Big Little Lies Continues its Balance of Intrigue and Introspection

“Once Bitten” is another excellent hour of television from this HBO limited series. It’s full of style, while managing to shed light on very serious topics. 

Early on, this series felt like a well-produced, star-studded adaptation of a (for lack of a better word) “trashy” murder mystery. We’re placed in a wealthy town, focusing on the gossip and politics surrounding the local elementary school. We hear about the aftermath of a murder that took place during a school fundraiser, only we don’t know the identities of the victim or culprit. It’s like how I envision the plot of those books found in aisle twelve of a ShopRite.

Well, Big Little Lies has long-since transcended this initial impression.

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The most profound plot-line is Celeste’s struggle with her abusive relationship. In this episode, we’re given another lengthy scene in her therapist’s office. Celeste arrives after Perry’s latest violent outburst, yet she refuses to open up about it. She’s instead defensive throughout much of the session, and uses her time there to justify why she continues to be in the relationship. She says Perry is the best father, he’s madly in love with her, and he treats her “like a Goddess.” Her therapist responds with, “only when he’s not beating you.” We see the pain in Celeste’s body language as the therapist presses the issue.

What makes the scene even more striking is its use of intertwining flashbacks, in which we witness the fight from earlier that day. The therapist asks, “Have you ever feared for your life?” We then see Perry begin to suffocate Celeste with a pillow, likely during sex. Nicole Kidman continues to give a masterful, nuanced performance that captures the dissonance and contradictions consuming Celeste’s mind. It explores the complexities that arise in abusive relationships. As an outsider, it’s easy to say ‘pack your bags and leave,’ but it’s not that simple. Ultimately, we see her take the children to the airport in a clever piece of misdirection. She’s not leaving, but has driven out to surprise her husband after his flight home. It’s a grand gesture, and yet another attempt to convince herself Perry can change, that he does not truly embody the evilness of his actions.

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And then we have Jane. This episode plays with flashing images and jump scares to portray her growing anxiety and intensity. She’s struggling to stay afloat in this new town. The accusations surrounding Ziggy are not going away. She herself is a single mother – not wealthy like many of the others – who has walked into an environment with aggressive parents, always looking to pounce. She’s concerned someone will find out the truth about Ziggy’s father, which would only add to the stigma surrounding her and her son. To top it all off, she’s set on confronting the man who raped her.

Jane’s frustration is shown through her target practice sessions, aggressive workouts, and private fits of anger. She’s coming apart at the seams. She envisions shooting someone on her morning jog, and toys with running off the edge of a rocky cliff. In her car, she sits with a gun in hand and clicks open the chamber. There’s a real sense of danger surrounding Jane, especially in the moments when she is alone. The cracks even begin to show themselves in public, as she slams on a table in the coffee shop, alerting everyone around her. Shailene Woodley’s naturalistic acting draws you in to her character. She has a presence that feels effortlessly relatable, which makes her breakdowns all the more uneasy to witness.

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Meanwhile, Madeline struggles with her transgressions with Joseph. She has cheated on Ed, and is unable to entirely cover up her guilt when around him. She tries to put a spark in their love life, to no avail. While Celeste and Perry demonstrate an intense, unhealthy passion towards one another, Madeline seems to be at a standstill. Ed runs to her when she’s in the hospital after the car accident, and checks on her every five minutes at home, but Madeline does not reciprocate this level of care and attention.

With only three episodes left, there’s an increasing amount of tension surrounding the series that makes you think everything could break down at any moment. From Madeline’s puppet nightmare, to the sudden car crash, “Once Bitten” constantly keeps you alert and on your toes. I’m loving every minute of it.

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