Big Little Lies: Push Comes to Shove

Posted on March 13, 2017

Too often, a limited television series based on a novel will have pacing issues. Any adaptation of a novel to a filmed text is going to face the question of how to make that transition, but when you have as much as 8 or 9 hours of viewing time in which to adapt a book, the question is less one of which things to edit out as it is whether or not it’s worth fitting everything in. Often, as a limited series reaches its midpoint, there’s an almost inescapable feeling of treading water or biding time until the third act can kick in. Big Little Lies has no hint of that problem at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. As the series progresses, the characters and situations get increasingly nuanced (They could’ve titled this one “Everyone in Monterey is Awful”), which is to say, more interesting with each installment. The subtext for almost all of them is slowly becoming text as the facades are thinning in front of our eyes.

Even better, the masterful plotting and meticulously crafted tension has taken us to the point where relatively minor domestic and community tensions are weighted with almost apocalyptic undertones to them. The tension is so high that it’s not even all that difficult to extrapolate some sort of outrageously explosive climax to come. Granted, the relative quietness of this story argues against it, and we don’t really think it’s going in this direction, but we have no problem picturing half the characters dead before this is over. As we said, that’s not likely, but the fact that it’s possible speaks to how well this story is being told to us. Doom is hanging over every interaction and every plot thread. And everyone is lying in one form or another, mostly to themselves.

Madeline and Celeste remain somewhat center-stage in the story, with each of their respective lies becoming more and more prominent. Up until now, the story has cast Celeste’s marriage with some rather dark shades of gray, implying that the domestic abuse is tied up in both power and sex games played by the two of them. This subtext came as close as it has to becoming text in the sex scene, where he incessantly wields both physical and emotional power over her, fueled by his panic that she might want to work again, thereby releasing some of his control over her. She rebuffed him but then wound up giving in somewhat eagerly. You could think that there’s a part of Celeste that’s still seduced by Perry’s looks and possibly even money; that she’s in love with the lifestyle and the sex too much to fight for any control. But that absolutely beautiful scene in the car with Madeline (Witherspoon and Kidman are crushing it and have fantastic chemistry) after the meeting with the mayor put the lie to all of it. Celeste doesn’t really love her life at all. She’s just too scared to exert any control over it because of the absolute certainty that she will be physically abused if she even tries.

As for Madeline, all the staring out into the horizon and formless whining about the grudges and resentments in her life have been masking a lie that isn’t even remotely shocking except for how well she hid it from us, the audience. We never even suspected that Joseph, the director at the community theater, had an affair with her and that they both seem to be fairly hot for each other still. She kept referring to her actions (such as kissing him back and grabbing his ass) as a “reflex” when she confessed only the tiniest portion of the truth to Celeste. She told her merely that Joseph kissed her and that she briefly kissed him back. She didn’t even hint to her that they had a history, but she did manage to make sure Celeste knew that Joseph professed his love for her. She paints a very flattering picture of a woman overtaken (she briefly toyed with going the “assault” route) by the wholly unexpected profession of love and desire from a man who is not her husband. That sounds so much better than “I cheated on my husband a while back and I’m still not quite over it.” Madeline’s ability to compartmentalize her life is astounding, even in a community practically defined by its members’ tendency to embrace a life of denial. Then again, we’re starting to think her affair, coupled with her sexless marriage, means that on some level she gets how damn weird her husband is.

Seriously, it’s not just us, is it? The “I love sweat on women” line, the semi-skulking around the yoga studio, and the staring at Bonnie’s ass only made clear what a very subtle look at as stepdaughter implied last week: this guy’s a creep.

The story seems to be heading in a very clear direction with regards to Jane and the way she’s processing her rape. The subtext has become text as we see her fantasies of revenge play out over and over again, like an obsession she can’t control. The motif of her running on the beach gets more powerful with each use of it. And with the rather heavy implication being that one of the male characters we’ve already been introduced to is her rapist, we’d love to start speculating. It’s less fun when half of you already know the answer. Still, that Ed. We don’t trust him. And while we’re at it, we think Celeste’s twins seem like the most likely answer to the question of who’s tormenting Amabella and Ziggy. No spoilers, please. We’re enjoying this far too much to want the answers. And we’re not even sure they matter as much as the performances and the masterful way the story is being allowed to unfold.

 

 

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