Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that there’s a murder mystery at the heart of this story. We get so wrapped up in all the goings-on in these women’s lives that it becomes a bit of a shock when the story snaps back to remind us that there’s a possibly huge tragedy hanging over everything. That happens all the time when we’re watching this show. But with this episode, we actually had to remind ourselves that there was a time when we considered this story to be a potboiler about wealthy white women with too much time on their hands. And then we get a little embarrassed that we ever saw it that way.
Sure, it still is that, in a lot of ways. But watching Nicole Kidman’s Celeste struggle to come to terms with the mortal terror situated at the heart of her marriage, or watching Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline admit her imperfections to herself and her daughter, or watching Shailene Woodley’s Jane and Laura Dern’s Renata bridge an enormous divide of privilege and trauma in order to finally act like adults — these scenes are so beautifully rendered and occasionally stumble into such profound observations that we’re almost sheepish when we think about our earlier odes to the costumes and gorgeous houses. This is about so much more than that.
On the surface, it’s still a series of plot lines – rape, murder, paternity, spousal abuse, extramarital affairs – that would be right at home in every soap opera. But that’s the brilliance of this story, because it’s a story about how the surface is a lie. It may look like a TV movie about wealthy women with extravagant problems, but what it’s really about are the tensions and difficulties all women tend to face at one time or another. It’s about long-term marriage more than affairs. It’s about the ways in which our desires sometimes surprise and confuse rather than simply being about hot sex. It’s about trust between partners. It’s about fear and lies and obsessions with the perfect presentation. It’s about constantly worrying that you’re not fucking up your kids or giving people the wrong impression about yourself. And with this episode, it’s about what happens when you stop denying that this is what’s going on around you and you need to drop your bullshit and deal with it. What adult doesn’t understand that feeling and how it’s so many things at once? Liberating, terrifying, nauseating, infuriating, embarrassing, and ultimately, weirdly, darkly triumphant. Dealing with your own bullshit honestly is so rarely a fist-pump moment in life, but there is a quiet sense of victory when things suddenly advance on an emotional front. These moments are so beautifully rendered here. The way Madeline’s mask drops (which happens almost literally thanks to Witherspoon’s astonishing acting in that scene; her facial muscles got one hell of a workout if they did more than a couple takes of that monologue); the way Celeste subtly and quietly goes from denial to planning; the way Renata and Jane manage the impossible by admitting the commonality of their fears and frustrations. We guess what we’re trying to say here is that the great appeal of this story is just how grown up it is in themes and executions. In a way, it’s almost a shame that there are pot-boiler elements like paternity questions and murder mysteries hanging over it. We’re at a point where we’re finding the most pleasure just watching really good actors do really good work portraying near-universal issues of adulthood, relationships and family. In other words, it may be centered around a murder mystery, but Big Little Lies is at its best when it’s about life.
The acting gets better with each episode. Kidman and Witherspoon literally outdo themselves with each episode and Shailene Woodley is doing work here we’d never have thought her capable of doing .
Laura Dern was not included in the above assessment, because she’s not outdoing herself. She’s doing that perfect Laura Dern thing of finding absurdity and pain in every character she plays. Watching Renata almost spastically try to show how much she’s resolved things with Jane in the school parking lot was somehow, for some reason, in her portrayal … sad. Like so many of Dern’s best performances, Renata’s a person who is just trying so damn hard to find a path to happiness in her life that the very fact of her extreme effort makes the desired result tragically unlikely.
Similarly, the scenes with Ed and Madeline were deeply tinged with sadness, especially at those moments that are designed to appear otherwise, like the awkward way he presented her with flowers and the slightly embarrassed way she accepted them.
Robin Weigert deserves an Emmy nomination for her work here. Those therapy scenes are utterly electrifying and that’s only half due to Nicole Kidman. Weigert is imbuing this character with deep empathy and a deep rage that she’s trying very hard to keep under control. She’s as fascinating to watch as Kidman is – and Kidman’s character is the entire point of those scenes.
Okay, we’re heading into the finale and it’s time for final predications. Perry is the only husband Jane hasn’t met, which makes him the frontrunner in the “Who raped Jane?” question. We find the idea of this reveal to be a little obvious, as if all the bad qualities and bad deeds men perpetrate against women have to be contained in one character. There’s a part of us that hopes Jane never finds her rapist and that the story ends with her coming to terms with it, instead of some shocking twist about another character’s husband. But to be fair, the show really hasn’t gone out of its way to tantalize you with this mystery. It may not be the point to it at all. As for who’s dead and whodunnit, all bets are off, but again, it would seem that Perry’s the most likely candidate to be not breathing by the end. Certainly, he’d be the most satisfying to see dead.
As always, if you’ve read the book, please refrain from any spoilers.
[Photo Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gale/HBO]