‘Big Little Lies’ Episode 4 Puts on a Fake Smile While the World Burns (RECAP)

Spoiler Alert
Jennifer Clasen/HBO

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Big Little Lies Season 2 Episode 4, “She Knows.”]

“This is pretending. You, me, us. Everything,” a disgruntled Ed (Adam Scott) tells Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) in tonight’s Big Little Lies. He’s not just referring to the fancy dress party and his “Dancing On The Ceiling” era Lionel Ritchie costume. Ed is talking about the desperate game of make-believe being performed throughout Monterey. ”She Knows” is one huge exercise in forced happiness and false outward appearances. It’s a fake smile carved into a rotten pumpkin.

Renata (Laura Dern) best exemplifies this public pretense. “Today will be filled with laughter and happiness and pure unmitigated joy,” she asserts just minutes after she and Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) are humiliated at a bankruptcy hearing. The Klein family is facing financial ruin; forced to put their dream house on the market and give up all sorts of other assets, including their 2017 Tesla. But for today, at least, Renata will play dress up and pretend as if everything is fine.

That means throwing an elaborate disco party for Amabella’s (Ivy George) birthday (“It’s not even her birthday,” Madeline later remarks), complete with top-end catering and a live performance from 70s disco band The Trammps. What kind of 8-year-old knows who The Trammps are? (Well, apart from Chloe, maybe, with her eclectic music tastes). The whole event reeks of Renata; a public propaganda piece to tell the world she’s okay.

However, that’s not to say Amabella isn’t into her Disco Inferno shindig. She seems to be having fun. And in a moment of reflection, Renata watches her “adorable” daughter and thinks back to all the things she wanted when she dreamed of family life. All the big plans she had for her daughter’s future. “All my dreams have gone to s**t,” she tells Gordon. “All my hopes and dreams for Amabella gone.” She rightly blames Gordon for putting the family in this situation, but she also blames herself, for having a “broken picker,” choosing to be with “a man who could destroy all that.”

Celeste (Nicole Kidman) knows all about picking the wrong man, and also putting on an act that everything is fine. She covered up Perry’s abuse for years. Celeste hasn’t been handling the fallout of Perry’s death well at all. A conflicted combination of repressed trauma and genuine grief tortures her daily. When she’s not having violent nightmares, she’s self-inflicting bruises and taking Ambien joyrides. Her pain is mixed up in these dark sexual fantasies, which she’s beginning to act on. She hooks up with a random bartender, who she can’t even remember bringing home she was so out of it on pills and booze.

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

“You seem unwell… erratic,” Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) tells her daughter-in-law. Those sound like the words of a concerned loved one, but Mary Louise is at her most accusatory and diabolical this episode. Of all the characters in Monterey, Mary Louise is perhaps the best at pretending to be something she’s not. On the surface is this mousey, soft-spoken grandmother, who coddles her grandchildren and plays the innocent when someone dares be offended by something she says. But under the surface is an unsettling presence who knows precisely what she’s doing and saying.

Moving into Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) apartment block is not just an act of convenience, it’s to put herself in closer proximity to Ziggy (Iain Armitage), making it easier for her to impose her influence. When Celeste tells Mary Louise that “moving in with your son’s rape victim” is overstepping a boundary, the unmerciful grandma responds by once again throwing doubt on the rape claims, and then suggesting that Celeste is to blame for her husband seeking other women. That coldhearted comment earns Mary Louise a slap. But even that doesn’t seem to faze her. “What do we call that? Foreplay?” she says. It’s cruel and spiteful and evidence that Mary Louise knows exactly how to get under a person’s skin.

Boundaries are crossed again when Mary Louise contacts a family lawyer to seek custody of Max (Nicholas Crovetti) and Josh (Cameron Crovetti). When she informs Celeste, she puts all the blame on her, calling her a “mess” who is a risk to her children. Mary Louise never once considers Perry’s role in all of this, of the damage he did to Celeste and the boys. In her eyes, Perry was a saint, a fun-loving father who loved pizza and adored his family. Instead, Celeste is painted as the bad mother, and the kids need to get as far away from her as possible. And the worst thing is, Mary Louise is so convincing, like when she tells Jane about Celeste popping pills and driving. “Does she ever take Ziggy on these drives?” she asks, preying on Jane’s worst fears.

Madeline and Ed are no further in fixing their marriage either, and their continuing to cohabit isn’t fooling anyone, including themselves, though Ed acts like him still living in the house is enough. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” he says. “No, you’re far from here. You’re not even f**king close,” Madeline responds. Ed ignores her suggestion of a couples retreat. When she tries to be intimate, he turns his back on her. And he laughs when Chloe (Darby Camp) infers her mother is “unhinged” in a school project about ‘opposites’ (a door on hinges and a sketch of Madeline).

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Meanwhile, Jane is getting closer with Corey (Douglas Smith), even introducing him to her friends at Amabella’s party. But as much as she hopes and, to an extent, pretends, she’s fine, her trauma still lingers. Jane looks to be at peace for a brief moment when the young couple takes to the dancefloor and she rests her head on Corey’s shoulder. But a sudden movement of the hand causes Jane to flashback to the night of her sexual assault. She’s at least able to open up about it, telling Corey what happened, but she worries to Celeste if she’ll ever be able to feel sexual again.

Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) has been pretending for the longest. She’s the only one who hasn’t aired her problems with the world. We briefly see her smiling and having fun at the party. But reality comes swinging back around when her mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), suffers a stroke. “Did you say anything to her before she collapsed?” her dad (Martin Donovan) asks. “You mean, did I cause it?” Bonnie snaps back. It’s a ridiculous notion, but Bonnie likely does feel an element of guilt because of the massive secret she’s been keeping. Her mother does seem to know something, though the whole vision of Bonnie drowning storyline feels a little tonally jarring with the rest of the show.

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

People can’t pretend forever, and with just three episodes remaining, I expect the masks to slip further, and when they do, get ready for Monterey to burn, baby, burn.

Additional Notes

-The background music in the pumpkin carving scene when Mary Louise interrupts is perfectly ominous. I’m not sure what it is, some kind of repetitive alarm sound? It almost sounds like a slowed down version of the Psycho stabbing music. Whatever it was, it made Mary Louise even more frightening than she already is.

-Mary Louise’s chat with Celeste seems to suggest that Perry’s brother died in an accident when he was younger? And that Mary Louise’s husband blamed her for what happened, and that’s why he left her. “People can move on after tragedy, just not together sometimes,” Mary Louise says.

-The lawyer overseeing the bankruptcy hearing demands to know what medical procedure Renata spent $4200 on. She points to her forehead (suggesting a facelift) and tells him: “From dealing with men like you all my life.”

-Nathan and Ed fighting like school children at the fancy dress party is amusing, especially when Renata scolds then. “This is about happiness!”

Big Little Lies, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO