Big Liberal Lies

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Splint Little LiesSplint Little LiesRecapping the greatest political drama of our time, HBO's Big Little Lies.

The Monterey Five are officially starting to lose it, folks! Meltdowns, monologues, and capital-M mothering abound in this week’s episode, “The End of the World,” featuring big lib energy and some of the series’ goofiest writing to date.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Where else but in Monterey would Charlotte’s Web be re-spun (do u get it) as a sustainability parable for second graders? This has definitely happened in one of those yuppie “don’t call it a charter, we just believe in school choice” classrooms. I bet every kid has a metal straw, too. That’ll solve it! (It won’t.) But as our hero Madeline later tearfully and somewhat haphazardly articulates, we’re all living with a bit of delusion: about climate change, about our relationships, about what’s really motivating our choices. Our coastal liberal elites are figuring out that throwing money at the problem won’t always make it go away! Sometimes, the only way out is through. This week’s episode was all about seeking crucial perspective from others (often our loved ones) to work through our delusions. So, how’d our ladies do?

Madeline

“We have to tell the children that life is an illusion and things don’t work out sometimes, and that, you can’t tell them part of the truth. You have to tell them the whole truth.”

We’ll get to her speech at Otter Bay in a minute. Because right now, we’re going to therapy! Of course Madeline would haul Ed’s ass over to Celeste’s therapist, Dr. Reisman, Monterey’s premier therapist specializing in absolutely reading you. Why did Madeline cheat? Well, she’s severely lacking in self-worth (partly because she never went to college) and lashes out to protect herself from getting hurt (probably part of the reason why she clashed with Renata so much before—they saw too much of themselves in each other). Oh, and when she was little she walked in on her dad with another woman. That’ll fuck you up!

A lot of attention is being paid to fleshing out each of the Monterey Five’s backstories this season—some more convincing than others, but all intended to be reflective of how each of them copes with trauma. Whether Merrin Dungey’s eternally glowering detective character busts the group for acting purely out of self-defense is a total MacGuffin to me, an easy means to help justify continuing a story that maybe didn’t need another chapter. But if you’re going to do it anyway (and I suppose with this cast, why wouldn’t you?), then I’ll take this attempt to tell a story about people who materially could have anything they wanted be completely unable to ask for what they actually need.

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Speaking of! That speech. Yikes! Madeline, asked to speak at the school assembly that was called after Amabella Klein literally collapsed from climate change anxiety (this show...), bumbles through an incoherent speech about being more honest (to our kids, to people we love, ya KNOW?), making a detour through a half-memory of a song from The Muppet Movie, all while her friends wince and grimace in the audience. Ed’s there too, and despite intense eye daggers from Celeste and Renata to get the fuck up there and save her, he leaves poor Madeline to twist in the wind, her hand extended as she stands on the edge of her emotional cliff, desperate for her husband to join her out there so she’s not alone. It’s finally a flashy scene for Witherspoon, who usually seems duty-bound to stand back and let her co-stars shine; you cannot deny the wattage of her star power here. Adam Scott is good too, in this very specifically smarmy role that is maybe 60 percent hairstyling.

Celeste

“Life just feels colorless now. It just feels flat and dull. As dead as he is, sometimes I think maybe I’m deader.”

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Our dear Celeste continues to feel completely unmoored by Perry’s death, haunted by his abuse but also by the way it controlled her and (to her) gave her direction and purpose. Dr. Reisman gets her again, and describes to Celeste how she is like a soldier back from war, struggling to acclimate to a life without constant violence. Celeste tells Madeline in a front-seat vent-session that she feels drained of purpose—who is she now that she’s doesn’t have Perry’s threatening presence to motivate her? Which isn’t to say Celeste didn’t have her own motivations and beliefs before, but as we’ve unpacked with her in therapy, when a powerfully animating force in your life suddenly disappears, and in this case, a terrifying one, it can be utterly destabilizing.

What I finally noticed in this episode, and this might be because of the slight jolt of seeing Madeline there, is how the scenes with Dr. Reisman are staged: she is always, literally, in the light; Celeste (and Madeline) in muted, relative darkness. Every scene of them together is Dr. Reisman compelling Celeste to come around to her enlightened thinking. Clever!

