Photo: HBO

Everyone who did not pick up on Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick-ness last week, you get it now, right? Witherspoon’s Madeline is a force of nature, who fearlessly storms through life and will not compromise for anything. On one hand, she appears to be fiercely loyal, to a friend she hasn’t even known very long (Jane), and one she’s been devoted to for awhile (Celeste), or Tom, the supportive barista that she loves. On the other hand, she’s ready to tear it up with Bonnie, the poor traffic guy at school, Renata (who kind of deserves it), even the yoga teacher. We all know someone like Madeline, the kind of person for whom a middle ground does not exist. Witherspoon’s ease in the role (yes, I get that she’s an actor), suggests that this particular persona may be one she’s familiar with, a formidable, almost pathologically secure person, who always thinks she’s right. Sometimes, that’s to her detriment, as she gets so focused on winning the battle, she can forget what she was fighting about in the first place.

It’s a bravura performance, and stands out even more against the measured calm of Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, the even keel of Adam Scott’s Ed, the more-structured mania of Laura Dern’s Renata, and the considerable tension burrowing underneath Shailene Woodley’s Jane. Scott especially didn’t get a lot to play last week, but this week proves exactly why he’s perfect as Madeline’s steadier better half. He’s collected up to a point, but reached his limit with her obsession with Nathan’s new relationship. And he not only stands up against her, but Nathan himself, citing the bullies from his childhood.

The theme of the episode, after all, is bravery, echoed by both Celeste and Jane. I don’t think any adult can understand the bravery of a 6-year-old boy headed back in to a classroom where he thinks everyone hates him. Of all the characters, Jane is running from some unseen terror, but Celeste is living with hers, in the form of her manipulative and controlling husband Perry. Alexander Skarsgård’s subtle slow burn is legit terrifying. What’s so interesting in this depiction is that usually abusive relationships are black-and-white onscreen: The guy menaces, the woman cowers. But Celeste and Perry have a connection that—while make no mistake is hella fucked up, much more “twisted” than “great”—is a bit more intricate than it first appears. Because Celeste fights back, because Perry apologizes almost immediately, because their rage translates so easily into passion. It’s a valuable reminder that not all domestic violence looks the same, even though Celeste is very much in an abusive marriage. The glass-houses metaphor of these beautiful Monterey homes come into play here, because Celeste’s life seems so perfect on the surface, and is the most destructive underneath.

Speaking of volatile, Renata embodies the anguish of the working mom (granted, an extremely high-powered one). While Madeline is ready to stoke the mommy wars between career moms and stay-at-homes, Renata knows that battle only too well. Laura Dern so perfectly conveys the awkwardness of trying to interject into a mommy dyad, trying to diffuse a situation she knows has gotten out of hand, only to see it raise significantly. Madeline’s use of the c-word seems designed to make us out-and-out dislike the character, while Renata ineptly flails against a fiercer opponent. Even she has to get that inviting every kid in the class but one to a party is unimaginably cruel. But, like any mother, threaten to mess with her kid’s birthday party, and hackles will be raised. Renata and Madeline’s fight, while toxic, is also much more straightforward that Nathan and Ed’s, say, where there are many insinuations but few outright accusations. Still, there’s even an insane tension in the conversation between Ed and Nathan, even though nothing they say is outwardly threatening.

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There’s also a helpful juxtaposition between the fight between Madeline and Ed versus Celeste and Perry. Ed healthily brings all of his problems to the surface, and doesn’t let anything fester. Even though he tells Madeline to “shut up,” and appears really enraged, we never get the sense that she’s in any danger, but we can feel uneasy by the way that Perry packs his suitcase.

In the face of all this conflict, it’s kind of perfect that the kids come up with their own version of resolution: a song and a dance, that unfortunately gets Ziggy in trouble again. In the meantime, Madeline is indeed using her own child as a pawn to get back at Renata for Ammabella’s accusation against Jane’s Ziggy. Ed’s point about whether or not Chloe would rather go to the birthday party is spot on, because it should be about her, and it’s not. As the parental fights heat up, the kids pay the price. And perhaps even learn by example.

Big Little Lies has packed its cast with heavy-hitters who elevate what could be a rote series to a higher level. But look at what they’re surrounded by: stunning scenery, breathtaking sets, and paranoid, invasive camera angles that make it seem like everyone is always being watched, because they are. This series is practically hypnotic, even for the conflict adverse (my husband is cry-laughing right now). What if we didn’t let anything get past us? What if we said whatever we thought? What if we refused to let anything go? Actually, we’d be a lot like Madeline.

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Stray observations

  • This review is going up early because HBO is releasing this episode a few days before the Oscars, suspecting that most people will be watching the awards show instead of their regular series.
  • Man, to be a stay-at-home mom with a full-time nanny. What else does Celeste have to do all day?
  • Renata’s most outlandish statement: “I’ve really dedicated a lot of life to vets.”
  • Bonnie’s comment that makes it easy to see why Madeline hates her: “I don’t believe my daughter would ever sanction a nonconsensual touching. She’s a very peaceful child.”
  • Probably the time I will most agree with Nathan: “Isn’t this is a lot of brouhaha about nothing?”
  • My kids’ classes have always had a thing where invitations go secretly into their homework folders. Or online invitations. Although now that they’re a little older, they get that they’re not going to go to every party, just like that they don’t invite everyone to theirs.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever had kitchen envy in my life like I do for Madeline’s kitchen.
  • I love Chloe and her eyerolls.
  • You live within the most beautiful landscape in the country: Put the iPad in the back seat away!
  • Favorite mom outfit: Madeline’s black cardigan with pink roses. But her yellow cardigan over that dress above was a bit frumpy.

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