Big Little Lies: “Burning Love” Episode 6 Review

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The penultimate episode of Big Little Lies unpacks a lot of tension, while setting the stage for an explosive finale.

The second-to-last episode in any season of television is difficult to pull off. It requires a nimble balancing act between how much information to divulge now, and how much to save for the big finale. If you give too much away, you risk your ending feeling stale. If, on the other hand, you try to save everything for last, you end up with an hour of filler.

Fortunately, Big Little Lies tight episode schedule works well to combat this conundrum. A lot happens in “Burning Love,” but the show’s big questions still remain unanswered when the credits roll. It’s the rare penultimate episode that can both stand on its own and work as an exciting bit of buildup.

Each character has a major progression in their storyline, but there’s still some big hurdles left for the finale to tackle. Madeline’s is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. She has a huge weight on her shoulders by not telling Ed about her affair with Joseph; a weight that’s made even heavier after his wife confronts her at the opening of Avenue Q. I’ve been impressed with how the series has handled this plotline so far. This isn’t the typical torrid affair that threatens to upend Madeline’s life (for now, at least). It’s much more grounded in reality. It’s a secret guilt that she will always carry with her; one that has serious effects on her marriage, even if it’s firmly in the past. This is most evident in the scene when Ed confronts her about their lack of a sex life. The show has hinted at the fact that Ed might be aware of more than he lets on, but there’s still an air of ambiguity surrounding the whole situation. At one point, Madeline breaks down and seems poised to share the huge “mistake” she made with her husband. Ultimately, he stops her, but it’s unclear if it’s because he doesn’t want her to beat herself up, or because he already knows and doesn’t want to hear it out loud.

Madeline and Ed’s argument feels very authentically written, especially for a couple that has “settled” for a certain level of complacency. Even more impressive, however, is the way David E. Kelley intertwines Madeline’s affair with Abigail’s secret project. As expected, the reveal that she’s planning to auction off her virginity for Amnesty International is met with an uproarious response. During an expertly directed dinner sequence, Madeline literally vomits at the thought of her daughter selling herself on the internet…even if it is for a good cause. Big Little Lies has been smart to pepper her storylines with the right amount of humor, mainly because Reese Witherspoon has ace comedic timing. Yet, the most poignant part of the dinner comes when Madeline confronts her eldest daughter about her plan. Though she starts out berating her, she ends up being able to relate to her on a deeper level through her own mistakes. Abigail is perhaps not the person that Madeline should be confessing to, but the affair works as a great bonding moment for the both of them.

The truth is, Ed is a really great guy, and if Madeline would come clean to him about everything, there’s a good chance they could move past it, and build a new version of their marriage that’s even stronger. Celeste, on the other hand, doesn’t have this luxury. “Burning Love” painfully illustrates that she has reached the point of no return with Perry. As her boundary-crossing therapist tells her, she needs to make a plan of escape. Things reach an intense climax when she hits Perry in the crotch with a tennis racket in a moment of self-defense. It turns out, this moment shatters his urethra. When they return from the hospital, he looks at her and says, “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you.” With one swift, quiet change in Nicole Kidman’s expression, we know that her denial is over. It’s time for her to get out.

While Celeste might not be able to afford to stick around anymore, she certainly can afford some nice digs to run away to—something that many women in this situation would have a hard time coming by so easily. Still, Celeste suffers a similar problem to Madeline with her affair in that she can’t bring herself to tell the right person about her secret. Sure, she’s confided in her therapist but, as is made clear to her during one of their sessions, she needs to tell a friend, at least for the sake of having someone to testify for her in court. Celeste makes a major move by leasing a new apartment, but she’s still trapped as long as she keeps this all to herself. It comes as somewhat of a shock to her therapist to hear that Celeste’s self-worth relies so much on what other people think about her, but it makes total sense. She even has Madeline believing that her life is “north of perfect,” and she’s so used to putting out a happy façade to everyone. Still, an apartment has been bought, and so the secret will inevitably come out.

After last week’s tension-building visit to the fake Saxon Banks, Jane has a surprisingly uplifting storyline this week, that’s also anchored by another winning display of the softer side of Renata. Of course, things don’t start out so peachy. After learning about a petition at school to have Ziggy suspended, she angrily pushes Renata, who also happens to be at the school. Then she gouges her in the eye…by accident. The whole scene causes a flurry of excitement amongst the Greek chorus of parents, but it’s followed up by some immense maturity on Jane’s part. Last week, she let her emotions get the best of her and almost confronted an innocent interior designer with a handgun. This week, she goes to Renata’s house with her head in her hands, and pleads her case.

It’s a sweet moment between two mothers who are clearly both at their wit’s end. All this time, Renata and Jane have been at each other’s throats, when they should’ve been working together to find out what’s really going on at the school. Laura Dern does some impeccable work this week, even from behind an eye patch. The fact that she’s been able to take Renata, who was written to be a sternly unlikable character in the book, and make her so sympathetic is a major feat of her performance. It’s not yet clear how Renata and Jane’s truce is going to affect Madeline the others, but it certainly sets up an interesting new dynamic heading into the series’ final hour.

“Burning Love” is an eventful episode for sure, but it does well to leave us with some burning questions for next week. We still don’t know who is bullying Amabella. Saxon Banks continues to remain a mysterious figure. Oh, and there’s that pesky murder that remains to be solved. We’ll have to wait until next Sunday to get these answers, but I’m sure it will be well worth it. Big Little Lies has invested time in getting to know its characters, so that even if next week’s finale is billed as “edge-of-your-seat” and “shocking,” it will never feel like a cheap ending. This story is grounded in these fully realized women, and so no matter how dramatic it gets, it will never seem like it’s trying too hard. Grade: B+

 

Some Other Notes:

  • The one truly unlikable character this week is Harper, who is the worst kind of suburban mom archetype—the best friend of a central character who claims to have their back, but is really just a nosy asshole. It’s Harper who starts the petition to get Ziggy suspended, even without any proof that he’s done anything. Jane’s clapback against her is very well-deserved.
  • This episode highlights the one big weakness of Big Little Lies, and it’s that Bonnie is an unfortunately underwritten character. In the books, she’s pretty much a plot device, so there isn’t much source material to pull from. Zoë Kravitz, however, is doing the most with her limited screen time. Bonnie’s eye-rolls at her husband are perfection, and her attempts to intervene with Abigail’s whole social justice project are noble. Yet, you can’t help but think that she’s woefully out-of-place in her marriage with Nathan. Again, here is where some more depth would help. Right now I’m just rooting for her to dump him for another yoga instructor.
  • “I’ll give you the number of the Better Business Bureau. You can report me. In the meantime….”

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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