Dirty Secrets in ‘Living the Dream’

Last week, I mentioned that ‘Big Little Lies’ seemed to be taking a detour from the traditional murder-mystery path. This week, though, it’s become apparent that the metaphorical car has actually come to a complete and total stop. “Living the Dream” sees the show give up almost all claim on the whodunit formula, setting aside any narrative momentum with regards to the central murder: There’s nothing about the victim’s identity, any potential suspects, hypothesized solutions, or anything else. If anything, the episode’s brief gestures towards the genre—the interrogations, the spokeswoman—become increasingly irritating and irrelevant tics. They hold no bearing on the actual drama of the show, which lies in interpersonal pain rather than murder.

This idea—that the show focuses on secrecy despite really being about expression—shows up in each main character over the course of the episode. “Living the Dream” finally reveals Jane’s big secret, but the scene’s emotional and aesthetic impact resonates through its affective precision rather than through any form of narrative suspense. We pretty much already knew that Jane was raped, but this week, we see Jane’s previously bland exterior crack into grim acceptance and wrenching rage. Shailene Woodley does good work here, allowing Jane’s submerged fury to push up against her general normalcy. After finding out that her son may have lost a beloved classroom toy, she shatters a banal silence with a transcendently brutal howl: “Why does this fuckin’ shit keep happening to me?” she shouts. Reese Witherspoon has her character mirror these breaks in response to Jane’s disclosure, allowing Madeline’s chipper, friendly exterior to give way to heavy empathy and pain. (After driving away from Jane’s house, she stops her gleaming car and lets out a genuinely moving sob.) Thoughtful film editing also serves to highlight Jane’s fracturing consciousness: Flashbacks and nightmares jolt in and out of the present, sometimes with no clear distinction between what happened, what’s happening, and what might happen.

Once again, though, the episode reaches new heights when it gets to Celeste and Perry. A lengthy scene depicts the couple during a counseling session, a stretch that recalls the acclaimed HBO series “In Treatment” in its focus on sheer acting prowess and simple human drama. Perry and Celeste struggle to explain to their counselor why they’re there, their tiniest movements betraying silent battles within themselves and between one another: Even as Celeste commits to the idea of normality, she looks at Perry with a sort of animal fear and denies physical abuse when the therapist asks her about it. While she flinches and cowers and tries (and then fails) to speak, though, Perry defies all expectations by sitting steady. Totally at home, he admits to violence and offers a set of ready explanations—he loves her too much, he’s afraid of losing her. “There’s a line between passion and rage, and sometimes, I don’t know, maybe we cross that,” he says. He has a powerful mythology for what’s happening, a mythology that romanticizes the violence and justifies his actions. Meanwhile, Celeste seems caught between his story’s allure and her instincts as to its wrongness. As a whole, then, the scene continues the show’s powerfully nuanced thinking on domestic violence. It takes the conventional wisdom about gas-lighting and outright deceptive abusers and suggests a more complex narrative, a world in which deception can be attractive, subtle, and directed inward on both sides.

For all the high-level emotional drama, ‘Big Little Lies’ still continues to have some clunky moments. Madeline’s plotline feels fairly static, and the show lacks clear direction in the new absence of the mystery structure. “Living the Dream” also tries to add depth to Laura Dern’s Renata Klein, but without much success: The hyper career mom who really just needs to get properly laid feels like a cliché too stale for anyone to reanimate. That is, at least for now—we’re only three episodes in.

—Staff writer Charlotte L.R. Anrig can be reached at charlotte.anrig@thecrimson.com.

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