“Life can be ugly. I’ll make a note of that. Thank you.”

Between last week’s “Big Little Lies” and this penultimate episode (March 26), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) has reached a new place with her therapist (Robin Weigert, again stepping right up to face a possibly career-best Kidman). Last week, Celeste was barely able to admit she had ever been bruised by her husband; this week, she’s progressed to noting her bruises off-handedly as part of a larger conversation about power dynamics in her marriage. Seeing her client cross this Rubicon, the therapist pushes her even further — perhaps even toward action.

“Find a friend to confide in,” Celeste is told, as much an order as a prescription. “Do it today.”

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As close as Celeste may be to Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Jane (Shailene Woodley), she’s never dreamed of disclosing this side of her personal life to them. The closest she’s ever come is when Madeline airily refers to Celeste’s life as “slightly north of perfect,” and Celeste vaguely disagrees, noting that she’s had bad things happen to her. Of course, we know — and are only a little less pleasantly surprised than the therapist to hear Celeste say it aloud — that without Celeste’s friends’ (and Monterey’s) admiration (and jealousy) she essentially wouldn’t exist at all. How is she supposed to confide in anyone, that her perfect life isn’t, when it’s the only reason anyone cares about her at all?

big little lies reese witherspoon adam scott madeline ed The penultimate Big Little Lies is both more harrowing & more hilarious than any to date

Madeline, always on the move and especially away from her own troubles, doesn’t pick up on the mirrored conversation she has later with her daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton), who accuses her of being too perfect, and hence unable to relate to normal people such as herself. (Abby’s totally normal behavior this week? Auctioning off her virginity, for Amnesty International, as her senior-year passion project.)

“You think you know me so well? I f**k up too. I make mistakes too, bigger than this,” Madeline — fresh off of an epic triple-vomit situation, the perfect Maddie response to this long-threatened four-parent paradigm-shift dinner finally coming to pass — is ready to free herself up psychologically as well. It is to her teenage daughter, her lodestar for years when they struggled together as single parent and child, that she finally says aloud what she’s kept hidden for a year; she’s had an affair, she feels terrible about it, she is the farthest from perfect she can imagine herself being.

And it’s not just the shared history with Abigail, or her parental terror at what her daughter is preparing to do, that gets her confessing. The same way Madeline was stunned silent episodes ago with Abigail’s request to move in with her father, here again she’s faced with the human cost of her own persistent need to appear faultless. Always keeping up appearances, basing self-worth on how you’re seen by others, is a strategy that solves a lot of problems — but just as (the show’s SAHMs, very notably) Madeline and Celeste appear to their families and colleagues exactly the shiny, capable way they want to be, of course wanting that is as much a cry for attention as Abigail’s fundraising.

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Of course this show, with its glamorous real estate and designer outfits, has always been about the secrets and darkness beneath seemingly beautiful lives; that’s been apparent since the opening credits of the first episode. Like Celeste and Madeline (and Jane, and everyone on this show) there’s so much more to explore within that surface level. Using the source novel to craft a limited series rather than a film allows series director Jean-Marc Vallée to dig, then a bit more, then a bit more — unearthing not just the first layer hidden inside of these characters’ lives, but going deeper and deeper into an entirely visceral experience for the viewers and, one presumes, the actors.

Celeste’s therapist has taken it as a given that Perry will hurt Celeste again and, much as Celeste likes to pretend it’s not true, she is now aware of the dread that has clearly permeated her home life for years now. And we’ve witnessed enough of both of them that when Perry returns home early from a business trip, we know something terrible is going to happen — the only variables are where and to what extent. When she follows him into the closet, we’re right there with her — the tension emanating from the screen, wrapping us up in it, immediate and visceral like her extended therapy sequence last week.

big little lies alexander skarsgard perry The penultimate Big Little Lies is both more harrowing & more hilarious than any to date

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It’s been reported that when the novel’s author, Liane Moriarty, met with Kidman and Witherspoon to discuss this adaptation, she was firm that Celeste was a character who would always fight back. And she has done, throughout, calling Perry out and challenging him, even knowing what he’ll do in response. To her, this was part of their “passionate relationship,” it was what made her feel partially responsible for the violence. But here, when she attacks him with his own tennis racket (which he brought home in a previous episode, Chekhov’s Gun style, rakishly over one shoulder), breaking his penis in two places, she is fighting back at a level we haven’t seen.

