In 1982, Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money…Even If You’re Starting with Nothing coined a term that has haunted women since its inception. “Having it all” may have started as joyful motivation that you could have any life you desired, but it now scans as an admonishment. It’s just another reminder to women about another way we fail to measure up.
Even though many modern women realize the slim chance of actually “having it all," no matter its personal incarnation, it doesn’t mean we stop striving and hoping we can attain the impossible. Some women pick apart the imperfections of others in order to steel themselves from having to focus too closely on the issues brewing in their own lives, like Renata does in Big Little Lies. Others create such a beautiful mask for the pain lurking beneath the surface, that they seem to be flawless, like Celeste. Then there is Madeline.
Early in “Living the Dream,” Abigail tells Madeline she has decided to move in with her father. “I feel burdened…to be perfect,” Abigail says about the intense pressure she experiences being Madeline’s eldest daughter. “I feel you’re grooming me to get to a place that you couldn’t,” she explains. Madeline has thrown herself into spearheading community theater and being the perfect mother — and she never stopped to consider how this quest for perfection was affecting those around her.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelly take all the attributes of the most impossible version of “having it all” — great wealth, beauty, precocious kids, beachfront property — and twist them into horror. Even the most alluring scenes in this show have the threat of violence lurking just beneath the surface. And for Celeste, violence isn’t a threat; it's a promise.
Madeline’s successful power plays against Renata end up having an unintentional side effect when Celeste agrees to go to Disney on Ice. It doesn’t take much to spark Perry’s anger, but it's all the more cutting seeing him wrap his hands around her throat while surrounded by all the symbols of happiness and success women are told to strive for.
“You don’t think I want to spend some time with my family after being gone all week?” Perry seethes. Celeste’s refusal to look him in the eye as his hands grow tighter around her only makes him angrier. He tries to catch her gaze while she focuses her eyes on the beautiful home that surrounds them. “I will leave you,” Celeste says in tears. This is an empty threat, of course. With every act of violence Perry commits, there is a romantic gesture that soon follows — making it even more difficult for Celeste to leave.
Later, Perry gives Celeste a beautiful diamond necklace while she’s in the shower. He clasps the necklace around her neck. He goes down on her moments later. It should be romantic — but once I saw the bruises marring her arms, I was reminded of why Perry was making such a gesture in the first place. The reason Celeste stays isn’t just that passion and fury have become painfully intertwined in their marriage; it's that she’s given up everything for Perry.
At a session with a new therapist, Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert), Celeste and Perry struggle to be honest about what plagues their marriage. When Dr. Reisman asks if their anger ever has a physical expression, Celeste swiftly answers no. They dance around their real issues. Words fail them. They rarely lock eyes with Dr. Reisman. It takes Perry confessing his deep seated fear of Celeste leaving him for the truth to come out about the abuse (although that word is never explicitly used). That Perry believes one day Celeste will realize how much better than him she is and finally leave shocks her. She left her job, her family, her friends in order to move to Monterey and live the life he wanted to lead. Perry is radically different from how he’s been before. Gone is the confidence that undergirds his violent and romantic moments. Instead, he’s afraid. He struggles to put sentences together. At times he seems ashamed, bashful like a young boy who hurt an animal and can’t explain why when asked. There is so much to parse out from this scene. But what struck me most was how Perry uses Celeste’s perfection against her. She’s so beautiful, so smart, so talented that he feels like he pales in comparison and he hurts her out of fear. There’s something chilling about this. Watching this I was reminded of how any time a man has told me I was too good for him it didn’t take long for him to hate me for it.
Madeline’s struggles in this episode, including using Chloe as a tool to get back at Renata, are engaging. Much of which is thanks to the sheer thrill of witnessing Reese Witherspoon nail the mix of bitchiness, type-A neuroticism, and vulnerability that makes Madeline who she is. But her storyline pales in comparison to everything happening with Celeste and Jane. Both Celeste and Jane are reeling from the violence men have inflicted on them. Celeste has finely honed a porcelain facade that people can’t see underneath. As Emily Nussbaum wrote for The New Yorker, “[Kidman] can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.” Jane has no such skill. The cracks in her life can be seen from a mile away even if their root cause is difficult to parse out.
Since the premiere there have been hints to Jane’s past. Flashbacks of her running across a beach or face down in a fancy hotel room moments after a tryst. These impressionistic flashbacks tread the line between alluring and disturbing. “Living the Dream” finally brings context to these moments.
A family tree project for school brings up old resentments between Ziggy and Jane. Ziggy wants to know his father’s name. He needles Jane until his questions become give way to anger. Madeline, helping them with the project since Jane forgot it was due so soon, realizes she stepped into a minefield. Jane’s reticence makes sense once she explains to Madeline what happened: she was raped.
Jane’s rape is something that has been hinted at but never fully explained until now. It’s the first time Jane has told anyone the truth about Ziggy’s father. He was a stranger she met at the bar when they were both “pleasantly drunk”. He was handsome and charming. But the night turned quickly once they went to a swanky hotel. He became aggressive. “I tried to resist,” she says. This sequence flutters between Jane recounting the story to Madeline on her porch and flashes of the night in question. Ziggy’s father, who told Jane his name was Saxon Banks, is never seen in full. A shadowed profile, an imposing figure, and part of his naked form create an unfinished puzzle. But a brief flash of the rape is shown. His movements are mechanical and brutal while Jane lies motionless underneath him. It’s only a few seconds. But it makes a deep impression and immediately frames so much of Jane’s actions that otherwise would be left opaque. (Like her decision to sleep with a gun under her pillow.) “I was actually afraid that he would kill me,” Jane says. Jane has reshaped her life in order to grow beyond that horrific night, but she knows she probably won’t ever fully leave it behind. She can’t create a perfect life for herself but she’s trying to do that for Ziggy. But is perfection, no matter how well intentioned, possible?
“You can’t make a perfect world,” Renata says at the end of the episode. But that doesn’t stop these women from breaking themselves into pieces in order to try.
-It’s fascinating watching the reactions of the other parents as Bonnie dances in the middle of Amabella’s birthday party. Her sexiness is effortless, a byproduct of the confidence that comes with her particular personality and youth. It’s a standout moment in an episode full of them.
-This episode fleshes out the marriage between Renata and Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling). She’s increasingly high strung, while his chill attitude at times can read as apathy. Their sex scene in his office bathroom was over-the-top in a way that felt passionless as if Renata was lessening her anger through ridiculously loud sex.
-Jane’s daydream of a man breaking into her house had me on edge. For a moment I believed it was really happening right down to her shooting him in the head. This violent daydream brings up some interesting questions about the murder that frames this series and Jane’s role in it.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.