“You never let a bully win.”
While secondary characters have been increasingly well developed, the heart of “Big Little Lies” has always been the trio of Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane (Shailene Woodley), and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon). And with only two episodes left of the show, their stories are intersecting in more and more powerful ways — not just on the “True Detective” plot-thread level, but on visceral and expressionist emotional levels the story is showing more and more, avoiding telling… And increasingly, without words at all.
Like the other highest-praised premium offering of the late winter season, “Legion” on FX, “Once Bitten” (March 19) goes full-on subjective, taking us into their stormy present-tense, in a whirlwind sensory experience dancing between dreams and fantasies and past and future to create an immersive, frequently uncomfortable, look directly into the souls of each of these three women. Each is ferociously protecting her own secrets — and this deep dive into their parallels, memories and fantasies illustrates the very different ways each is dealing with her current issues.
It’s been building to this for awhile — some of the most beautiful and forward-looking artistic grace notes and fillips have come to us at plateau moments of the show’s (meaning its director, Jean-Marc Vallée) taking time to teach us how to watch it. The Martha Wainwright interlude at the end of last week’s episode, in which we finally see Jane go over that cliff, was not just a foreshadowing of her final and intentional battle with PTSD — a personally directed but no less destructive breakage; a fearful cliff from which we all must voluntarily jump — but the retroactive framing of the entire “Jane runs toward a cliff; Jane runs down a beach; Jane is going crazy; Jane lives eternally in the moment and fallout of her rape” narrative that intrudes.
Or to put it another way: We’re reminded of old-school comics here, the top-two thirds of the page devoted to one adventure while the bottom panels follow another path altogether. Here, the bottom strips are these memories and fantasies and flashbacks (in the PTSD/wartime sense, not the time-frame sense) — and they’re taking over, rising up the page, blotting out the murder and its investigation and those crude side-moms and -dads as it threatens to swallow everything: For this 50-minute hour, Jane is Celeste is Madeline, and we’re engaging with them on a level they cannot themselves access.
And again: That’s “Legion” in a nutshell. “Legion” does through concrete metaphor what “Lies” does with emotional assonance and resonance — and what they both do through film editing, of course, often in shockingly similar ways. We would not be surprised to see this wildly subjective approach in network shows, come the 2018 season. Shondaland, particularly “Scandal,” is nearly there already. “Pretty Little Liars” and “Teen Wolf” are so saturated with emotion, coded meaning and color that they present as utter narrative chaos to the uninitiated, but it’s the same effect, and often presented there, too, primarily through editing.
What we are seeing, not to be portentous, is the birth of a new television aesthetic altogether, filmic sensibilities common to your Soderberghs and even Antonionis that once required thought and analysis to process but now, to generations raised on television, simply presenting as experience. Transitions as simple as one woman screaming in a car becoming another woman weeping in a car, one character sipping tea while another pours it — or this week’s simply gorgeous melding of Jane’s trauma and present day as Saxon Baker (Stephen Graybill) shifts shape right before our eyes, seamlessly — are no longer subjects to study, they’re the way TV tells us itself, and this series sets a new precedent for inventiveness — and not to put too fine a point on it, but Vallée offers his subjects, especially for cable, an EQ and compassion that much prestige (read “Dad”) television lacks.
But as interesting as their intersections and combinations can be, the show never loses sight of their individual struggles. All three women are the “lead” this week, as their personal deals hit crisis at the same time.
Madeline explained to Jane in the first episode that she only works part-time to keep herself busy, and later reminded her husband Ed (Adam Scott) that she tends to her grudges like little plants. She’s a busybody because for her, stillness is akin to atrophy — and the moment she stops moving she’ll have to actually sit with who she is. Her part-time job at the theatre allowed her to rail against censorship and, it turns out, spend time with her erstwhile lover Joseph (Santiago Cabrera). More details are filled in this week, both via her flashes to their lovemaking as well as her Maddie’s verbal confession about her agenda. That he is also married is news to us — but moreso the fact that she actively brought him back into her life: These aren’t the actions of the “happily married woman” she insisted she was last week; they’re yet more symptoms of a woman who is flailing and feels helpless, and needs a reason to stop moving.
Which she gets this week in the form of a car accident — while arguing with Joseph in his car, which recalls “The World According to Garp” a bit; another John Irving moment in a show full of them — which we find comparable to the sprained ankle in the first episode, which forced/allowed her to stop, and allowed/forced her to connect with Jane.
The accident doesn’t injure Maddie badly, but does thrust her whole support network — Ed, daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton), even ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) — into the same small space as Joseph’s own wife. Maddie’s time at the theatre was her escape; first Joseph brought love into it, which inconvenienced her… and now seeing him around the people she loves thoroughly destroys her sense of him, and the theatre, as any sort of escape. Such it is that she wraps things up doing her best to clear the air with him; in another recurring motif of the episode, she leaves the hospital coolly as the soundtrack all but screams around her.
