TV Review: Big Little Lies: ‘Serious Mothering’

Big Little Lies

S1, E2: ‘Serious Mothering’

Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday

Grade: B+


So juicy! Marital dysfunction, sadomasochism and consent, all rolled into one big, sudsy mouthful. Let’s get to it:

‘I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.’

Our imperious Queen Bee, Madeline Martha Mackenzie, is on the warpath. Which – as everyone around her points out, and we can believe – basically means that Madeline Martha Mackenzie is drawing breath. She’s seething about her endangered production of Avenue Q. She’s raging at the officious crossing guard. She’s furious about her douchebag ex Nathan and his slimy child bride Bonnie, and her fury continues to put stress on her marriage to her long-suffering husband Eddie. Eddie comes perilously close to calling himself a Nice Guy by ranting about her inability to let her anger for Nathan go. Eddie worries that the anger conceals heartbreak and a passion for Nathan that she doesn’t have for him. And…honestly, Ed? I think it’s just anger. Madeline is a perpetual motion machine powered by rage and thwarted ambition. It’s a little on-the-nose for the show to have her staring out at the ocean wistfully and talk of buried treasure and adventures and the like. But I believe that Madeline’s drive and ambition would scarcely be given outlet if she were Imperator of All Intelligent Life, let alone producing a community theatre production of Avenue Q in Monterey.

In the meantime, she takes on all comers – as Ed wearily points out, he can’t even keep track of the fights she starts. ‘Might need some sort of app’. The latest is the bombshell revelation that Bonnie has taken Nathan and Madeline’s daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) to Planned Parenthood for contraception – you know, just in case. And honestly? I think Madeline reacts rather diplomatically, all things considered. She tells Bonnie that Bonnie should’ve given her the heads-up, as she would have done were she in Bonnie’s shoes. And – although Celeste and Jane point out that they’d never be comfortable talking to their mothers about birth control – I have a tonne of sympathy for my homegirl Madeline. As may not be a surprise to you, gentle reader.

Well, in any case, Nathan gets all huffy about That Harpy Madeline scratching out his pristine Manic Pixie Midlife Crisis (I dislike them both so intensely, it gives me energy), and calls Ed to tell him to tell Madeline to back off. Ed sticks up for his wife, Nathan sneers at Eddie’s Sensitive New Age Man-ness, and Ed gets very scary very quickly, rhapsodising gently about his fantasies of beating up bullies while staring Nathan calmly in the eye. Hopefully Eddie understands his wife’s anger a little better now. In any case Madeline – not unimpressed at the Caveman Streak in her sensitive bearded husband – reassures him that he is ‘the one’. It’s nice for Madeline to shore up her allies, because she’s going to need them.

‘Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday.’

Remember that Amabella accused Ziggy of choking her last episode? Well, Amabella’s mother remembers. Renata has invited every single one of Amaballa’s classmates to Amabella’s birthday. All, you say? Well, all but one. Madeline’s amusingly precocious daughter Chloe (Darby Camp, somehow making this worldly-wise Kinderambassador charming rather than insufferable) wants to brush over the issue, but surely she knows her mother better by now. Madeline instantly – but instantly – makes a crusade of it, sweetly telling Renata that if Ziggy doesn’t go, Chloe doesn’t go, and she’s ‘basically the Pied Piper’. I don’t even have time to snort at this absurd declaration before Renata, purple with fury, leans over Madeline hissing ‘do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday’. Eddie pleads with Madeline to leave their daughter out of her battles, and who knows whether it registers with Madeline or not. But in any case, she finds a better – and more lethal – way: invite the kids in the class to ‘Disney on Ice’ on – huh, wouldja look at that – the exact same date as Amabella’s birthday. Here I stand/in the light of day/let the storm rage on/the cold never bothered me anyway.

That said, young Chloe seems to have inherited some of the maternal fire, even if her Cunning Plan could use a little fine-tuning. Her big idea is to use Ziggy’s big blue eyes and preternatural cuteness to build bridges with Amabella. Put on some music from young Chloe’s frighteningly hip music collection, steer the boy and girl together, and let nature do the rest.

It’s not a bad plan…except for the part where Ziggy steals a kiss from Amabella, and it all goes to hell. In ways that would require a graduate thesis to think through. I sympathise with Madeline’s disdain at the school’s hand-wringing reaction. They’re six, after all. It was one kiss. Calm the fuck down. That said, it was a kiss Amabella did not ask for. From the boy she’s accused of choking her. Dismissing her distress may well contribute to a generalised culture where little girls are expected to shut up, smile and put up with any treatment that’s dished out to them. Why not tell little boys – however adorable – that they should wait for permission? Why not tell little girls (hello, Chloe) that maybe next time, Ziggy should just offer Amabella a cookie or something?

‘Sometimes I think he likes fighting because it leads to sex.’

Consent, sex and violence rear their heads more explicitly in Celeste and Perry’s story. Last episode, I said that I was uncomfortable when Perry grabbed Celeste. This episode, his instability and the darkness beneath his beautiful face are more apparent than ever. He finds out that the orientation he missed means that he also missed the big ‘walk your kids up to class’ moment. A natural enough setback for a sentimental parent, but his brooding is ominous. There’s a coiled intensity to his anger, and when Celeste tells him he’s being ridiculous, CRACK! Across her face. And oddly enough, the emotion I feel is…relief. I’ve been holding my torso tensely watching this guy glower and silently rage, and the impact of the slap dispels the tension. In fact, dramatically speaking I would argue that it dispels it too soon.

But then Celeste strikes him back, and within instants they’re having sex. After Perry leaves for his trip, the two have Skype sex. And it’s not clear from Celeste’s expression how much of the violence is an agreed-upon ritual, and how much is a genuinely abusive relationship. It doesn’t seem clear to her, either. And her carefully-coded description to Madeline makes it sounds like a cycle of arguing and makeup sex, rather than the disquieting dynamic it seems to be to us.

Oh yes, and someone died at ‘Trivia Night’, and someone killed them. I still find the framing device largely unnecessary to my enjoyment of the show, but in any case – bring on the next one!

Odds and sods

  • Perry and Celeste’s twins rip the leg of ‘Harry the Hippo’, the class mascot. Could they have choked Amabella? Especially given what they might have observed from their father? Recall too that in the last episode Amabella seemed to be pointing first to the twins before ‘correcting’ herself and saying she meant Ziggy.
  • Ziggy and Chloe exchange eyerolls at the ‘Harry the Hippo’ concept. I like those two very much.
  • Chloe really is fantastic. She is composed of things that normally would make me roll my eyes all the way across the Atlantic, but she is just so loving and firm with Madeline. They just make the best buddy duo.
  • Madeline says she wants to keep being a full-time mother so that she can continue to lord it over the others. Madeline’s bursts of self-awareness are delightful.
  • The opening credits are deeply ‘meh’, aren’t they?

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