Big Little Lies: “Living the Dream” Episode 3 Review

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A fantastic episode reveals a kinder side of Renata, as well as the personal demons that Jane has been trying to move past.

The tricky feat that any good adaptation must pull off is knowing what will translate well from one medium to another, and, more importantly, what won’t. As often as we want our beloved books to be recreated chapter-for-chapter onscreen, even the most fervent of fans know that some things just don’t work well visually the way do written out.

I say all this because “Living the Dream” is the furthest the show has strayed from its source material, and it’s also the miniseries’ strongest episode yet. David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée have taken the core of Liane Moriarty’s novel, and added some highly illuminating new shades to it. What unfolds will be slightly unfamiliar to book-readers, but rewarding nonetheless.

The biggest change arises with Renata, whom I suspected would have a much larger role since she’s being played by the lovely Laura Dern. In the novel, Madeline and Renata’s rivalry is the talk of the town. The Greek chorus of witnesses are quick to bring it up during their interview sessions, and Madeline is always griping about what she’s done next. Still, we only ever see things from Madeline, Jane, and Celeste’s point of view. Renata is talked about, but we don’t know her side of the story at all.

Big Little Lies the show does well to save her character from being an out-and-out villain. If there’s one point this show has excelled at making, it’s that being a parent—especially a mom—is no easy task. There’s no scene that better exemplifies this than the one in which Renata is forced to grovel over the phone to Madeline as a last-ditch effort to get Chloe to come to her daughter’s birthday. It’s a deeply humanizing moment, and Dern really sells her character’s desperation. Of course, Madeline doesn’t budge, so the scene hilariously ends with Renata’s instant-classic of a line: “I’ll even let Snow White sit on your husband’s face. Maybe Dumbo can take a squat on yours.”

Madeline and Renata are actually a lot alike. Both women are headstrong—Madeline is actually called a “bulldog” in this episode—good at what they do, and don’t like taking no for an answer. Yet, where they differ is that Renata knows when to call it quits. After a talk with her husband (Jeffrey Nordling) about putting her six-year-old daughter in therapy, she realizes she’s too much in her own head.

Madeline, on the other hand, continues to push and push until its too late. Her plotline this week deals with her eldest daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) telling her that she wants to go live with her father. It’s a heartbreaking thing for any parent to hear, but from the history we’ve seen between Madeline and her ex, we already know she’s going to take this especially hard. I suppose you could view this as some sort of karmic fate for her brassy behavior, but even if that were true, it doesn’t make her reaction any less heartbreaking.

Another area in which Big Little Lies differs in its book and TV iterations is its handling of Jane’s rape. I knew this reveal was coming from the moment I started this show, and I was dreading it. Moriarty’s backstory on Jane’s night-out-gone-wrong is brutal, with her assailant whispering horribly degrading things in her ear as he has his way with her.

Even reading that last sentence back made me shudder a little, so I was pleasantly surprised to see “Living the Dream” deal with this sequence in an efficient, but no less impactful way. The story comes about through the same circumstances. Jane has to help Ziggy with his family tree project at the last minute and needs Madeline’s help. She comes over, and he gets upset when she refuses to tell him the name of his father for his tree.

When Jane eventually tells Madeline what happened to her, the flashback scenes are brief, but they certainly don’t gloss over the fear and sense of danger that she felt. The episode doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat anything, but in a world where premium cable channels often let the camera linger on scenes of sexual violence for a little too long, it was ultimately very refreshing to see one done without unnecessarily drawing out the woman’s pain. We still get the horror of the situation, but we aren’t forced to sit through anything excessive.

Shailene Woodley is especially terrific in her retelling of the story. Her delivery gives off the sense that she’s putting the trauma of the situation in the past, but her unwavering eyes—especially when she says that there’s no way his name is going on Ziggy’s tree—prove that she isn’t going to forgive and forget.

The most important thing that the series keeps intact from the books is that Jane’s incident wasn’t a “textbook rape.” Much like how Celeste’s domestic violence has shades of complexity to it, this too shows how difficult a situation like this can be when things aren’t so cut and dry. Jane’s attacker wasn’t a stranger that jumped out at her from behind a bush. He was a man who she met at a bar and willingly went back with to a hotel room. None of this justifies his unwanted aggressions towards her, but it does show how common this type of assault is. It’s why Madeline pulls over and cries after leaving Jane’s house. What happened to her could have happened to anyone.

Celeste gets the briefest amount of screen time this week, but her scene with Perry and a marriage counselor is one of the most poignant. Nicole Kidman gives her best performance yet that gives deeper insight into the unhealthy cycles of their relationship. Celeste is initially afraid to bring up that Perry gets physical with her. She’s embarrassed to have this “dirty little secret,” she says. Perry, for his part, admits that he acts out of fear of losing control. When Celeste threatens to leave him, he’s genuinely scared of losing everything he’s worked so hard for. This, of course, doesn’t make up his actions in the slightest, but it does take his character from the mustache-twirling villain variety to someone much more nuanced and interesting.

Big Little Lies has a central mystery that it’s working towards revealing, but there’s not too much development in this episode. That’s perfectly fine. The show is so much more interested in delving into each of these fascinating characters, and peeling back their many different layers. I have a feeling that “Living the Dream” will be the furthest that this show will wade into original territory, but it is certainly all the better for it. Grade: A

 

Some Other Notes:

  • Most shows with a series of complex female characters often surround them with terrible men that they have to overcome. While Big Little Lies certainly has its share of bad men, I think it’s important to note that it also has some really great ones. Adam Scott is absolutely heartwarming this week as he comforts Madeline in the aftermath of Abigail moving out. Similarly, Renata’s husband—who’s initially painted as a deadbeat by the Greek chorus—turns out to be sympathetic and kind… and he certainly knows how to make her feel wanted.
  •  This is the week in which Audrey and Elvis is introduced as the theme of the school fundraiser, and it’s still hilarious. Especially because Madeline is crabby about not being able to pull of Audrey with her blonde hair.
  • The Avenue Q subplot is something that’s entirely new to the show as well, but it provides a welcome reprieve from the show’s more serious elements. I love that she thinks that after they cancel Avenue Q, they would go for Book of Mormon, as if it wouldn’t be the other way around….
  • Chloe making a playlist for her big sister before she leaves was adorable.
  • Madeline Martha Mackenzie zinger of the week: “Is it okay to call you Madeline?” “As opposed to what? Arthur?”

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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