'Big Little Lies' Episode 3: Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children? (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Big Little Lies Season 2 Episode 3, "The End of the World."]
In three episodes, Big Little Lies Season 2 has alleviated any worries I had about whether or not we needed an encore. Unlike Killing Eve's sophomore season, which often felt like it was pressing the reset button so that it could repeat what made season one so successful, Big Little Lies refuses to wipe the slate clean and start again. Instead, it uncomfortably lingers in the aftermath of what happened, burrowing deep into the emotional complexities of its characters and the impact of their life-altering secrets.
"The End of the World" never quite matches the visceral punch of last week's revelatory episode, but it does a great job narrowing its focus on the reasons why people lie, especially to their children. This entire episode revolves around grown-ups misleading children in the name of protection. When discussing the book Charlotte's Web at school, Ziggy (Iain Armitage) offers an opinion that has clearly been warped by his mother's worldview. "[Charlotte is] lying to protect someone she loves... that's what grown-ups do," he says with the confidence of someone who has just figured out the driving motivation of the human species.
The parental outrage aimed at the school for teaching second graders about climate change is a perfect example of this overprotection. Renata (Laura Dern) transforms into the "Medusa of Monterey" when Amabella (Ivy George) suffers a panic attack brought on by fear of global warming and impending apocalypse. "What possesses you to teach 8-year-olds that the planet is doomed?" she roars at the perpetually stressed Principal Nippal (P. J. Byrne). Renata always has a grudge to bear with someone, but she isn't the only parent complaining when it comes to this issue; though, as Principal Nippal points out, she is by far the loudest.
Initially, I thought that Renata wasn't affected by Perry's death or the broader goings-on in Monterey. That out of all the women, she was the least connected, and therefore didn't spend her time contemplating what had happened. But I think I was wrong. Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling ) puts it best this episode: Renata has put the guardrails up. She's "here, there, and everywhere," but she's never present. Almost as if she's purposefully preoccupying herself with all these other dilemmas (and it's always enjoyable watching Dern's fury), so that she doesn't have to deal with her own issues. It's no wonder Amabella is stressed when her parents are combusting under the weight of their own lies.
The climate change problem culminates with a parent assembly to address the concerns and an impromptu speech by Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) which cuts through the veneer of BS. "Climate change is important, but it's a lot to load up on second graders," she starts. But with her own life falling apart and her marriage crumbling to dust, an emotionally fragile Madeline winds up countering her own argument mid-speech. "We lie to our kids," she admits. "We fill their heads with Santa Claus and stories with happy endings, when most of us know that most endings to most stories f**king suck." Of course kids are afraid when they're constantly bombarded with climate change and school shootings, she argues. "We don't prepare them," she continues. "We fill their heads with happy endings, and happy stories, and lies."
Earlier in the episode, Madeline attends couples counseling with Ed (Adam Scott). She's desperate to fix her marriage, but she puts up a wall when Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert) tries to figure out the reason for her unfaithfulness. When asked about her parents' relationship, Madeline lies and says that they've been happily married for forty years. However, she later confesses to Celeste (Nicole Kidman) that when she was a kid, she walked in on her father having sex with another woman. He made her promise not to tell her mother, and she's never said anything to anyone about it ever since. It gives us a new perspective on Madeline, and her actions, not that it excuses them, but we can see she's also dealing with issues stemming back to her own childhood and the lies her parents told.
It's why Madeline struggles with marriage so much. It's like she's waiting for something to go wrong. When Nathan (James Tupper) left her, and her first marriage broke down, it only served to confirm her biggest fear: "Marriage is not to be trusted." In a way, her cheating on Ed was an act of self-sabotage, almost a preemptive strike because she didn't have faith in herself or the idea that marriage can last. Now it's all come to a head, and she's facing her flaws as a wife, as a mother, and even as a friend (she apologizes to Celeste for not noticing what she was going through with Perry). "We tell our kids 'you're gonna be fine,' and we tell ourselves we're gonna be fine," she continues in her school speech. "But we're not."
