Big Little Lies Episode 5 Recap: "Once Bitten"

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
“Once Bitten” is an episode analogous to a knife thrust into your back by a good friend. It’s cutting, shocking, and painful in ways that can be hard to bear. Madeline, Jane, and Celeste are all dealing with intense personal trauma that are akin to a grenade. There’s too much collateral damage for them to ignore its ripple effects. The half-true facades all three women wear — the type-A diligent mother, the anxious new girl in town, the picture of perfection — are cracking under the pressure of the truth and everyday life. But it’s the increasing cruelty Perry aims at Celeste that haunts me long after I watch an episode.
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One of the hardest television scenes to pull off are those that focus on the dynamic between a therapist and a patient. Too blunt and it comes off as purely exposition. Instead of being a moving scene focusing its gaze on the wounds and scars of a character it turns into a lazy way for writers to communicate problems without doing the hard work of truly showing them. Hew too far in the other direction and it feels opaque in ways that are forgettable. The dynamic between Celeste and Dr. Reisman during the solo session is engrossing for its emotional rawness. This isn’t just because their scenes are a masterclass in acting. Although they are. The editing, framing, cinematography, and production design during their scenes represent Big Little Lies at its most morally and emotionally profound. Much of “Once Bitten” sets the stage for this therapy session between Celeste and Dr. Reisman. The sex she has in the kitchen with Perry during the day is intense, sexy, and troubling. Sure, there is an allure to seeing these two gorgeous people going at it. But it’s also unsettling whenever you catch the bruises on Celeste’s body and see the anger in Perry’s eyes. Those bruises are becoming harder for Celeste to ignore. She hides them with concealer or carefully placed clothing. Each mark is a reminder of violence. That’s what bruises most profoundly represent for Celeste: the memory of Perry’s hands around her throat or his fist pounding against her she’d rather forget. One of the smartest things about Big Little Lies is how it weaponizes beauty. You see a woman like Celeste and you’re envious. Just look at her. That porcelain beauty that’s equal parts entrancing and fragile. She has what seems to be a great husband, cute kids, gorgeous home, fashionable wardrobe. Yet staying in this life, with all its aesthetic pleasures, has a high price that is only increasing.
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Celeste goes to Dr. Reisman while Perry is out of town for a mix of absolution and clarity. She knows she needs help otherwise she wouldn’t have gone on her own. But she is never wholly honest. Dr. Reisman needles her about the abuse in her marriage. She refuses to abide by Celeste’s desire to speak around the problem at hand. But isn’t that what most of the women in Monterey do? They smile while their hearts are breaking. They hide the darkest moments in their life not even opening up to close friends. Dr. Reisman breaks through the silence of Celeste’s life with three words: “He hurts you.”
I kept hoping Celeste would open up if even slightly. But that wouldn’t be true to her character. She’s holding onto this life out of fear and habit. Perry has consumed her life in ways that breaking free, for her, feels nearly impossible. Celeste defends Perry at every turn by blaming herself parroting his belief that maybe she wants the pain and abuse. “You are demonizing him,” she says to Dr. Reisman. Earlier she goes as far to say, “I’m not a victim.” But her tears and flustered affectations nod to how she doesn’t believe everything she’s saying even though she desperately wants to. The therapy session is interspersed with memories that Dr. Reisman’s pointed questions cause to bubble up: Perry beating Celeste with their sons’s toys; Perry holding Celeste’s head down suffocating her; rage begets rough sex eventually giving way to Perry crying in her arms.
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What’s more telling than Celeste’s utter refusal to admit to the abuse is how she argues in favor of Perry’s greatness. She vociferously defends him as a good father even though such abuse will affect their sons despite what she wants to believe. He stood by her side through four miscarriages. He provides for her. More than once Celeste gets up as if to leave only to be pulled back to the couch as if an internal magnet is forcing her to stay and confront this issue. She never fully does but the last exchange she has with Dr. Reisman obviously gets to her. “A plan?” Celeste asks about a suggestion. “For the next time he hits you,” Dr. Reisman replies. There are really only two outcomes either Perry eventually kills her or she leaves. When Celeste, with her children in tow, goes to the airport I thought maybe Dr. Reisman had gotten through to her. But when Perry walks through the arrivals terminal it’s clear Celeste steadfastly refuses to face her demons.
Jane’s storyline is similarly harrowing. She has Madeline pick up Ziggy from school using work as an excuse. But instead Jane is on her way to meet Saxon Baker (Stephen Graybill), whom Madeline suggested in the previous episode may be Ziggy’s father. As Madeline says to Celeste in a voicemail earlier, it seems Jane isn’t losing for closure but revenge. “Once Bitten” doesn’t give us any definitive answers as to whether Saxon is Jane’s rapist or not. She studies his face and even seems to try to smell him at one point. The sound design makes everything happening in real time seem far away as if the entire thing is happening underwater. Earlier in the episode, Jane says she feels “empowered” having a gun. But that empowerment seems to buckle under the toils of her life like dealing with Renata treating Ziggy as guilty even if the principal and his teacher, Ms. Barnes (Virginia Kull) don’t agree. What Big Little Lies is working toward is a reckoning. Each moment seems to be gearing toward more trauma and heartbreak. Each character is on the tipping point between catharsis and destruction, growth and stagnation. Their lives are in a liminal position. Even Madeline is on the precipice of losing the life she’s so meticulously created.
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Joseph remains undaunted. He wants to not only resume his affair with Madeline but to leave his marriage for her. She agrees to talk to him in a car about their problems although she isn’t all that open. But while talking they get into a car accident causes by a teenager in the car near them not paying attention and eventually crashing into them. For the most part they’re okay, physically at least. Madeline is fine. Joseph has a collapsed lung although no broken bones. But the most important wreckage is what happens next. Ed doesn’t seem all that satisfied with how Madeline explains why she was in Joseph’s car. It’s only a matter of time before the people around them start asking questions. The same can be said for Celeste and Jane. It’s only a matter a time before their facades fall entirely and all the ugly truths they’ve been hiding unfurl reshaping their lives entirely.
Other Gossip:
— I haven’t discussed this with much depth but one of the strongest attributes of Big Little Lies is the editing. Coupled with astute music cues, the editing is adept at reflecting the mood of the characters and turning the tone quickly without feeling haphazard.
— Let me preface this by saying I am not a parent. But I can’t help but feel that Renata screaming bloody murder at Amabella so she’ll reveal who bit her is the worst tactic to take. If anything, this compounds Amabella’s trauma.
— Favorite Madeline one liner of the night is once again courtesy of her animosity toward Renata: “She’s a fake bitch!”
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