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This week on “Big Little Lies”: Renata and Madeline start a full-on feud, Jane continues to hoard secrets, Ed and Nathan face off on behalf of their wives, and Celeste and Perry have some really twisted sex. Also, more glossy, green-blue shots of hills and sea. All this pretty scenery, Kindergarten drama, and seriously desperate housewifery serves as an effectively entertaining continuation of the pilot, for the most part. However, “Serious Mothering” also demonstrates a few new flashes of tantalizing, surprising ambition—and maybe even real innovation.
The surprises begin as the episode takes a sharp turn away from the mystery outlined in episode one. “Somebody’s Dead” sets up a classic murder mystery—a corpse turns up in the bushes at a PTA party—and then stops short of identifying the victim before the end of the episode. By the logic of most shows, then, episode two would begin with the revelation of the corpse’s identity and then get moving in typical police procedural fashion. (Clues! Suspects! DNA samples!) In episode two, though, the mystery disappears almost entirely. We still have no idea who the victim is, and it seems unlikely that we’ll find out soon. It’s an ambitious writing choice: The procedural genre provides a lot of standardized structure, and moving outside those boundaries could result in either intriguing renovations of the format or unorganized, loopy chaos. We’ll need more episodes to tell the difference.
As for the central women of the show, Jane’s plotline remains the weakest of the three. It’s fairly obvious what secret she’s concealing—the image of a ripped party dress and carried heels has to be one of the oldest clichés in the book—and Shailene Woodley does little to animate her character otherwise. The plot thread about Madeline’s midlife crisis continues to rely heavily on tropes as well, but something interesting starts to happen in “Serious Mothering”: the actors find reality and genuine emotion right in the middle of all the cliché. Ed’s sorrow about being a consolation prize rings true, and Reese Witherspoon makes Madeline’s distress over losing her children to adulthood seem intensely familiar and painful. Actually, her acting work here looks a lot like her work in “Legally Blond.” In her takes on both Elle Woods and Madeline, Witherspoon manages to embrace and animate caricatures rather than try to act around and apologize for the cliché inherent to each role.
Kidman, however, makes every other actor on the show look like a talentless hack. Her plotline with Alexander Skaarsgard’s Perry takes a sharp turn for the dark and disturbing, and she imbues Celeste with an intensely multifaceted reaction to it—her character seems to be feeling desperation, fear, anger, arousal, sadness, optimism, and uncertainty all at the same time. This complexity helps to elevate the storyline above everything else in the show in terms of energy and intricacy. In fact, Celeste’s entire relationship with Perry might even be emerging as one of the more nuanced portrayals of domestic violence in recent memory: Contrary to the usual narrative, Celeste isn’t just weak or trapped or even necessarily in denial, and Perry isn’t exactly demonic. The writers also uncover the immensely complicated role that sex plays in the abuse, making the daring suggestion that sexual intensity and desire operate on both sides of the couple (albeit in different ways).
All of this originality and dark sexual energy acts as a pointed response to a culture that’s still producing “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies—a franchise that casts violently abusive sex as cozily hot, simple in terms of consent, and a precursor to vanilla domestic perfection. Through Celeste and Perry, though, “Big Little Lies” rejects the idea that sex and consent are easy matters of horniness, that violence in the context of it has everything to do with luxury and goofy props—and turns instead to heated, uneasy waves of desire and love and fury and gender and money and shame. That’s some pretty big game for an eight-episode T.V. show, and we’ll see in the weeks ahead if they’re able to finish as well as they’ve started.
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