the pair were already divorced when she healed his chakras or whatever people like Bonnie do on a first date — the rich irony of this woman’s gobbling up two men Madeline has loved seems to be sending her into a dangerous, envious place.
To be fair, Bonnie is literal fire at Amabella’s disco birthday party. Really, this party is Bonnie’s party. It’s her cerulean-eye-shadow world, her crochet-halter-top reality, her peacock-kimono plane of existence. How did the rest of us even get in? She’s Grace Jones and Liza Minnelli and the rest of us are the fools waiting in line outside 54 as if we’d ever have a chance of getting in.
Too bad the party goes south for Bonnie. She’s still cursed by the wretched guilt that also has her meditating on waves while getting high, so her cheer when she walks into Amabella’s party feels manufactured. Sure, she rubs shoulders with Renata in a callback to their sexy dance-off at Amabella’s last designed-to-instill-envy-in-the-hearts-and-minds-of-every-person-we-encounter birthday party. But from the first moment her mother is putting her hands on Bonnie’s head in some weird mind-reading gesture and indicating that the house has “weird energy” — something anyone who’d caught sight of Renata’s beret could have told you — something feels off.
Bonnie’s little nudges to Madeline that they all would have been better off had they confessed right away are luckily stymied. Unluckily, they’re shut down by Elizabeth’s stroke, which throws a strange wrench into the question of what Bonnie’s mother really sees and what her visions truly mean. Are those ocean waves — and Bonnie’s floating body — truly part of some mystical experience? Or were they all portending a physiological breakdown? She can’t speak, at least for now, so it’s hard to know. But should we be worrying that this might all end with Bonnie walking out into that ocean she can’t stop staring into?
Speaking of the abyss, the Kleins are looking into a big dark hole where all their buried treasure used to be. If, like me, you’ve been wondering exactly how rich they really are (were?), we finally get the full rundown when they head to bankruptcy court this episode. A condo in Aspen, a four-bedroom house in Palm Beach, a 50-foot yacht (“The Amabella!” Gordon can’t help but interject), their $20 million glass-walled pad in Monterey. And those are just the real-estate assets.
But as much fun as it is to ogle this kind of obscene wealth, watching “self-made” Renata crumble into a woman forced to hand over her wedding ring and itemize her therapy bill is a blow to every bone in my feminist body. Gordon has fucked up colossally and kept it from his wife, and yet Renata is being taken to the cleaners. She’s being forced to go through every goddamn purchase she’s ever made with the money that her own savvy and intelligence brought her with a judge who is so obviously uninterested in the humans behind the money.
Should we feel sorry for One Percenters brought low by their own greed? I have exactly one pinkie fingernail’s worth of sympathy for Gordon, who thought himself a demigod. But for Renata I ache. “I married a man,” she acknowledges, “who would take all my accomplishments and just turn them to shit.” The laws that govern marriage and finance used to fuck over divorcing women in the ’50s and ’60s by leaving them entirely out of the earnings’ equations and sending them off with a pittance. Now they fuck over the self-made wife by tying her up inside her husband’s misdeeds. Sure, Renata is brash and obnoxious and far too used to the dreamworld of wealth. But she got herself there, and when she slid that wedding ring across the table I cried just a little for all the women who have paid — quite literally — for the sins of their husbands. (If all of season three is Renata’s comeback story, you can count on me to recap every damn minute of her recollecting Chanel leather skirts and Gucci belt bags.)
For the umpteenth time in a row this season (okay, the fourth), Mary Louise and Celeste steal the show. Mary Louise, the queen of creepy passive-aggression, just invites herself over to Madeline’s house for the pumpkin-carving party and waltzes on in. “Two handsome grandsons, I thought for sure there’d be three!” Ugh, gag me, Mary Louise.
In the span of about four minutes she explains that she’s moved into an apartment in the building of the woman her son raped, stares down Bonnie so hard I expected laser beams to shoot out of her eyes, denies a rape victim’s account, and then tells her daughter-in-law that her dead son was obviously driven to adultery and really WHO CAN BLAME HIM. When Celeste’s dainty, La Mer–creamed hand comes swooping around toward Mary Louise’s face, it is so beautiful and dangerous it practically happens in slow motion.
And this is when Mary Louise goes full monster on us. It could be the slap that finally sends her over the edge, or possibly a full-blown relapse back into the grief she suffered when Perry’s brother Raymond died from an “accident” (cough cough cough cough cough) at age 5. Either way, she’s greedy to get her hands on Celeste’s boys, to shelter them from what she delusionally sees as harm. Mary Louise is the one who raised a psychotic wife abuser, and yet her imperious narcissism can’t see that. And Streep makes it all look easy.
“I’m worried about the boys” and “you seem unwell” are actually code for “I’m doing everything I can to look like the responsible party here.” On a court document, the fact that Celeste has been taking copious prescriptions, wrecked her car in an Ambien accident, assaulted Mary Celeste, and openly admits that she engaged in that rough play with Perry all add up to an unfit parent. Mary Louise catching her with a shirtless overnight guest is just the cherry on top.
Everything Celeste does now — a speeding ticket, a less-than-positive report by a friend like Jane — could send her kids off into the hands of a woman who has lost her own set of boys, a woman who dresses like a grandmother but acts like a snake.