This leads to the latest of this show’s recurring motif of injuries: Renata’s (Laura Dern) eye injury pales in comparison to Perry’s injured urethra in terms of unexpectedness. Madeline and Ed (Adam Scott) both translate this injury as from rough sex gone wrong, first giggling before seeing even this as yet another way that Celeste and Perry’s life is so  much better than theirs. Their discussion of the lack of passion in the bedroom has been long coming — as has, though we didn’t know it, Maddie’s confession about her affair, which Ed graciously shuts down at a point that reads as equally sweet, weak or menacing depending on where it goes from here — and is just one of many such conversations that occur this week, clearing the plate for next week’s finale.

The friendship between Madeline, Celeste, and Jane has been a cornerstone of this series, but each (besides Jane, who is unguarded, ) has held something back from the others. This doesn’t negate the meaningful nature of their friendship, and perhaps is part and parcel of how much these three mean to each other. Celeste doesn’t want to lose face with the other two by sharing the truth of her toxic marriage — and perhaps thinks, correctly, that doing so would deprive them of something; Madeline runs from even letting herself face how passionless her relationship with Ed has become.

big little lies james tupper reese witherspoon adam scott nathan madeline ed The penultimate Big Little Lies is both more harrowing & more hilarious than any to date

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This episode was brimming with emotional conversations — Madeline being confronted by her ex-lover’s wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) revealing the truth of Abigail’s “secret project” to Nathan (James Tupper), and then the cringe-inducing reveal of the same project over a dinner that all four have been dreading for most of the series. Madeline prepared for the dinner similarly to Bonnie preparing to break her news to Nathan; Madeline with prescription pills and wine, Bonnie with marijuana. Bonnie’s disclosure led to Nathan’s fit which led to their daughter Sky’s (Chloe Coleman) tears; the dinner is punctuated with Madeline vomiting three times, once onto Bonnie herself. Even in her most vivid preparations not a result any of the four could have foreseen.

Like anyone’s life, getting everything out in the open clears the way to actually move forward. Having all of the information at hand is the best way to proceed, in life and in business, but like Madeline and Bonnie, it takes a lot of strength — and often chemical assistance — to reach that point. This is why Celeste’s therapy scenes are so excruciating; she is no longer attempting to run away, but her squeamish discomfort at realizing what her life has become is at once uncomfortable and terrifying. Abigail’s “secret project” has been low key bubbling beneath the surface, and of course it’s worse than any of her parents could have imagined. She knew how they would react, which is why she has kept it hidden and — perhaps — why she hasn’t actually published the webpage yet.

big little lies kathryn newton abigail The penultimate Big Little Lies is both more harrowing & more hilarious than any to date

This show was initially marketed, and perceived, as being a peek behind the lives of the glossy women who “have it all” and it sort of it, but not as those early articles may have thought. Anybody who claims to “have it all” is lying, the same way as Madeline’s repeated mantra of being a “happily married woman” is just words, casting herself in a role she desperately wants just by virtue of saying it often enough. Jane’s appearance in everyone’s lives was the catalyst for the series, but just as engaging a study could have been done on these women six weeks or six years before she came on the scene, just as surely next week’s series finale will leave us all aching to spend more time with these women.

The whodunnit that kickstarted the first episode has become a low priority because that’s never what this show was meant to be about. Knowing someone’s going to die lends extra gravitas to every time Perry or Jane mention wanting to kill someone, but all of Jane’s creepy bravado from last week has dissipated in the wake of her failed mission to confront her attacker. Now, she’s ready to make amends with Renata; she hopes that whoever her rapist is, he was just a guy having a bad day.

In yet another masterful song choice in a show for which the soundtrack is just as intoxicating as the performances, the same Temptations song plays throughout the episode: It shifts in and out of diagesis as the children (and Maddie and Ed) film themselves dancing in explicit evocation of the show’s title sequence and on Ziggy’s iPad, and most brilliantly underscores Jane’s suspenseful drive back to Monterey, and Celeste’s sequential attempts at finding her freedom… Until, by episode’s end, seeing the lyrics interpreted in a wonderfully charming performance by Jane’s fatherless son (Iain Lawrence), the lyrics are twisted into narrative meanings both infinitely sadder…

I never got a chance to see him
Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him
Momma, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth

And far more ominous.

…Papa was a rolling stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us — was alone.

“Big Little Lies” comes to an end Sunday, April 2, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

Posted by:Ann Foster

Writer and historian living on the Canadian prairies.