Big Little Lies: “Push Comes to Shove” Episode 4 Review

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Big Little Lies takes its biggest deviation from its source material yet, making Madeline into an entirely new character.

I guess I need to start off this review by admitting I was wrong. Last week, I predicted that showing things from Renata’s point-of-view would be the biggest difference between this show and the novel it’s based on. Clearly, I was being overzealous. “Push Comes to Shove” not only takes things in a wholly new direction, but it calls into question everything we’ve come to know about Madeline so far.

I have no problem with a television character being unlikable. Complex, flawed characters—especially female ones—are always a needed presence on TV, and I believe that being “relatable” is highly overrated. Yet, the decision to have Madeline kiss Joseph, the director of her Avenue Q production, and then allude to a previous affair with him was very unnecessary. This doesn’t feel like adding new layers to her personality. It feels like a lazy plot device.

Truthfully, the Avenue Q subplot isn’t in Liane Moriarty’s novel at all. It’s stated that Madeline does marketing for the local community theater, but the details of her job are never fully discussed. While I have enjoyed the decision to expand upon her career on the show, this development feels like a major misstep. Madeline and Ed’s relationship has so far been a pleasant foil to Celeste’s physically abusive marriage and Jane’s traumatic encounter with Ziggy’s father. Now, the show seems to be trying to say that everyone’s relationship is fucked up and no one is truly happy.

Perhaps that’s the message that David E. Kelley wants to send, but Madeline already had her own issues with her ex-husband and her daughter Abigail’s teenage rebellion. It was nice to see that her marriage was the one bit of solid ground she had to stand on, and throwing this affair into the mix just feels like a tack-on for some additional drama. Big Little Lies may be based off a sudsy airport novel—albeit, a very well written one—but its entries thus far have been able to smartly elevate it past generic soap opera material. The affair is contrived, and it makes Madeline a huge hypocrite for all her moments of being strong-willed and standing up for what she believes in. She is already a complex enough character, and this is a disappointment.

“Push Comes to Shove” isn’t all bad, though. Celeste has a very stirring plotline this week as she goes to work defending the right to put Avenue Q on to the mayor. The actual meeting scene is great, and it’s thrilling to watch her in her element. Afterwards, she shares a gleeful moment with Madeline where they both admit that motherhood isn’t enough for them.

Unfortunately, it isn’t so easy for Celeste to return to work. Perry’s strong-arming of her in this episode is deeply unsettling, but I continue to applaud the series for keeping their marriage from appearing too one-sided. Perry is a great dad. He obviously has a lot of mutual passion with Celeste. But when he asks a simple question like “why didn’t we discuss this,” or “what are you girls laughing about,” there’s a menacing quality behind it that’s impossible to ignore. Celeste is trying to hold on to all of the good parts of her marriage, but there’s only so many straws left for her to grasp at. This is why her plotline ends in another heartbreaking scene in the marriage counselor’s office. This time, she’s alone, and she wants to know how to tell Perry that she wants to work full time again. Although she says otherwise, she is clearly very afraid.

Jane, meanwhile, is drawn back into the drama between Ziggy and Amabella after his teacher expresses concern that Amabella is still being bullied. Though she doesn’t show it at first, it’s clear that Jane is worried that some of Saxon Banks’ abusive tendencies have somehow been passed down to her son. Her trip to a child psychologist proves otherwise; she doesn’t think Ziggy is the culprit at all. This is a relief for her to hear, but it opens up a whole other can of worms. If Ziggy isn’t the one hurting Amabella, then who is? On top of this, the psychologist suggest that someone could be verbally bullying Ziggy as well.

There’s also the fact that none of this helps Jane move past her trauma. In the beginning of the episode, she tells Madeline that she’s started to feel sensual again for the first time in ages. But Ziggy being accused of bullying just brings her right back down. Shailene Woodley is once again terrific this week as she goes through a roller coaster of emotions that come with trying to do what’s right for her son, and trying to move on with her life. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, but she has a huge chip on them as well. When Madeline shows her that she may have found Saxon, it sets off something in her. The next scene is of Jane firing off several rounds at a gun range.

Each of these three women deals with control this week, or a lack thereof. Madeline feels like she’s losing control of her daughter as she moves away and, unfortunately, acts out in a moment of passion with Joseph. Celeste gets a taste of power for the first time in a long time, but it’s short-lived, as she’s still so trapped in her home life. Finally, Jane is feeling too oppressed by her past, and is likely going to take matters into her own hands. Big Little Lies‘ ability to delve into the messy, intricate emotions of suburban malaise is incredibly impressive. The fact that it does so from a uniquely female point-of-view is commendable. I just wish it didn’t feel the need to add in extra drama. This show is already wonderfully dramatic, and funny and real, as it is. Grade: B+

 

Some Other Notes:

  • Despite the fact that I dislike Madeline’s affair with Joseph, the scene of her telling Celeste about their backstage hookup was actually very funny and very well done. Reese Witherspoon never fails to bring the laughs each week.
  • My least favorite moment of the episode came when Madeline questions Ed about going to visit Bonnie at the gym…after she was just with Joseph. Really?
  • Speaking of which, it was very kind of Bonnie to not mention Ed’s bizarre sweating comment to Nathan when she got home. Also, Nathan is a huge tool in this episode.
  • Adam Scott dancing in an Elvis costume was adorable, which is going to make the inevitable reveal of Madeline’s tryst with Joseph all the more heartbreaking.

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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