Big Little Lies: Once Bitten

Posted on March 20, 2017

Okay, can we just start off by saying that this episode worked our damn nerves to the hilt? The jarring cuts and shifts in music, the frantic editing style, which gets increasingly so with each episode. The sense that all three women are careening headlong into tragedy. The heightened tension permeating even the most mundane scenes (never has a coffee shop seemed so much like a gauntlet toward the gallows). The gossip making every interaction seem worse. All three of the main characters quietly falling apart and not telling anyone. We were pretty wrecked by the end of this one. It’s a good thing we don’t treat this show as WineTV, because we’re pretty sure we’d each plow through a bottle by the time the credits rolled. That car crash alone had us jittery for an hour.

There’s a lot to unpack from this episode, but what we want to take a moment to focus on first isthe scene on the beach, with the three of them running side by side.  It was an uplifting moment but also a bit of an ironically dark one as well, no? We immediately took it as a “sisters bonding” thing; a visual representation of the ways in which women’s friendships sustain and support them. And yes, it is partially that, as all three of them are involved with and concerned about the other’s lives. But none of them has a full picture of what the other ones are going through. They’re by each other’s sides, but barely looking at each other, or even out at the world. They know of Jane’s trauma, but they have no idea of the extent of her PTSD. Madeline knows Celeste and Perry have rough sex, but she has no idea Celeste has actually feared for her life in her own home. Jane and Celeste know that Madeline is restless and unhappy, and Celeste knows she kissed Joseph, but neither of them know the depths of her unhappiness – or her feelings for Joseph. Given how disturbing Jane’s running scenes have been up till now, with multiple visions of her shooting her rapist or jumping off a cliff to her death, the sisterhood thing felt more like a cover for the darkness underneath it, which almost seems like a metaphor for the story overall. These women may be good friends, but they are each slowly being consumed by their lies and don’t know that the other ones are as well.

Are we wrong here? Our maleness may be coloring how we perceived the scene, but it struck us as fascinatingly complex rather than merely a you-go-girl moment of empowerment, which might have been how a production of less quality might have presented it.

One thing’s for sure: between this and Feud, the Best Actress categories at the Emmys are going to be a hell of a thing to watch next year. Nicole Kidman’s scene in the therapist’s office was almost hypnotic, the acting was so good. It’s easy to point at Kidman’s fidgety, nervous, keeping-up-appearances performance as a masterpiece but Robin Weigert as the therapist more than held her own here. It was some of the most beautifully quiet acting on television all year – and it made the perfect horrifying counter to the mostly silent scenes of Perry picking up toys until he explodes with rage that he vents violently on her.

What makes Kidman’s performance so engrossing is that she makes you feel everything her character is feeling. Not just the fear and shame, but the confusion as well. The scenes with Perry are so loaded with tension and yet the marriage is presented with enough nuance so as to avoid cliche. All kinds of people find themselves stuck in abusive marriages for all kinds of reasons. It’s fascinating to see a smart, self-possessed, beautiful woman of means struggle with accepting the truth because she can’t seem to disconnect from the idea that she is complicit in it. It destroys our ideas as to who these victims are. And it’s simply beautiful, heartbreaking work on Kidman’s part. Her body language alone in the therapy scene was almost like mime work, it was so precise.

Shailene Woodley is also blowing us away with her flawless portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. Calm to the point of being almost entirely without affect and then suddenly and unexpectedly angry in a manner so explosive that it’s almost frightening to see, it’s a portrayal so true that we wonder how much research went into it. It’s because Madeline and Celeste are each dealing with their own soul-killing secrets that they can’t see what’s clear right in front of them: that Jane is becoming dangerously erratic and angry in her thinking; that she openly talks about how much she loves her gun in the same conversation where she talks about tracking down her rapist, and that she seems increasingly desperate and unsure as to what’s really going on with Ziggy. She’s falling apart in front of everyone and no one can really see it. Again, that could practically be a metaphor for the whole series – and a testament to how well this show sticks to its themes.

And on another note, Renata and her fringed sweater of rage may be our favorite costume design moment of the week, even with the eye-popping Feud currently airing on the same night. It was both expensive-looking and vaguely silly in the “hands” (so to speak) of Laura Dern, an actress who can find absurdity in the most mundane of objects and settings. It literally quivered with her fury. But to be fair to her, and to Dern’s performance, Renata is no villain or monster. No mere Horror Mommy cliche. She’s just a highly stressed woman who’s reacting to that fact that her daughter is being physically abused on a consistent basis and nothing is being done about it. Unfortunately, while that reading tends to mitigate some of her more hard-to-like qualities, it tends to also shine a light on something that’s looking more and more unlikely as the story progresses. There are a few things circulating around the school and the way it’s being portrayed here. While it may be a built-in feature to have the people in charge (the principal and the first grade teacher) make so many highly questionable decisions that keep escalating a bad situation, it doesn’t really scan that a woman as wealthy, stressed and entitled as Renata Klein would put up with any of it. We’re just on the verge of it being totally implausible that a woman like her would allow this situation to go on without bringing the full weight of her considerable influence and finances down on everyone involved. Having said that, her voice-cracking plea to Jane to please get her son to stop physically abusing her daughter (See what we mean about sticking to themes almost religiously?) made a funny-horrifying character into a heartbreakingly human one. Again, just beautiful, nuanced work on her part; elevating everything around it, just like most of the mains are.

We almost feel like we’re giving Reese short shrift here, because her performance has been nothing short of flawless since the opening scenes of the series. But the other three women had moments that simply took our breath away this week – and contributed significantly to the idea that their well-intentioned friendships are failing to support each woman in the way she truly needs. It’s fascinating stuff to unpack, and far more complex than this kind of story tends to be on television.



Check out more of our TV reviews, and for more discussion on your favorite shows, visit the Bitter Kittens TV & Film forum.


[Photo Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gale/HBO]

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