Photo: HBO

Here’s what Big Little Lies gets, and it’s even more compelling than its murder mystery: It’s the fact that being a mother is really, really hard, and the hardest things are the ones you could never have predicted. It’s what makes Laura Dern’s Renata eat massive crow on the phone to Madeline, the woman who called her a “cunt” last week, rather than have her daughter disappointed at her birthday party.

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I just picked up the Big Little Lies book yesterday to read it again, because I read it so long ago, and I can’t remember a scene like this. I remember the book sticking primarily to the viewpoints of the three main characters, with “villains” like Renata on the outside looking in. Which may be why I am appreciating this mini-series so much. None of the characters depicted are black and white. Some sway more to one side than another, but all have warring internal forces to grapple with, like we all do.

Even, surprisingly, Perry, Celeste’s abusive husband. I was blown away by the couple’s counseling scene, how the revelations slowly trickled out about their relationship. How Celeste at first can’t admit that their fights get physical, even in therapy. Eventually the two open up, and even though no excuse exists for Perry’s behavior, his remarks are still enlightening about it. Because abuse is all about control, and Perry’s actions are coming from his own insecurities that Celeste will leave him. Again, it doesn’t justify his actions, but it’s more insight into the mindset of an abuser than we usually see.

Before this episode, Renata was also set up as kind of a villain, but what are her crimes, really? Being a hugely successful woman? Mistaking Jane for a nanny? Wanting Madeline’s approval? Believing her daughter when she says that a boy in her class hurt her? Renata may be a bit out of touch, but this episode shows more sides to her as well, as she’s a dynamo at work, has a completely amorous husband, and is willing to humiliate herself just so her daughter Ammabella can be happy about her birthday party. Yes, disappointment is a part of life that Ammabella will learn about someday (probably when no one says her name correctly), but that isn’t going to stop her mother from trying desperately to shield her from that.

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Renata and Madeline likely clash so much because they’re so similar. Madeline is drawn to quietly reserved types like Celeste and Jane, because someone like Renata is too much competition. Madeline probably can’t help but look at Renata’s high-powered life and think that she could be in the same position if her life had taken some different turns (if her first husband hadn’t walked out on her and her daughter, for example). Madeline, like Renata, is a “bulldog” as she’s called this episode, but at almost every level, she takes things too far. Sure, the city shouldn’t be censoring Avenue Q, but is it really worth the major battle she’s throwing over it, or could she just pick another play? And shouldn’t the question of whether she goes to Ammabella’s party be up to Chloe? But instead of going toward the path of least resistance, Madeline swings the other way, almost every time. But she gets her comeuppance, as they say, in this episode, when Abigail decides that she wants to go live with her dad and Bonnie for awhile. As a mother, it’s about the most devastating news she can get, with the realization that her unbreakable tenacity is actually pushing away the very people she loves and is trying to protect. Her breakdown is inevitable, and hard to watch.

Jane is also caught up between love and protection of Ziggy, as we learn the horrific story behind his conception. As with the abuse story, it’s not a rape story as we traditionally think of it: an attack in a dark alley, say. This one happens in a hotel room, and there’s even politeness at the end, but that still doesn’t change the status of what it is. Shailene Wooley’s revelation is well-played here, with a sense of detachment, because the memory is so painful for her to revisit.

All of these women are railing against the men in their lives, in one way or another: Jane against this stranger from her past, Celeste against Perry, Madeline against Nathan, her ex. Renata’s deadbeat husband seems like the best of the bunch. What I love about Big Little Lies is that it’s offering such a wide variety of these female perspectives and these battles they face every day: Well, it’s no wonder that we’re all exhausted all of the time. Reese Witherspoon said she pushed this project because she was tired of being the “Smurfette,” the only woman on set all the time. I’m so glad she did, because it’s offering a valuable depiction of the quiet battles in domestic lives, much more than I was expecting from the adaptation of an admittedly engaging airport novel. I’ve read the book so I know what happens (unless the series pulls out a giant twist, which I doubt), yet Big Little Lies is one of my most enjoyable viewing hours every week.

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Stray observations

  • Those family-tree projects suck, but science projects are the absolute worst.
  • For more insight on Big Little Lies’ domestic palaces (that was some birthday party), check out Esther Zuckerman’s interview with the set designer to find out why Celeste and Perry have a bonzai tree in their giant walk-in closet.
  • So Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon became such good friends while making this, that Kidman bought the house next door to Witherspoon’s in Nashville. Which is cute. I forgot about the Keith Urban/Reese Witherspoon Tennessee connection.
  • Most insane thing I’ve ever done for my child: My daughter forgot one of her stuffed animals on a weekend away and was so distraught that I called the shop where we bought it and begged them to stay open for 10 extra minutes so that I could go get her a new one. I just couldn’t bear to hear her anguish about it for another second. I remember feeling actually unhinged about it; I think she was 4 at the time. (I just reminded her about this and she knew exactly what I was talking about. It was a big-eyed stuffed lemur.)
  • Best mom outfit: I know I’m swaying toward Renata this week, but I loved her flouncy purple skirt and black sweater.
  • Worst mom outfit: Nicole Kidman is a stunningly beautiful woman, but that print dress she wore to therapy was busy enough to be absolutely distracting.

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