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There’s not a whole lot to say about last week’s episode of “Big Little Lies,” “Push Comes to Shove.” Mostly, the episode feels like plot wheel-spinning: Jane continues to struggle with the idea that Ziggy might have inherited a propensity for violence, Madeline continues to flail silently, and Celeste sits on her therapist’s couch and uneasily denies that she’s afraid of her husband. The writing and acting remain consistently excellent, especially in a few standout moments. The showrunners began to drop intriguing hints about something being wrong with Ed—at one point, he stares at Bonnie through prison-like window slats—and a brilliant plot twist surfaces as Madeline hesitantly reveals an affair with her co-director. The best scene, though, (unsurprisingly) involves Nicole Kidman’s Celeste. Wearing a magnificent power suit, she sits with Madeline in her car and painfully admits that she wants to go back to work. Vocalizing a dilemma so many women face, she explains that motherhood has completely overwhelmed her sense of duty to herself—and her longing for self-fulfillment bursts out in a moment of confused joy, pain and fury. “I fucking miss it!” she howls, slamming her hand down on the horn.
If “Push Comes to Shove” was a conventionally strong episode, though, “Once Bitten” reaches new and absolutely spectacular emotional heights. The episode signals an increase in intensity from its very first moments, invoking a nightmare, the edge of a cliff, a howl, and music with a beat like a frantic pulse; these powerful motifs continue throughout the episode and feel entirely appropriate for the turmoil that each main character faces. Shailene Woodley gives Jane a new kind of loose, broken fury after last week’s move towards composure, flooring it on the highway with a joint in her mouth as she goes to confront someone who might be her rapist. Madeline, meanwhile, grows increasingly, achingly brittle as she struggles to understand her own infidelity and find a way back to Ed.
And then there’s Celeste. In the best and most wrenching scene that the show has done so far, Dr. Reisman steadily leads Celeste to the realization that she’s experiencing abuse, that what she’s going through is neither normal nor safe. “Have you ever been afraid that you were going to die?” she asks. Celeste looks shocked. “Never!” she snaps back, and then she flinches, looks away, and wipes away tears. The screen cuts to a harrowing glimpse of Perry pressing Celeste’s struggling head into a pillow, then back to a shaking Celeste and an intensely concerned therapist. “That must have been terrifying,” says Dr. Reisman. Somehow, almost imperceptibly, the actors then convey that they have suddenly gone from being adversaries to allies, and there’s a snap of action as Dr. Reisman tells Celeste that they need to make a plan for the next time that Perry hits her. In the next scene, Celeste and her boys run through an airport—and it seems like she might actually be leaving Perry, but then it turns out that they’ve just gone to meet him in Arrivals. And he sobs into her shoulder.
It’s a devastatingly well-crafted episode, especially in these moments of immense and submerged emotional complexity, but it succeeds primarily because all of the agony rings so intensely true. The plots of the three main characters each allow the show to explore a particularly common element of female experience with enormous sympathy and nuance, a kind of painful respect that few shows in recent memory have been able to muster. Despite the title, the series continues to prove itself as an unusually honest piece of work.
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