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All Big Little Lies families are unhappy in their own way

Illustration for article titled All iBig Little Lies/i families are unhappy in their own way
Photo: Jennifer Clasen (HBO)
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This season of Big Little Lies appears to be a bit less subtle than the first one. In case you were busy stripping furniture or a similar activity while you viewed this episode, or were watching another channel, the theme of the second episode in season two of BLL was—say it with me—family. Almost every one of our little subsets managed to work the concept into actual conversation—and even if they didn’t, circumstances seemed clear that various familial units are fraying at the edges.

Renata may have it the worst, as her crisis comes almost out of nowhere: Turns out her husband wasn’t drinking in the basement due to difficulties with dealing with her success, but because he’s guilty of massive securities fraud. Because California is a community property state, she’s about to lose everything (Her entitled lament: “I will not not be rich!”) As sudden as Renata’s life seems to have fallen apart, it’s fun to see Laura Dern have more to do with this part—even if a lot of that just involves saying “fuck” all the time. But her fight with Gordon in the car, when she leaves him on the side of the road and then turns around and picks him up, is indicative of the episode’s overall “family” theme. As Madeline tells Chloe, “You can be mad and you can fight and you come back together, because that’s what families do.” Renata is probably more angry at Gordon than she’s ever been at anyone, but she still isn’t going to leave her husband on the side of the road, because he’s her husband.


But in Madeline’s case, that adage may not be true: Sometimes families do fall apart, after all. Sometimes they should: Celeste should have left Perry ages ago, as her boys now also seem to be steeped in violence. And poor, put-upon Ed may finally have had enough, and seems as upset to find out that Madeline kept the secret of Ziggy’s parentage from him as he is about her infidelity with the theater director. After all, can you really be that close with someone you’re not telling the entire truth to? From Ed’s viewpoint, Madeline’s ease with keeping secrets means that she doesn’t really love him after all, calling her falsehoods “a violation of our family.”

That same conundrum is tearing apart Bonnie’s homelife as well, as the weight of the secret she’s carrying, combined with the guilt, appears to be ready to do her in altogether. There’s a bit of a disconnect in the dialogue as to why Madeline is so flummoxed by Bonnie’s behavior, as if she doesn’t really understand what the problem is (“That woman is unwell” she stresses to Celeste, who is obviously not very well herself). Bonnie killed someone, and is in danger of being found out. It’s caused her to pull away from everyone, so Nathan makes a typical Nathan choice of calling in Bonnie’ parents.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the two previous generation matriarchs: Both are fierce (in their own ways), both absolutely know that something’s up, and both are ferociously loyal to their offspring. Elizabeth is determined to get to the bottom of whatever’s troubling Bonnie, and knows her daughter well enough to know that she’s feeling extremely guilty about something. At least Elizabeth is focused on seeking out the truth, even if it’s in the middle of dinner at a restaurant. When her husband complains that he just wants to have dinner like a normal family, Elizabeth explains that that’s exactly what they’re doing. Bonnie’s desire to get away from her domineering mother makes her run into her husband’s arms, so maybe Nathan got what he wanted all along?

A brief word about James Tupper’s performance: I honestly never gave him a thought much as Nathan, but this week, I’m giving him a lot of credit. I still don’t know what those various standoffs between Madeline’s two husbands are supposed to be about (and they’re taking valuable screen time away from more interesting characters), but Tupper really sold Nathan’s frustration and confusion this week. As a veteran of divorce, he knows how awful it is when something you planned on being forever isn’t there any more (as a divorced person myself, I have to say this is a spot-on description). So to pull in a mother-in-law who doesn’t seem to like him very much to help is one of the most powerful and compassionate moves we’ve seen by a male character in this show.


As a commenter predicted last week, Mary Louise has no interest in the truth if it’s going to tarnish the golden memory of her beloved Perry. Her eye-rolling and scoffing at Celeste’s abuse stories are as maddening as they are terrifyingly problematic for our Monterey 5. Mary Louise’s mother love is so strong that even if she had found out the truth about him when he was still alive, it would not have changed her opinion of him one bit. Mary Louise is also not about to rest until she finds out for sure what happen that fateful night, and finding out about Ziggy appears to have blown everything wide open for her. If we have learned one thing this episode, it’s to never even whisper any sensitive information within possible earshot of one of Madeline’s kids. And also that kids know everything—as Ziggy, Skye, Max, and Josh know only too well when their moms are lying to them.

The presence of Ziggy, though, offers an interesting take on our family theme—through the most horrific circumstances imaginable, Ziggy is Max and Josh’s brother. Even as Bonnie finally crawls back onto Nathan’s lap and Renata snuggles up with Amabella, the only member of her family she still likes, and Madeline is left alone drinking wine wondering if Ed will ever return, Celeste and Jane start to forge a family, albeit a completely unconventional one. For Celeste, especially, family can be seen as a safety measure—in that flashback scene with Perry, he’s practically delighted to find out that she doesn’t have any close relatives, because that means that she may not have much of a support system and so will become easily dependent on him. For Jane also, who’s pretty alone in the world except for Ziggy, bringing the boys together helps kick off a long-overdue healing process. As Celeste tells her boys, “family isn’t always everything, but sometimes it is.”


We’re all creatures of want, as Gordon explains (even if it’s just for a Gulfstream). That’s part of the real draw of Big Little Lies: These women seem to have what everybody in the world wants: magazine-layout homes, beautiful families, wealth, privilege. What could possibly make them miserable? Celeste and Jane’s problems were pretty clear, but Madeline, as Mary Louise correctly pointed out last week, and Renata, as Gordon notes this week, are wanters. It’s difficult for them to be content because there’s always something else just past the horizon to be shooting for. Unfortunately, in Madeline’s case, that want was so great, she didn’t really appreciate what she had in the first place: that all-important family with Ed, Chloe, and Abigail. And so the episode agains with Madeline at the water, more a creature of want now than ever before.

Stray observations

  • Worst mom outfit: Renata, you know I love you, but not even you could pull off that odd Michelin Man puffy belted vest. Although maybe that was the point.
  • This week’s clunky “sex change”-type dialogue appears in Bonnie and Jane’s pre-yoga talk, with Jane describing aquarium guy as “Aspergery” and Bonnie, who we would assume to be pretty open-minded, opining, “they fake that sometimes, to get away with saying dumb shit.” I’m sorry, what? Seems pretty insensitive to the autism population, like that same guy asking Jane if she was “on the spectrum” last week.
  • Surprising revelation this week: Perry had a brother who died? Feel like that is way too potent an aside for that line to be a one-off, and suspect it will surface again this season.
  • Best zinger: The snipes and put-downs were fast and furious this episode, but I’m going to have to go with Madeline’s response to Mary Louise wanting to know what kind of crisis would make Madeline call Celeste in the middle of the night: “What kind of emergency?” “The kind short people have?” Runners-up: Mary’ Louise’s breathtakingly brutal passive aggressiveness when Celeste complains, “I feel like you look at me with such suspicion.” “No, I don’t… mean to.” I also liked Ed walking out of the house when Madeline tries to convince him he didn’t just hear about her affair with the theater director: “Where are you going?” “To get my ears checked.”
  • I knew Chloe was going to ask for her phone back right away. My kids do the same thing (although they got theirs way after second grade). Phones are the worst.

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.

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