“As dead as he is, sometimes I think maybe I’m deader,” Celeste Wright tells her therapist, Dr. Amanda Reisman (I keep forgetting to include Robin Weigert’s character’s name, so here we are!), about her mourning of her husband Perry Wright. Abuser, rapist, husband, and father; a man Celeste is still praising to her twin sons; a man whose mother is making Celeste’s life a living hell.
Because if there is any message in this episode “The End of the World,” and in the preceding two episodes of the second season of Big Little Lies, it’s that what is dead may never die. Sorry to break out some House Greyjoy wisdom here, but this second season is thoroughly weighed down by Perry’s presence, and although this episode drags a little bit, perhaps it’s because shit is really dark.
For example: Bonnie walks into the ocean, inspired by a memory of her mother Elizabeth forcibly dunking her into water, against her wishes, to teach her how to swim. (So, as we expected, not the best relationship between these two.) Madeline refuses to believe that Dr. Reisman is correctly intuiting that her cheating on Ed was more than just an isolated incident. Her “my biggest fear about marriage, it’s not to be trusted” isn’t a sentiment that will be solved immediately, and yet Madeline just wants to move on, just wants Ed to forgive her. That’s not how any of this works.
And then there’s Mary Louise, my favorite villain, this bitch. Props to Shailene Woodley for her acting chops against The Meryl Streep when Perry Wright’s mother asks Perry Wright’s rape victim to submit her son to a paternity test; I know Woodley has gotten some criticism during her career for what some perceive as her blankness, but I’ve always been impressed by her very naturalistic anger, and the way she conveys someone who is shutting down a conversation before it even starts. She has a resoluteness that I wish I could mimic in my everyday life. The way she walks away from Mary Louise, leaving her demands of a paternity test in the dust, is my favorite scene of this whole episode, and yes, that is counting Laura Dern’s sly shout-out to Jurassic Park (“I spared no expense!”) and Madeline’s dramatic speech at the parent/teacher conference about global warming. Shailene Woodley did that.
And I suppose this is also why I was disappointed that Jane meets with Mary Louise again, to further open herself up to Mary Louise’s prodding about what she thinks was just a sexual encounter but that Jane knows was rape. I can sympathize with Mary Louse when she says “I can’t surrender to this notion that he was evil. I can’t. I just do so want to believe there was good in him,” but her “I don’t mean to offend you” to Jane? That is some bullshit. Mary Louise is the kind of woman who thinks that if she asks for something heinous and unforgivable politely, then that will make everything OK. Etiquette and manners matter more to this woman than anything else, and don’t you feel like she hates the idea of Perry being a rapist not because of the violence he inflicted, but because such behavior would be so untoward?
The idea of women aligned with disappointing men leads us to Renata, who is so blissfully unaware of her own intensity that she is convinced Amabella’s anxiety attack at school, leading to her brief hospitalization, is caused by being bullied again. The idea that Renata—successful businesswoman, leather-dress aficionado, karaoke warbler of Diana Ross’s “It’s My House”—could have anything to do with her own daughter’s stress is unconscionable, so much so that she blows off a doctor’s suggestion of counseling and instead goes hard on planning Amabella’s upcoming birthday. Her “I will be rich again!” is both fantastically hilarious and profoundly depressing, a battle cry for a woman who seems to be running purely on spite and megalomania.
She hates her husband. She hates her kids’ teachers. She hates that they’re teaching her daughter about global warming in such precise terms that Amabella has a panic attack. And honestly, I wasn’t sure about this before, but maybe Renata also hates vaccines, if she is worried they could hurt Amabella? COULD RENATA BE AN ANTI-VAXXER?
“We tell ourselves we’re gonna be fine, but we’re not,” Madeline says during her speech at the school assembly, looking out over the crowd of (some) friendly and (more) hostile faces, but the only one she sees is Ed’s. The man she loved and the man she betrayed, the man she is convinced is punishing her (I mean…), the man she took for granted. Is it wrong for Madeline to expect forgiveness? Maybe, but isn’t that what all these women are looking for? Consider the final montage: Aside from Madeline remembering her infidelity, Bonnie looks out on the ocean, a source of trauma for her at the hands of her mother; Jane dances with the new guy from the aquarium, although his touch brings to mind her sexual assault; Celeste masturbates to a video in which Perry, who was described earlier in the episode as the “best monster,” wished her good night and called her “Sparkle,” the nickname he gave her despite years of abusing her. Everyone here is hiding something, wondering how much of themselves to share, what elements of their identities they should hold onto and which they should let go. It seems like these women are treading water, but if they didn’t, they’d be drowning.
ODDS AND ENDS
+ I adored Kerri Kenney’s cameo as Dr. Beep, who takes out her fake teeth before brusquely telling Renata and Gordon about Amabella, “Nobody’s bullying her.” The problem with your daughter isn’t other people, it’s y’all!
+ Not too many songs this episode, but I very much liked Gordon rocking out to “Karmacoma” from the British trip-hop group Massive Attack while playing with his toy train.
And as much as we can mock Gordon for his terrible choices, he, like Nathan and Ed, realizes something isn’t quite right with his wife. “What did I do?” Renata scoffs; “You tell me,” Gordon asks, and I wonder if a future scene will bring all these men together in realization that Perry Wright’s death is what altered their wives.
+ “How would you feel about submitting Ziggy to a paternity test?” is such perfect phrasing from Mary Louise. “How would you feel”! The passive-aggressiveness of it!
+ Perry’s brother died as a child, right? … Huh. I’ll just leave that there for now.
+ I will say that I do appreciate that Bonnie and Ed get along so well, and although I know that the show has shaded in Ed with some douchier behavior this season in reaction to Nathan, I don’t really believe he’s faking his affection for (and perhaps attraction to) her
his sister-in-law. And seeing Bonnie laughing again, in contrast to staring sadly into the distance, is a nice change.
+ “I will rise up! I will buy a fucking polar bear for every kid in this school!” Seriously, give Laura Dern all the awards.
+ OK, save some for Reese Witherspoon, too. Madeline’s extreme self-pity this episode was both profoundly off-putting and deeply recognizable.
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