Big Little Lies Episode 2 Recap: "Serious Mothering"

Madeline often finds herself staring at the ocean. It’s a humbling, calming force for this high strung spitfire. “Serious Mothering” opens with her doing just that. “What’s out there?” Chloe asks. For Madeline the ocean is a powerful, fast moving embodiment of life’s greatest mysteries. Who knows what’s lurking in its depths. Monsters? Dreams? Sunken treasure? “It’s the great unknown,” Madeline replies. The ocean is a neat metaphor for how the highly curated, beautiful, luxurious images many of these rich women present to the world belies the hidden depths and struggles they keep in the dark. This is especially true of Celeste.

Big Little Lies is a dense show full of as many storylines as gossiping mothers. Every performance and moment is perfectly calibrated making the show incredibly engrossing. But it’s the dynamic between Celeste and Perry that lingers. On the surface these two seem to be living the dream. It’s easy to see why they’re so transfixing for the people in Monterey. Even amongst this rarefied air they stand out as a golden couple still very much in love. The premiere makes it apparent that Perry’s abuse disrupts the fantasy they present. But this episode digs a bit deeper parsing out how his violence is able to flourish in their marriage like the bruises that color Celeste’s body.

After dropping their sons off at school, Perry is pissed he doesn’t get to the meet the teachers. He feels Celeste purposely wanted orientation day for herself. “You decided to have that day all to yourself…mommy and her boys,” he seethes. Alexander Skarsgård expertly deploys a menacing smile, baring his teeth as if a rabid dog on the verge of an attack. “You’re such a child,” Celeste responds. Then Perry slaps her. Hard. After Celeste slaps him in return the scene turns at a clip from violently abusive to aggressively sexual. She unbuckles his belt and then they’re screwing against the closet door. That aggression is their baseline makes it hard for Celeste to see clearly.

When Celeste later gets drinks with Madeline it’s clear she doesn’t confide in anyone about this abuse. But she does discuss the dynamic somewhat (leaving the physical component of their fights out of the picture). “Sometimes I think he likes to fight because it leads to sex. Sometimes I think I like it too,” Celeste says. Passion and fury are nearly indistinguishable for these two.

Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard have never been two actors I’d think of pairing up together. But their chemistry is electrifying. It makes me wish their marriage wasn’t the abusive one on the show. The sex scenes between them are hot, intense, and troubling. Every moment crackles with tension. It’s hard to focus on anything else happening in the show when these two are onscreen. It’s their intense sexual chemistry and Perry’s flashes of sincerity that makes it understandable why Celeste struggles to leave. At one point he sends her a video call while she’s at home in a beautiful robe he bought her. He asks her to undress. What starts out as a hot scene becomes uncomfortable when the bruise blooming on her back are seen. The episode even ends with a Skype sex session between the two since he’s out of town. Nicole Kidman embodies the overwhelming passion and fear that exists for Celeste with incredible nuance. Director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley smartly mine the allure these two provide.

The problems within Madeline’s marriage are on the opposite end of the spectrum: an utter lack of passion. Facing Nathan and his relationship with Bonnie is only a reminder of such. She has to face them at yoga classes and at school since Bonnie’s daughter Skye (Chloe Coleman) also is in first grade. It’s a painful reminder that Nathan failed as a husband and father fifteen years ago but has somehow grown up in ways he couldn’t for her. Ed interprets her endless needling over the situation as her still being in love with Nathan on some level. During one of their routine oceanside arguments he even goes so far to say, “I will not be anybody’s runner up.”

But Madeline’s issue with the Nathan is the same reason she’s taken Jane under her wing: her past as a single mother. “It’s not my love for Nathan that lingers after 15 years, it’s my resentment,” Madeline says. Whether Ed believes that Madeline only loves him has yet to be proven. But what is apparent is how Madeline takes out her personal frustrations on other women. It’s as if she needs a target for her anger and Renata continues to be the perfect one. “I try to maintain my full-time mommy status so I can lord it over Renata and the other career mommies,” Madeline says to Jane half-jokingly. So, Madeline uses her daughter as a tool to get back at Renata by pulling her out of Annabella’s birthday party. It’s under the guise of standing up for Jane since Ziggy wasn’t invited. But after Chloe tries to engender a reconciliation between Ziggy and Amabella things get even murkier. Ziggy kisses Amabella. The words “sexual assault” are thrown around and things only devolve from there as parents war in the principal’s office. Seeing Renata and Madeline go for the jugular is indeed deliriously fun to watch. But seeing the sincere friendship between Madeline and Jane develop shows that affection between women is just as captivating as the drama.

Other Gossip:

- Big Little Lies is pretty much the show The Affair dreams of being.

- It’s not just the women on this show trying to navigate their way through toxic gender ideals and relationship problems. Ed and Nathan have a tense conversation about Bonnie helping Abigail get birth control from Planned Parenthood. On the surface this is about supporting their wives. But their conversation quickly dovetails into different territory about the very different versions of masculinity they represent. Nathan is a traditional man’s man. While Ed is the “evolved man” whose more en vogue today working from home, caring for the kids, and cooking.

- It’s hard to pick a best line considering Reese Witherspoon is nailing the equal parts perky and bitchy delivery. If I had to choose this would be at the top of the list: “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.” Also, “I need to swap out my family for vodka” when she invites Celeste out for drinks would be a close second.

- Bonnie is the pitch-perfect foil for Madeline. Much of the credit deserves to go to how different the screen presences of Zoe Kravitz and Reese Witherspoon are. Kravitz completely embodies being bohemian and carefree while Witherspoon nails the type-A obsessive.

- I’ve never been a fan of Shailene Woodley but she’s pretty great as Jane.
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