On the first proper day of school, the first graders of “Big Little Lies” — inverted mirrors of their parents’ neuroses that they are — are presented by their teacher with a stuffed toy hippo she claims will help them adjust to the responsibilities of their new grade. The children all comply when asked to take turns hugging the toy — but one girl resists, hand held high Hermione Granger-style, to demand whether or not the hippo would like to be hugged.
This girl, of course, is Amabella (Ivy George) — daughter of working Mom and noted rules-follower Renata, (Laura Dern) — and as the victim of last week’s scary strangling, she’s clearly been recently debriefed on consent.
We see and understand that Amabella has been raised with a belief in the importance of rule following and obtaining consent — so when she is later hugged and kissed by Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) off-screen, it’s a toss-up how she feels about it. But someone sounds the alarm of inappropriate behavior — and it was Amabella, good for her.
Compare with Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) reaction to the news of Ziggy’s kiss: “…They’re children, for Chrissakes — they’re supposed to be doing things like kissing each other!” (Which pulls Jane up short, notably — her intensifying silence on what brought her to Monterey, and thus relates to her PTSD-implying paranoia, may well be in play: If Ziggy’s a predator, a lot of other dominoes start to fall.)
The kiss wasn’t Ziggy’s idea at all, although he was enthusiastic in complying — rather, it was stage-directed by Madeline’s own daughter Chloe (the perfectly cast Darby Camp) — the oddly grown-up girl with a Baby Boomer dad’s taste in, music and whose own Witherspoonish nature has her intervening in her classmates’ problems.
Chloe’s intent was not for Ziggy to attack Amabella, but rather offer a kiss as a conciliatory gesture for his alleged assault of the day before: The opposite of an attack, which an older child — although possibly not Celeste and/or Perry (Nicole Kidman & Alexander Skarsgård) — would understand can also be an attack. But Chloe explains that it’s what she has seen work at home: “That’s what you guys do when you get mad at each other: Big hug, kiss, bang — everything’s better again.”
As a meditation on parenting that actually does feel universal, this show is concerned with the randomness of nature and nurture: Parents cannot select which facets of their behavior will be adopted by their children. Another huge question mark over Ziggy’s head, of course, but we play it out across the episode: Where Renata reacts to setbacks by threating lawsuits and following protocols, if usually as a disingenuous power play that makes more sense in her corporate, male-identified world, Madeline is seen several times this episode breaking rules and rolling her eyes when she is caught. She respects guidelines only so much as they control other peoples’ behavior, seeing herself as the eternal exception (as only a beautiful white woman ever really can).
Madeline also revels in her role as victim, casually noting that she tends to her grudges “like little pets.” This week’s exposition on her history with ex Nathan (James Tupper) sheds some light on her venom toward new partner Bonnie (Zoe Kratvitz): As a main lead and the most energetic, we can sympathize with Madeline’s view of midriff-baring Bonnie’s increasing importance in the life of Madeline’s teenage daughter, with how it must feel to see Nathan successfully executing the basic tenets of parenthood with his new family in a way he was incapable of doing with her. Her even-keeled husband Ed (Adam Scott) calls her out on this behavior, spelling out what she may have not realized she was implying: That if Nathan and Bonnie’s life is perfect, Ed and Madeline’s must be faulty.
Which it isn’t, exactly, although the darkness in Ed — of which he seems perfectly aware, and with which he contends with a certain cerebral coolness that makes it actually scary — is being set up as a sort of negative-image of his wife’s particular energy: Where she shakes things up when she senses dishonesty or unfairness, Ed’s capacity for violence seems like a magnet, drawing the alpha out of chill Nathan in what seems like the first move in a long game of understanding how the abusive and absurd psychology of Monterey’s wealthy white men — so well-established in reality at this point that giving it the backseat in this story feels not just fair but expedient — interacts with the other realms of the show.
When Chloe fails to understand how her plan wouldn’t work to resolve things between Ziggy and Amabella, Madeline explains that relationships are different between married couples, but is unable to explain precisely why, because grasping the intuitive negotiations with ourselves as projected in our partners is something most people never accomplish in their lives. One part she may be choosing not to explain to her six-year-old daughter is that of implied consent between long-term partners: We see an extreme example of this when Celeste and Perry engage in a startling sequence of abuse, what Celeste later quasi-breezily explains to Madeline as basically make-up sex. As her motivations throughout the abuse scene blur Kidmanishly, moving from fear to arousal to disgust sometimes within a single gasp, it is clear that these two have followed these beats countless times before — and impossible to know how much is play-acting, and how much is real.
When Celeste recalls for Perry — with fond nostalgia, and a telling breeziness — how she was asked out by an older man (a second grader) on her first day of school: Her looks are commented on by several other characters, confirming that in a show cast with beautiful A-list stars, Kidman’s Celeste is supposed to be preternaturally, distractingly, unusually gorgeous. She is a woman who prides herself on her looks, who employs a full-time nanny despite having no job, who wears expensive robes and pajama sets to bed even when her husband is out of town.
Is Celeste being authentic when she describes her relationship with Perry in the simple terms she explains it to Madeline? Two alphas who challenge each other in a grand game of passion? The way she quickly hides her bruises suggests otherwise; the mark a physical reminder of what her marriage is really like — or just the dissonance with which she’s constantly contending. Her reframing of an abusive relationship as merely passionate fits with her habit of posting only the prettiest photos to Facebook; imagining herself as other see her — as an equal, not a victim, of her handsome husband… But also the price of the life that she loves. Perry is a trophy, just as she is: The age difference, rarely mentioned in this kind of story, is her proof that she’s just as “Celeste” as she ever was — and every fight she survives is one to rewrite as a success for her own power and sexuality, turning W’s into L’s no matter how painful it was in the moment. We make our deals.
The episode-ending montage includes a sequence of Madeline and Ed making up precisely the way Chloe described earlier: A hug, a kiss, and a Chloe-curated song for them to dance to. She could do worse than to emulate her parents’s honest, healthy, and loving relationship — as well as, perhaps, the seemingly loving and supportive bond between Bonnie and Nathan, her other parents: The trick is that none of these grownups can know what their kids are picking up on — until it’s reflected back in their children, they seem to have no shot at, or reason for, coming to grips with the darkness in themselves.
We still don’t know who attacked Amabella on orientation day, nor do we know who the victim or murderer will be on Trivia Night, what brought Jane to town, or who her child’s father is. As the opening sequence makes clear, the hook of this show is the way the children’s plotlines are mini-me remixes of what the adults are up to, mirrors of it and next-chapters.
“Big Little Lies” airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, throughout March; the finale is set for Apr. 2.