The sun may shine constantly in Monterey, the pretty Cali beach town of Big Little Lies, but two episodes in it's already apparent that there's a darkness at the core of #HBO's new drama series. This is hardly the first show about wealthy, attractive, stay-at-home moms with sharp tongues, but it might be the first which actually has an interest in what lies below the surface of those ostensibly glamorous lives.
Although punctuated by flash-forwards to a murder on the beach beside one of those jaw-dropping glass mansions (which would probably only be the weekend home of a dull investment banker and his boring wife in real life), Big Little Lies is less bothered about soapy murder mysteries than it is about finding a correlation between the self-destructive behavior of Monterey's grown adults, the state of modern marriage and the messages we pass on to our kids. It's deceptively deep.
That depth is most evident in the complex dynamic shared by Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). As episode two begins to peel back the layers of their marriage, Big Little Lies takes a provocative stance on domestic abuse. Yes, Perry hits Celeste when he becomes angry. She hits him back, an act symbolic of her unwillingness to play the role of the victim. And then they have sex, and there's at least a hint of suggestion that it wouldn't elicit the same thrill if not preceded by the violence.
Or, perhaps, Celeste tells herself it's all a game, that she's given her consent, because she believes her husband's physical anger would manifest into sexual violence regardless. Her inability to be honest with Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), her closest friend, about the violent specifics of her fights with Perry, confessing instead that they argue and have make-up sex, suggests that she's not really being honest with herself, either. And yet, so far there's no particular evidence that she's unhappy enough to leave him. Like every character in Big Little Lies, with the possible exception of Renata, Celeste is a richly-drawn paradox of conflicting emotions and motivations.
And the delusion goes both ways. Perry seems content to tell himself that his youth relative to Celeste (she's ten years older, give or take) gives her an element of control, that his violence is a juvenile act of rebellion which can be tamed by a moment's icy rage from a mother figure. After striking her, he drops to his knees to kiss her hands and beg forgiveness. And then comes the sex. It's rough, it's quick, and Celeste saunters from the room the moment it's over with the indifference of somebody who knows the entire cycle is doomed to repeat itself next week.
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All of that is interesting, a nuanced portrayal of a complicated, twisted relationship, but what's really interesting is the way it seems to have been picked up on by their twin boys Josh and Max. They wrinkle their faces when Perry puts on a showy PDA with Celeste, but while most of the parents at Otter Bay school seem to buy that it was it was Jane's son Ziggy who left that bruise on Renata's daughter, Amabella, the class teddy bear loses a leg when he comes home with Josh and Max.
Could that be a red herring? Maybe, but far likelier is that the boys have inherited a normalized sense of violence without consciously being aware of what happens in their parents' bedroom. The idea that kids are far more emotionally perceptive than we give them credit for is especially relevant in a series like this, where parents like Madeline are often too wrapped up in the drama they create, or depend on, to stop and put somebody other than themselves first.
Celeste probably believes that her turbulent domestic life with Perry is well enough hidden that the boys have a secure environment. Her intentions are good — but good intentions aren't always enough, and that's the beauty of Big Little Lies. It captures everything, without judging its flawed subjects too cruelly. It'll be interesting to see how that sense of objectivity shifts when the victim, and perpetrator, of that murder come into sharper focus in the weeks ahead.
Check out the trailer below for a preview of what's still to come in Big Little Lies, which airs Sunday nights on HBO.
Do Celeste and Perry's boys have a violent streak, and how might that play into the mysterious murder as Big Little Lies unfolds?