Big Little Lies: “Serious Mothering” Episode 2 Review

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Celeste’s dark home life is revealed, Jane struggles to keep her demons in the past, and Madeline draws some very clear battle lines.

Big Little Lies gorgeous scenery is shot from foreboding, almost invasive camera angles, a constant reminder that nothing on this show is as picture-perfect as it seems. A sense of darkness looms over everything, even as characters take sun-lit bike rides and look off into the distance from the infinity pools on their decks.

We don’t get much in terms of the central mystery this week, but that’s perfectly fine. The second episode of this mini-series focuses on bravery, with Madeline, Jane, and Celeste exhibiting it in different forms.

Madeline is the most outwardly “brave,” if that even is the right word to describe her force-of-nature demeanor. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and is quick to insert herself in the middle of a tense situation. She spends the episode getting into fights with just about everyone; her husband Ed, Renata, Bonnie, the parking director at her daughter’s school. “Serious Mothering” almost certainly gets its title from Madeline’s behavior. The intentions behind her meddling are good—it’s particularly endearing to watch her stick up for Jane, who is undoubtably a fish out of water in this town—but she often gets so worked up that the reasons for her fights start to fade away as more and more insults are hurled.

Madeline could have easily been portrayed as shrill and unlikable, but Big Little Lies was smart to make her more than just a one-note character. For one thing, Reese Witherspoon has been turning in a bravura performance, imbuing Madeline’s ferocious determination with hints of tenderness. There’s also her relationship with Ed. Despite their arguing, it’s clearly one of the best things that’s happened in her life. Adam Scott didn’t get much to do in the premiere, but he shines in episode two, especially in the scenes where Ed stands up for himself. Someone as headstrong as Madeline needs a partner who’s going to be her rock, but who isn’t afraid to speak his mind as well.

Then, there’s Celeste, who displays a different, unnerving kind of bravery this week. “Serious Mothering” reveals a lot more about her marriage, and boy, is it a doozy. Alexander Skarsgård is alarmingly sinister as Perry seamlessly switches from pleasantries to anger. What’s so haunting to watch is how complicated it is once things get physical. Big Little Lies isn’t interested in showing us a black-and-white version of domestic abuse. Things here are much more “twisted,” as Madeline later says (though she has no idea just how twisted). Celeste fights back when Perry hits her. Perry immediately apologizes after he throws her against the wall. And, their anger at each other quickly turns to heated passion.

Nicole Kidman’s calm, subtle performance has been interesting so far, and it works as a great foil to Witherspoon’s energetic delivery. This episode expertly establishes her serene demeanor as a front. Every sigh and smile is a measured response to ensure she seems happy to the rest of the world. There’s an intriguing scene between Celeste and Madeline over drinks in which she gets close to revealing the true nature of her marriage to her friend. Still, she’s careful not to give away too much. Every couple fights, after all.

Finally, there’s Jane, who too has to put on a brave face, but isn’t as good at is as Celeste. We don’t yet know what has been haunting her, but it’s clear that it’s something bad. Jane has made great efforts to escape her past by moving to a new town and trying to start over, but it isn’t that easy for her to shake it off. The unfortunate side effect of her trying to shove everything under the rug, is that it seems to be taking a toll on her son.

Ziggy is perhaps the bravest person of all in this episode, as anyone who’s ever had to go back to a place where they’ve been ostracized will tell you. His budding relationship with Madeline’s daughter Chloe is heartwarming, and it’s interesting to see Celeste’s sons later say that there’s no way he was the one who choked Amabella. Still, a later incident in which he tries to “kiss and make up” with Amabella results in a school meeting, and deeply upsets Jane. While Madeline is able to easily scoff at the whole situation, she seems to take it much more seriously.

Both Jane and Celeste are harboring some deep-seated pain, that will likely come to light very soon. While Madeline wears most of her emotions on her sleeve, these two women are trying to keep a very tight lid on their private lives. Yet, as the constant chirping of the police witnesses will remind you, nothing in this town stays a secret for long. Luckily, it looks like Madeline will have both of their backs. And she is not someone you want to mess with. Grade: A-

 

Some Other Notes:

  • Big Little Lies the show is spending a lot more time on Renata than Big Little Lies the book did, and I can’t help but think that this is due to the lovely Laura Dern. Excluding a single child from your daughter’s birthday party is a pretty shitty thing to do, and yet it’s hard to fully dislike her character. I think this is because David E. Kelley has excellently established Renata as a bit of an outsider. As a working mom, she isn’t really a part of the same school culture that the other moms are. Part of me feels for her, but the majority of me sides with Madeline when she tells her to “get fucked.”
  • Also, Dern’s delivery of the line “Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday!” is so perfect.
  • Last week I said that Madeline was a mixture of Tracy Flick and Elle Woods, but this week she is full-fledged Flick. What I love so much about her scenes, is that it allows for Witherspoon to flex her comedic muscles as well. Her “get laid, bitch!” to the mom who’s in front of her in the carpool line was amazing.
  • I very much appreciated the scene where Ed stands up to Nathan. It’s nice to know that even though he fights with Madeline, he still will stick up for her when it matters the most.
  • Darby Camp, the actress who plays Chloe, is absolutely adorable and I love her astute taste in music and constant eye-rolls.
  • Zoë Kravitz is delightful as Bonnie, but with her yoga and peacefulness and constant zen attitude it is very easy to see why Madeline hates her.

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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