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Renata

“You think just because of this whole bankruptcy thing that the school thinks I don’t matter? Please. I will be rich again. I will rise up. I will buy a fucking polar bear for every kid in this school. And then, I will squish you like the bug that you are.”

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Renata’s storyline features some of the best, readily memeable lines but also some of its worst writing! My GOD that horrendous scene in Gordon’s one percenter man cave. How many variations of the “You put so many walls up, but I finally got them down to love you, but now? They’re up!” speech have we heard in the history of television? One million? Two million? Another problem is that all the men on this show are comically underwritten (Nathan...), but perhaps that’s the tradeoff you make for the juicier roles for women the show puts center stage.

We learned in last week’s Renata Meltdown (feat. Tesla) that Renata grew up poor and the very idea of living in that kind of insecurity ever again enrages and empowers her like when a villain grows to skyscraper size in a superhero movie and everyone’s like, “Uh oh.” And much like Madeline, when she feels emotionally cornered (like, say, seeing your friend’s abusive husband die), she lashes out to protect herself, though with much more bombast, gusto, and power suits. Madeline is more self-aware and thus self-loathing; Renata is not at all self-aware and is furious that she can’t figure out why she’s miserable. Nothing to Renata right now is in proportion: her daughter faints from anxiety, but Renata tells everyone she was in a “coma”; when the school’s admittedly inept administration pushes back on her literally screaming and threatening them, she tells Madeline they told her to “go to hell” (they didn’t); she won’t just be “rich again,” she is going be so fucking rich you miserable piece of shit that she’ll buy polar bears and then DESTROY you and everyone you love.

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Go off, Renata! Also, are you OK?

Bonnie

“Look, any real relationship you’re gonna have, if you wanna have one, he’s gotta know who you are, right?”

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Not so much Bonnie in this episode, but she does get to literally run by and say the episode’s thesis statement (above). David E. Kelley you slay me!

Jane & Mary Louise

“I just can’t surrender to this notion that he was...evil. I can’t...I just do so want to believe there was good in him. I can’t...did you see good in him?”

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OK, deep breath everyone.

There was a bit of development with Jane and the aquarium dude whose name I can never remember and will absolutely not look up, primarily her still feeling a little cagey about being intimate with another man. Makes sense, and he’s receptive and conscientious, although I still think show is telling us, “Not what what he seems,” but we’ll see... She also introduces him to Ziggy, although it’s unclear just how much Young Sheldon knows of his mom’s relationship with his new surfing teacher. (Seems soon to be doing this, Jane!)

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Speaking of Ziggy, Mary Louise is obsessed. She shows up to Jane’s work and asks for a paternity test to prove that he’s Perry’s (“Just a simple blood test”—Meryl Streep could play a slasher villain tomorrow). When that doesn’t work, she skulks around Jane’s apartment complex to catch a glimpse of her long-lost grandson. Ziggy, it turns out, has a remarkable resemblance to Perry’s brother, who died very young. Mary Louise tells Jane as much when they finally have a sit-down together, and boy, is it a doozy.

Meryl Streep’s character came into its sharpest focus yet for me this episode. Her Mary Louise is indeed, monstrous (she questions whether Jane might have given Perry the wrong signal the night he raped her), but you can also see, especially in this scene with Jane, how powerfully her love for her son blinds her to his evil. Part of this is Streep’s, well, Streep-caliber performance, but also because of her desperation’s purposeful juxtaposition with Jane’s. You can see Mary Louise hearing the truth, recognize it, but then shove it away, pleading for it to be wrong. How could her son have been the person everyone is saying he was? How could she have been so wrong? Or not right enough? When Mary Louise pleads, begging Jane to say if she ever saw any “good” in Perry, you can see Jane connect with her at a basic, motherly level—reminded perhaps, and while nowhere near as severe, of how ruthlessly her own son had been accused in the past. Shailene Woodley absolutely nails it here, too: As Jane stands her ground and refuses to let Mary Louise spin what happened to her as anything but what it was, you feel the outpouring of empathy, of deep understanding, crash over you like a Monterey wave.

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PHEW. EXHALE. Until next week, when we’re apparently having another costume party! Those always go well.

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Aleksander Chan

Editor-in-Chief, Splinter