There’s a sequence in this week’s “Big Little Lies” when Ziggy (Iain Lawrence) gazes silently at giant sea creatures at the aquarium, the blues and greens of the water and plants casting mystical lights on the small head of this tiny boy.
A sensitive kid in every connotation of the word, Ziggy knows that his mother, Jane (Shailene Woodley), only brings him here when she’s going to broach a hard topic — and sure enough, at the end of the day’s fun she admits they’re going to visit a child psychologist.
When we see the psychologist’s office later, it’s divided in two: one room, warm and full of toys, where Ziggy is happily tinkering away; and a second room, with a window looking in there, a space for adults to talk about what’s really going on.
Children are taught the words that correspond with their feelings, but that doesn’t mean they’re able to communicate — nor, of course, are adults. In a brilliantly paralleled scene, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) returns for a solo visit with the same therapist we saw her attend with her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) in an earlier episode.
While we didn’t see Ziggy’s chat with his counselor, one may imagine from her conclusions it could have gone similarly to Celeste’s. “I’m not afraid,” Celeste insists, working hard to believe it. Because if she doesn’t, that means she has a reason to be scared, and if that’s true, then her marriage isn’t the pairing of two overly passionate people she likes to think it is; it’s something much more toxic and damaging and, crucially, it’s a situation in which she is a victim.
Ziggy’s therapist offers the professional opinion that the boy didn’t lie to her, unless he’s the most accomplished liar she’s ever met. Again, the sentiment is mirrored in the behavior of one of the adults on the show, particularly in the way Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) describes the kiss — and grope — she shared with a man who is definitely not her husband. Soaking in the rapt attention of her best friend, Madeline only slightly pretends she didn’t enjoy the attention or return his ardor… But later, we learn that this wasn’t the first kiss these two shared, and that they have a romantic history — though she loudly rebukes him with a claim that she’s a happily married woman, her tone is identical to Celeste’s in therapy: The fact she needs to elucidate this only highlights how untrue it may be.
On this show, it’s not just that actions speak louder than words — it’s that the tiny moments between the words tell the whole story. We see more of Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) than before, tellingly a scene of her at home, coolly assembling jewelry as her husband, Nathan (James Tupper) seethes over his ex. This short scene expands upon a relationship that, to now, we’ve only seen through the eyes of Madeline, who has understandable — if not always fair or true — reasons for viewing the pair with suspicion.
Here we see their dynamic up close, and it is notably honest: Bonnie, in her chill way, does not hesitate to call him out for his behavior, sometimes with a single raised brow, Nathan comes clean with his feelings, and neither disparages the other. Between this and the way Bonnie responds to a surprise visit from Ed (Adam Scott), it’s become clear that her mellow affect is entirely genuine — she may be the character here with the best sense of self, even if of course she has secrets of her own.
When Madeline catches herself talking about sex with Jane, she stops out of respect, but Jane — played by Woodley this week ineffably less tightly wound, hair more often loose, smiles less strained — notices right away, and calls it out, letting her friend know that not only is she fine with this discussion, but that something about finally revealing the facts of her rape has allowed parts of her to begin to mend.
Again, the power of words — of saying and meaning what we feel — can be transformative. Some lie are big, some lies are little, but they are always, always about hiding something where it can do more damage. Between Madeline’s amateur sleuthing and the therapist’s note that Ziggy seems to think his father is literally Darth Vader, Jane seems prepared to take the next step on her journey of dealing with her violation — actually confronting the man who raped her. (And possibly murdering him, she and the ladies whisper, kidding and not kidding.)
If Madeline knew the circumstances of Celeste’s marriage, perhaps she would have similarly self-censored her cavalier story about what transpired between her and theatre director Joseph Bachman (Santiago Cabrera). But here too, Celeste — for whom being manhandled means something entirely different; for whom Maddie’s bored playing-around with consent and assault is another language entirely — is able to appreciate her friend’s hubris, and responds with indulgent laughter. But something inside Celeste, too, seems to be opening up — even before her cathartic moment of lawyering up, she pre-emptively challenges Perry, “You gonna hit me now?”
After a decisive victory in the meeting with the Mayor — Celeste’s first time practicing law in six years — she surprises herself by tearing up in the aftermath. Only with coaxing from her best friend is she able to put into words what’s got her so upset: “Today, I felt alive. I felt good… Being a mother is not enough for me… it’s not even close.” Even though that’s not all of it — evidenced by the fear that brings her back to the therapist in the first place — she’s less upset that motherhood isn’t entirely fulfilling her than that she knows valuing her career is antithetical to her interests with Perry.
Tellingly, she doesn’t ask her therapist for advice on what to do: She knows she must return to work, it’s who she is and what she needs. What she asks for are techniques to explain this to her husband — of whom, of course, she is not afraid.
In the wake of all of these grown-up problems and, of course, the looming murder of we-still-don’t-know-who, the original problem can be as easily forgotten as the shy, miserable little girl it happened to: We learned this week that Ziggy is almost definitely not Amabella’s (Ivy George) tormentor; but we also learn that someone is still bullying her and, quite possibly, Ziggy is also a victim. So empathetic is this little boy that he is seemingly protecting both victim and perpetrator, perhaps protecting his mother and the therapist from the truth.
These two children, faced with issues that would equally stymie adults: No wonder all they can do is gaze around with huge, anxious eyes. It’s not that they don’t know the vocabulary for what’s happening to them — it’s just that they’re in the same trap as Celeste, the terror and certainty of knowing that sharing what’s been going on could unleash something far more frightening.
Which is why, on a show filled with unexpected and perfect musical cues, its final choice of Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother F*****g A*****e” lands so well (and in the show’s most perfect quick-cut edit sequence to date, wrapping itself around a swiftly cracking Jane like a cold blanket as she tries to sing, runs down the beach in the past and future and dreams, finally launches herself over that cliff she’s been flirting with for week; gorgeous, gorgeous) it could have been written for these characters at this point in their story.
I will not pretend
I will not put on a smile
I will not say I’m all right for you
When all I wanted was to be good
To do everything in truth
To do everything in truth
“Big Little Lies” airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, throughout March; the finale is set for Apr. 2.