The whole show has been built around the premise of beautiful people with hidden secrets; the screaming begging to escape from women refusing to acknowledge their own rage. Celeste and Jane have been responding to their own turmoil in opposite, equally destructive ways. Celeste, by forcing her secrets down yet more forcefully, only revealing the minimum of truths to her therapist after prolonged digging — a masterclass in acting from Kidman, and screamingly uncomfortable for us: Too real, too real.
Jane has finally broken, her paranoid dreams and fantasies of jumping off cliffs turned into something real: Time at the gun range and an impromptu visit, gun in hand, to visit the man who may be Ziggy’s father. Celeste is all ferocious calm, going to the therapist initially for strategies rather than confession; Jane is pure id, her former preoccupation with running from now running toward, in the most dangerous and Jane-esque fashion: Smoking a succession of joints and car-dancing to bumpin’ tunes all the way to San Luis Obispo.
The opening credits each week show our cast driving the same mountain ranges, each car representing the safety and security of these parent and child units: This week begins with Madeline dreaming of driving, then cuts into a montage of moments that lasts for most of the stream of consciousness, untethered, unsettling episode. Fantasies and dream sequences bordering on hallucinations have been threaded throughout the series the same way the Greek chorus of police interviews have been; here, the background becomes foreground as the editing and direction meanders its way between each of its narratives, settling in only long enough for us to get the gist of a situation before moving on somewhere else. The camera moves between people like air, keeping us apprised of what’s going on among this web of interconnected parents and children, reminding us that tragedy is spiralling in ever closer.
Which again cycles back, as it always does, to quiet little Amabella (Ivy George), whose attack in the first episode was the butterfly wing flap that started the hurricane ripping through Monterey. Of course Renata (Laura Dern) is apoplectic when she finds her daughter’s latest secret injury: a gruesome bite mark on her back. Something about the types of injuries she’s sustaining — first strangulation, now a bite — feel more vicious than the hits and kicks one may expect from a First Grade bully. These injuries are not those of a moment’s anger but suggest forethought and real menace… and also serve as miniature, funhouse mirror reflections of Celeste’s sustained injuries.
Madeline’s accidents forced her to slow down; Jane’s PTSD pushes her to keep moving; and Celeste spends her time this week tugging on sleeves and applying concealer to hide her injuries. In one notable part of a sustained, agonizing therapy session, she feigns forgetfulness when asked if Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) abuse has ever bruised her. Series director Jean-Marc Vallée is known for jumping right into filming without allowing rehearsal, a technique that lends even more discomfort to a scene already rife with tension. Kidman and her therapist, played with empathy by Robin Weigert, sustain what feels like (and knowing Vallée, may well have been) one long take as they push and pull, Celeste viscerally torn up between her desire to save face and a need to share what’s been going on; the therapist recognizing she must proceed delicately to provoke the answers she knows her client needs to reveal.
It’s a breathtaking, clearly award-winning masterclass in both acting and honesty. Celeste says that even the idea of leaving her husband is”like tearing flesh”, an apt metaphor for the feeling of watching her excruciatingly raw session. Watch how Kidman grabs her coat as though to leave, only to return; how obvious it is to her therapist and to us that she’s desperate to share what’s really going on; the leaps in logic she makes to avoid condemning her husband. She shifts for a time into the lawyer mode we saw last week, challenging her therapist’s ethics, then somehow finds strength in her fallback you just don’t understand, we’re so passionate explanation, finally returning to perhaps her weakest argument: that she hits him, too, so they’re equally to blame.
Later, when Celeste brings the boys to greet him home at the airport, he melts into her arms, weeping, and she holds him protectively. But we know that she knows it won’t be long until he strikes her again. This time, she will finally have a confidante and, perhaps, a plan for escape.
In an episode as dreamlike as this, the scenes could be easily reassembled with the ending at the beginning or vice versa. It ends with Jane’s impromptu trip to confront a man (Stephen Graybill) who is either her attacker, or an innocent interior designer with the misfortune to share a similar name and build to Saxon Banks. Celeste is sleeping with her enemy and Madeline’s worst nemesis is her own ennui, but Jane has a gun and now a face to match with the man she blames (rightly) for her current problems.
Her actions this week are filled with red flags to people not busy dealing with their own damage; her phone call to Madeline is taken by her friend as a sweet tribute to their friendship but also sort of sounds like an audio suicide note; her thoughts about the psychological helpfulness of shooting a gun — how it helps her by turning off her thoughts — may be true, but when said with Woodley’s carefully bland affect, turn chilling; the uncharacteristically chipper way she dodges Ziggy’s (Iain Lawrence) question about the identity of the man on her computer.
We know that the murder at the core of this show’s mystery occurs at the impending Elvis & Audrey trivia night at the school, which is not to say that Jane’s behavior at the interior designer’s office couldn’t lead to dire repurcussions. We don’t see much of their meeting, and what we do is viewed through her eyes, the designer’s words muted and distorted, his form switching alarmingly between what she’s seeing now and her memories of her attack. And again past and present swirl together in a symphony of flashing lights, those of the police following her speeding ride back to Monterey blending with those of the officers investigating the impending trivia night murder; linking the two events the way everything is linked in this story, like one unending nightmare that happens to look like sweet dream.
“Big Little Lies” airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, throughout March; the finale is set for Apr. 2.