That final statement gets to the heart of the matter - who are these lies really protecting? I touched on this last week with Celeste, and how she struggles to tell Max (Nicholas Crovetti) and Josh (Cameron Crovetti) the truth about Perry. "He was the best monster," the boys say as they watch old videos of their dad playfully chasing them around the house. And that says it all. Perry was the "best monster" in that he was able to hide his horrors from most of the world. In public, he was sweet and kind; to the boys, he was a loving and fun father. These are the memories that Celeste is so desperate to preserve, telling Dr. Reisman that remembering the good in Perry works for her and her family, even if it's stopping her healing process.
Celeste doesn't want to face Perry's ugliness, probably because the trauma is too raw to handle. It's easier to remember the good times. But it goes deeper than just watching some cute family videos; she's even starting to frame his violence in a positive light. Not only does she claim that she was a better mother when Perry was still alive, but she admits that her life is now "dull and colorless." Dr. Reisman compares it to a veteran wanting to return to combat — "You miss the wars."
In a way, Celeste shares a lot in common with Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), who is also trying to keep the happy memories of her son alive. There's a moment, when watching the family videos, where Celeste notices the look on Mary Louise's face, the love she has for Perry. Despite all of Mary Louise's snooping and cold-hearted remarks, in this moment, Celeste sees a heartbroken mother who has lost her child, someone who just wants to protect her sweet boy.
As far as we know, Mary Louise never saw the dark side of Perry; not that that gives her a free pass to be a raging psychopath. She is callous when she ambushes Jane and asks for a paternity test, desperate to squash "those rumors" that her son was a rapist. "You might not remember what happened," she tells Jane. "I remember vividly... more than I'd like to," Jane replies. But as a mother herself, Jane also recognizes Mary Louise's anguish and agrees to meet up with her. If it's true that Ziggy is Perry's son, that means Mary Louise is his grandmother, and she wants to be in his life. Jane is a little uncomfortable but is not totally against the idea.
Mary Louise shares her memories of Perry, how he was such a "gentle" and "tender" little boy. "He turned out to be neither," Jane remarks. But her questions are again rude and an uncaring. She asks Jane who initiated the "rendezvous," as if that makes a difference. And knowing about Celeste and Perry's violent sex life, she wonders if Jane might have "misread a signal." Jane makes it clear that she was screaming for him to get off. "I don't mean to offend you," Mary Louise says, which is becoming somewhat of a catchphrase of hers.
And, as frustrating as she is, and this is a strength of the writing (and Streep's performance), you can still see where she is coming from, to a degree. "I can't bring myself to see him as evil," she admits. This is yet another mother trying to defend and protect her child, and unwilling to accept that he wasn't the sweet boy she nurtured.
If there is a weakness to the series, it's Bonnie's story. Zoe Kravitz is doing some great work, but her story is becoming extremely repetitive. And that's because, unlike the other characters, she hasn't been able to reveal her secrets and deal with the consequences out in the open. She is still holding onto her lie and keeping things bottled up. Her struggle is internal, and there is only so much mileage you can get out of a character moping around and gloomily staring into the ocean. Though it was refreshing to see her smiling in that brief scene with Ed. Hopefully, that will lead to her confessing to what she did to someone outside of the Monterey 5.
It would have been so easy for showrunner David E. Kelley to turn this second season into a police investigation drama. The hunt for the Monterey 5. A way to appease fans by continuing the whodunit murder mystery elements that made season one so popular. And there are smalls signs that things will eventually head that way (we see Mary Louise visiting the lead detective for answers, and Gordon's run-in with the law seems like it could tie in). But right now, Big Little Lies' success lies in the emotional fallout of Perry's death and its unwavering exploration of how secrets and lies mess us up.
-"I would like my daughter transferred to Stanford," Renata tells Amabella's doctor. "Why?" he replies. "Because it's Stanford!"
-Excellent cameo appearance from Kerri Kenney-Silver as undercover Little Bo Peep. You could imagine Deputy Wiegel doing that in Reno 911.
-Cory and Jane go on their first date. Still not massively feeling this storyline, but it does a nice job of showing Jane's apprehension and struggle with an intimate relationship given her past trauma. The avoided kiss concurrent with the loud noise of a bus driving by is a particularly impactful moment.
-"I will buy a polar bear for every kid in this school!" Renata's answer to climate change.
Big Little Lies, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO