TV Review: Big Little Lies: ‘Living the Dream’

Big Little Lies

S1, E3: ‘Living the Dream’

‘You’re dead in this town, and so is your puppet show’

Grade: B


This one was a bit quieter, even with its dynamite revelation. I’ve realised how much Madeline needs to bring da noise, bring da funk, even with the rest of the cast doing such fantastic work. All right, let’s get to it.

‘Honey, agitation is her preferred state.’

Guess who? Why, yes, this quote refers to Madeline Martha Mackenzie, who makes Renata Klein twist on a rope to get Chloe to go to Amabella’s party…and then says ‘Nah’ anyway. The party goes well anyway, and – though we don’t get to see the results of Madeline’s ‘Disney on Ice’ expedition, we do see that Ziggy and Jane take their eyes off Harry the Hippo. Uh-oh…

But guess who else seems constitutionally incapable of taking a chill pill? Renata Klein, of the 800000000000 High-Powered Tech Jobs and the gloriously obnoxious way of pronouncing ‘MadeLEIN’. It’s been clear that Renata is overinvested in Amabella’s social life. I thought initially that it was because she was smarting at Madeline’s Stepford Mom high horse, but this episode suggests that something else might be at play. After Amabella’s party, Renata thinks that she ought to see a child psychologist – in the guise of a clown, maybe. When her husband – rightly baffled – points out that the party went well and their child seems fine, and that anyway she’s – you know – six, Renata pours out a litany of anxieties about her gifted child and how social slights stay with you foreverandeverandever, trust her. Uh-huh. Oh, we trust you all right, Renata. Clearly social slights can stay with gifted little girls for a while. It takes a spontaneous- and very noisy – bout of sex with her husband in her office to soothe Renata. I must assume it’ll be temporary.

‘Sometimes I worry that she’ll go through me.’

There’s a theme of being left behind running through this episode. Madeline, of course, worries that she’s losing her daughter Abigail. And she may be right – Abigail’s grades are slipping, and she thinks the burden of her mother’s expectations are weighing on her. It’s sad, if on-the-nose, when Abigail opines to her mother ‘sometimes I feel like you’re grooming me to get somewhere you….couldn’t.’ Abigail’s solution is to move in with her father for a while. Madeline acquiesces with a good grace, but she’s hurt – as well she might be.

Also worried about being outgrown? In so many words? Is Perry Wright. Celeste and Perry go to couple’s counselling, and Perry admits that he lashes out because he’s afraid his beautiful wife will ‘go through [him]’. With his fondness for trashy TV and film, it can be easy to forget what a gifted actor Skarsgard is, but he does magnificent work here. Look at him, hunched over to make his long frame smaller, rubbing his shins, gazing up at the counsellor, whispering confessions with the humility of a true penitent. He looks like a frightened little boy. You root for him to get better, and you want so desperately to forgive him. And the thing is: I can believe that he is confessing a true fear. Doesn’t abuse stem from a desire to control? Which in turn stems from a (correct) fear of being left?

‘And we have this…dirty secret.’

Kidman is another fine actor whom I know intellectually is very talented but also need reminding from time to time. And she is terrific in this scene. Watch as Celeste takes her courage into her hands and begin to get out the reasons she has sought the counsellor: she and Perry are passionately in love, but they fight, and it’s not healthy. But watch, too, as her courage fails her and the half-truths come out. The fighting isn’t physical, she says, it’s emotional. And she makes it sound as though both she and Perry initiate the fights – which, at least as far as we have seen, is not true. Watch as Perry watches her. Watch as he picks up the thread. He leads with saying that he and Celeste fight and then ‘make love’, which he rephrases to something more accurate, but the tone has been set and from then on Celeste lets him control the narrative. She lets him make the confession that he is physical. She lets him call it ‘grabbing by the shoulders’, rather than the slap we saw last episode, or the chokehold we see this episode.  Look at the way she stares at him as he stammers out that boyish, halting, Bowdlerised confession. Look at the way that she seizes on the red herring ‘I can’t believe that you don’t think I love you!’, rather than ‘You need to find better ways of managing your fear’.

Although incidentally it is interesting that Celeste leads with ‘I gave up my career for you. I gave up my family and friends for you.’ It’s straight out of the abuser’s playbook to isolate his victim, of course. Does Celeste recognise this? Is she expressing resentment? In any case, there seems to be a mingled relief and shame as Celeste allows Perry to characterise their relationship to the counsellor. Is she accepting the illusion of control? Is it preferable to a sense of her own complicity in her own abuse? She says that she feels ‘shame’ after they fight, and it’s a particularly interesting use of the word.

Sex, violence and consent also play a role in Jane’s story. The kids need to create a family tree, and Ziggy wants to know his father’s name. Jane is adamant that she won’t tell him, and Ziggy storms off, leaving Jane to tell Madeline her secret: Ziggy is the child of rape. And now we understand Jane’s flashbacks to herself in a blue dress. And we also understand why Jane broke down into horrified tears after Ziggy kissed Amabella.

And holy shit, that’s heavy stuff. But you know what? This cast can handle it. Bring on the next one!

Odds and sods

  • I am not comfortable with the way Eddie stares at Abigail. Brrrrr, you don’t think that’s why she wants to move, do you?
  • ‘She wouldn’t leave if she knew I had cancer.’ ‘….You don’t have cancer.’ ‘I’ve been wanting to get it.’ Bask. BASK IN THE GLORY.
  • Is Perry the guy who raped Jane? He seems about the right sort of height and build. We only see him in silhouette, and Jane’s not met Perry, has she?
  • Jane keeps a gun under her pillow, and has hallucinations of someone breaking into her home. Oh dear.
  • I am absurdly relieved that we don’t have a scene where Ziggy is pilloried in class for losing Harry the Hippo. Which means, I suppose, that the next episode will be all about The Crime Of Ziggy.
  • Madeline’s production of Avenue Q is still in trouble. Also, I suspect that the director of the production has eyes for Madeline. Hmmmm.
  • Bonnie twerks or dirty dances or whatever at Amabella’s party, and the dirty old men all pant at her. Uch.

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