During last week’s Big Little Lies episode, “Tell-Tale Hearts,” the daughters of Madeline Martha McKenzie (Reese Witherspoon) ruined their mom’s marriage in spectacular fashion. First, little Chloe (Darby Camp) brought up Ziggy Chapman’s (Iain Armitage) true paternity in front of her own dad Ed McKenzie (Adam Scott), proving Ed has no clue what kind of secrets his wife is harboring. Then Madeline’s teenage daughter Abigail Carlson (The Society’s Kathryn Newton) loudly announced that her mom cheated on Ed… while Ed was in the house. Abigail essentially told Ed right to his de-bearded face that Madeline had an affair.
After a painful divorce with Abigail’s dad Nathan (James Tupper), Madeline’s marriage is once again on the brink of destruction. Sunday night’s “The End of the World” finally explains why its leading lady’s relationships keep falling apart: her father.
At the beginning of the episode, Madeline and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) have one of their now-classic cone of secrecy car meetings. Madeline explains that when she was 3 or 4 years old, she walked into her parents’ bedroom to find her dad having sex with a woman who wasn’t her mother. “They were making all kinds of noises, and I got scared,” Madeline recalls. So her dad pulled her out of the room, closed the door, and told little Madeline, “There are things your mother doesn’t ever need to know.”
That is the phrase that has been rattling around Madeline’s head about marriage in the decades since. The meaning behind her dad’s subterfuge — that all men will deceive you at some point — has infected Madeline’s understanding of love and relationships. How can you fully commit to a person you fundamentally can’t trust? Since this is a fear Madeline has carried around since childhood, the moment Nathan left her only proved she was right to be terrified. “It confirmed my biggest fear about marriage: It’s not to be trusted,” she tells Celeste of her first big breakup.
That is why Madeline cheated on Ed with Joseph Bachman (Santiago Cabrera), the hot community theater director. With Nathan, Madeline attempted to ignore her anxieties, and that decision only hurt her. With Ed, she was subconsciously trying to blow up the relationship before it could blow up on her.
This revelation proves therapist Amanda Reisman (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert) may not be as good at her job as we’ve been led to believe. During a fairly passive aggressive couple’s therapy session between Madeline and Ed, Dr. Reisman theorizes about what led Madeline to cheat. One possibility is that Madeline was acting out to get Ed’s attention. Amanda then guesses that Madeline “doesn’t believe in herself,” adding, “How can you trust the relational equation when you have no faith in the sum part of you?”
The problem was never that Madeline didn’t believe in herself. It’s that she didn’t believe in Ed. Or Nathan before him. The affair with Joseph was just a symptom of that underlying suspicion.
Madeline is apparently still holding on to her dubious feelings about marriage. In therapy, she only details the best parts of her parents’ relationship when Amanda asks about it in front of Ed. She describes her mom and dad's marriage as “fine” and says they were together for “40 years” in a way that suggests it was a total success. We only realize something is amiss with Madeline's statement thanks to her bizarrely silent stare when Amanda asks if she is still close with her parents.
It’s not until the next scene, when Madeline is alone with Celeste, that she shares the story of her father’s own infidelity. It’s the first time she has ever mentioned the incident in her entire life. This is the kind of emotional intimacy Madeline won’t even hazard to try with her desperately unhappy husband. Until that changes — and Ed stops having shady snacks with Bonnie Carlson (Zoe Kravitz) — it’s impossible to believe the McKenzie marriage is long for this world.