In many ways, “Burning Love” feels like the calm before the storm. This doesn’t mean episode six isn’t full of moments that effortlessly blend the intensely visceral and profoundly emotional. There’s deliciously juicy interactions like Jane going on a warpath leaving Renata with a scratched eye and probably some bruises after hearing that a petition is going around the school to have Ziggy suspended. But nothing that happens necessarily illuminates the particulars of the murder that frames the series. (Although at this point I’d be surprised if it isn’t Perry who dies.) What the show has excelled at is elucidating the psychological terrain of these characters and how the “having it all” version of perfection is impossible for any woman to attain. No one demonstrates that better than Celeste.
Celeste finds herself at a crossroads in which she can no longer remain in denial about Perry’s abuse and its ripple effects. But she buckles under the weight of Dr. Reisman’s suggestions. “When are you going to leave him, Celeste?” she asks. This one-on-one therapy session dramatically breaks Celeste’s illusions. Dr. Reisman implores Celeste to get an apartment in order to have another life on stand-by when she needs to finally leave Perry and take her kids with her. Everything Dr. Reisman advises is on point. Celeste needs to document the abuse, confide in a friend, and prepare to leave Perry. He won’t get better. He won’t break his patterns. But at a certain he may very well kill her or harm their children. And if Celeste is able to leave Perry he is the kind of man to get nasty when it comes to custody battles. “He has the ego to see this through,” Dr. Reisman says. Celeste demonstrates a surprising amount of self-awareness when she admits the reason why she hasn’t told anyone about the abuse. “Perhaps my self-worth is made up of how other people see me,” she says. But no amount of self-awareness can save Celeste unless she takes action in order to protect herself and her children.
The push and pull dynamic of Perry’s abuse is on full display in “Burning Love”. He tries to isolate Celeste from Madeline through seduction. He comes onto her when she’s speaking to Madeline over the phone. He tries to persuade her to join him on his business trip to Phoenix and skip out on the premiere of Madeline’s play, Avenue Q. Perry’s love is a mace wrapped in silk — every romantic gesture hides violent intentions. None of this works well enough so Perry amps things up by returning from Phoenix early in order to join Celeste at the premiere. Of course, Perry would never be completely selfless. While Celeste gets ready he tries to initiate sex. He caresses her one moment, then whips out his hard-on the next. But she bristles at these overtures leading him to react the only way he knows how when he’s insecure: violently. He pulls her hair roughly when she tries to walk away. This leads to the most intense moment of “Burning Love” in which Celeste defends herself by taking a tennis racket to Perry’s exposed penis. That leaves him with a rightly deserved broken urethra. Celeste explains her Perry’s injury as the result of rough sex. It’s what they always do as a couple, mask the darker contours of their marriage with passion. This time the passion is a cover story she can peddle to Madeline and any friends that ask. But the truth of the situation is impossible to deny. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you,” Perry whispers. It’s Perry’s cold, seething delivery of this threat that forces Celeste to see her husband for what he truly is. It also leads her to finally take Dr. Reisman’s advice by looking at an apartment that I sincerely hope she signs a lease for. But I also wish Celeste would finally open up to Madeline. This is trauma she can’t carry on her own. Continuing to project the image of the beautiful, passionate, and intensely dedicated couple to everyone will only isolate her further.
It’s this image of Celeste and Perry that makes Ed a little jealous. “I wish we had that kind of desire,” he says to Madeline. What follows is a nasty confrontation about their tepid sex life. How is Madeline such a fiery person in every aspect of her life but her marriage? How much longer can they ignore the problems festering at the heart of their relationship? Not long apparently. Ed is overwhelmed by felling that he has his dream girl but it’s obvious Madeline doesn’t share this passion. “Sometimes that’s the essence of a happy marriage, the ability to pretend,” Ed says. But that pretense can only go on for so long before something breaks. There’s a certain point that I thought Madeline hit her breaking point about keeping her affair a secret from Ed. It becomes even more difficult to keep hidden after Joseph’s wife confronts Madeline point blank after the play to ask, “Are you the woman Joseph is in love with?” But Madeline does reveal the affair to a surprising audience: her older daughter, Abigail. It’s a way to warn Abigail about how mistakes can haunt you and to prove that she’s imperfect. Madeline has good reason to worry about the mistakes Abigail may make when her secret project she’s hoping to include in her college applications finally comes to light.
So, let’s talk about Abigail’s secret project which she initially reveals to Bonnie. Abigail wants to sell her virginity online and donate the money she earns to Amnesty International. It’s her way to protest and shine a spotlight on sex slavery. My response to this was pretty much an eye roll. It’s the sort of pseudo-radical, attention seeking brand of white feminism that is the equivalent to an ouroboros. It may have good intentions but the conversation will always keep coming back to the fact that a rich, white, 16-year old in Monterey is selling her virginity online to the highest bidder. There are better ways to get political, Abigail.
Each of these women are nearing a dangerous breaking point. At the beginning of the episode, Jane reveals that she knows Saxon isn’t Ziggy’s father. But she brought her gun to the meeting which nods to a deep desire for vengeance that shows no signs of going away. It’s only a matter of time before Ed learns about Madeline’s affair wrecking the precarious balance of their marriage. Celeste has to leave Perry and the image of the perfect marriage she has obsessively maintained in order to survive. Next week marks the finale of this bracing mini-series and at this point it’s undeniable that these women are headed toward violent reckonings.
- I couldn’t help but simultaneously laugh and cringe when Madeline projectile vomits on Bonnie when she hears about Abigail’s secret project. I can’t fault Madeline for reacting like that to hearing that Abigail wants to sell her virginity off as a form of political protest. Bonnie’s desire to play peacemaker and make it sound better definitely doesn’t help.
- Director Jean-Marc Vallée is superb when it comes to switching over into the first person perspective of the main characters. Jane looking up at the flickering florescent light in the classroom and the sound growing muffled when Ms. Barnes tells her about the petition to get Ziggy suspended is a sly way to communicate the harrowing position she finds herself in.
- The magenta dress Madeline wears to the Avenue Q premiere gave me Legally Blonde flashbacks.
- How many people agree with me that Alexander Skarsgård’s penis that’s seen briefly is likely a prosthetic?
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