Big Little Lies: “Once Bitten” Episode 5 Review

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Nicole Kidman is a revelation in Big Little Lies‘ best episode yet.

Big Little Lies might be constructed around the trappings of a soapy melodrama, but time and time again it has proven itself to be a truly meaningful piece of work. What I initially expected to be premium cable’s version of a guilty pleasure, has quickly become must-see TV. “Once Bitten” is the series’ most impressive episode so far, tackling domestic foibles with a mesmerizing level of intelligence and a sharp, observational wit.

Even Madeline’s affair, which I wasn’t too quick to warm up to last week, was able to establish itself as an important layer of her character’s backstory. Her heartbreaking confession to Joseph after the two of them were T-boned by a truck in a parking lot spoke volumes about her fears of losing her family, and how conflicted she is about her feelings for him versus her feelings for her husband Ed. It’s yet another example of how this show has been able to take issues that are normally portrayed in a very open-and-shut fashion, and given them fascinating levels of depth.

The main area where the show is able to do this is, of course, is with Celeste’s marriage. Nicole Kidman has been steadily fantastic throughout each episode, but she truly stuns in “Once Bitten,” giving what will likely be an award-winning performance. Her scenes with her therapist (Robin Weigert) are impossible to look away from, even as the subject matter becomes increasingly disturbing.

Jean-Marc Vallée smartly interweaves Celeste’s therapy visit with scenes of Perry’s latest—and most vicious—attack on her, so that we’re pulled in to the horrible memory of it as she’s trying to hide the truth from her therapist. Kidman’s face remains wide-eyed and calm for most of her session, but every small head turn or wavering in her voice is a deadly implication of something more sinister. Perry’s attack on her was one that made her fear for her life. The worst part about it is, she knows he’s going to hit her again.

What remains so haunting about Celeste’s plotline is how commonplace the show is able to make her circumstances. The point is clear: this isn’t something that only happens to characters in Lifetime movies. It can happen to anyone. Celeste is affluent and well-educated. She clearly has self-confidence, as evidenced by her lawyerly prowess from last week’s episode. Yet, here she is meeting with her therapist in secret while her husband’s away.

She uses the fact that she hits Perry back to explain why she doesn’t see herself as a victim. We find out this week that she had four miscarriages before having her twins, and that Perry was very supportive throughout all of it. Domestic abuse stories are rarely, if ever, told with this amount of nuance and compassion. Interestingly enough, the show’s refusal to make Perry a stone cold villain makes him all the more terrifying. He could easily be someone living in your neighborhood.

While Celeste struggles with the idea of uprooting her whole life, Jane goes full-throttle with her plan to meet the man who may have been her attacker… with a loaded gun in her handbag. The decision is impulsive and clearly backed by her emotions, but it’s built up nicely over the course of the episode as her fears and anxieties begin to mount up around her. Getting past this sort of trauma is hard enough as it is, but Jane has to deal with an accusatory Renata and the uncertainty about Ziggy on top of it. It’s enough to make anyone go crazy, but the straw that really breaks her back is discovering that the man who she goes to meet is not the man who raped her at all. In other words, she’s back at square one.

This is Big Little Lies‘ showiest episode yet in terms of Vallée’s direction. There are jump-cuts, a score that blares at moments of tension, and a hilarious dream sequence of an opener that involves Renata pushing Madeline off a cliff with her Avenue Q puppets. Yet, the best shot of the episode is fairly simple. Jane is running alone on the beach, and then Madeline and Celeste run up alongside her. They all keep pace with each other while looking straight ahead. Each of these women is experiencing a different sort of private pain. But you get the sense that they’ll be able to overcome it eventually. They are strong and determined and, most importantly, they have each other. Grade: A


Some Other Notes:

  • Renata is (understandably) upset this week after finding out someone has bitten Amabella, but she (somewhat understandably) rushes to blame Ziggy even though her daughter never expressly says that he did it. I do get where Renata is coming from, but her protective lioness instincts have clearly taken over and she hasn’t stopped to question if maybe her own daughter isn’t telling the truth.
  • In the premiere, Madeline yells at her daughter’s friend for texting and driving. This week, she’s hit by a car driven by a texting teenager. Can’t wait for that sweet, “I told you so.”
  • This week they teased Abigail’s “secret project” subplot. I won’t spoil anything about it here, except to say that it’s one of the funniest parts of the book and I can’t wait to see how it plays out on TV.
  • Lots of indications that kids know more than adults realize this week, ranging from funny (Chloe realizing her parents were about to have sex) to deadly serious (Celeste’s kids will find out about her and Perry’s fights…if they don’t know already).
  • Speaking of realizing things, the episode makes some strong implications that Ed knows about Madeline and Joseph’s affair. Curious to see how this develops.
  • This is something I’ve been wondering about since the start of the show. How many of Madeline’s outfits do we think are from Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James line?


By Mike Papirmeister

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