This review contains spoilers for the fifth episode of “Big Little Lies” season two.
“You should expect everything they say to be designed precisely to get you to react,” Katie (Poorna Jagannathan), Celeste’s lawyer, advises her frustrated client. It’s the earliest stage of the child custody case that will inevitably end up getting ugly in court, but Katie’s advice could’ve easily applied way before litigation began. Like, Episode One. Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) landed in Monterey with the sole intent of antagonizing Celeste (Nicole Kidman), under the guise of grandmotherly altruism. Now, the pleasantries are over. Celeste is visibly, perceptibly, unabashedly pissed. “You’re not getting my boys,” she hisses across the table, at the suggestion of a joint custody settlement. “Not for a Saturday, not for a Sunday, not for a fucking minute.” Despite Mary Louise’s insistence that Celeste is a passable mother, just a widow turned careless by grief, it’s clear that what’s being litigated is not the children’s well-being, but Celeste’s capability as a parent — which Mary Louise also targets in Renata (Laura Dern)’s home devoid of furniture, further demonstrating her knack for identifying and promptly eviscerating any Monterey mother’s insecurities. (Mary Louise totally deserved an ice cream to the back of the head.)
Despite Renata’s best efforts, Celeste can’t ignore Mary Louise’s custody case. Rejecting a settlement and taking the case to court means that the circumstances of Perry’s death will undoubtedly come up. Celeste’s cohort will definitely be called to the stand to testify to her parental fitness. If any of the Monterey Five muddy the facts under oath, they could be in big trouble. Or as Renata grimly puts it, “It’s a fucking perjury trap.” The titular big little lie, the one that’s bonded them since the start of the season, has finally become a tangible problem.
Still, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is naïvely convinced that they can preserve the lie and their reputations, the same way they murdered Perry: through teamwork! “Look, we have to stick together,” she insists. “That’s the only way we’ve gotten this far. If we stick together, we’ll be fine. We’re gonna be fine!”
Narrator: They were definitely not fine. The pep talk falls on somewhat deaf ears, what with Celeste trying to juggle parenting and handling the guardianship suit, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) caring for her comatose mother Elizabeth — who resurfaces to consciousness for a moment, to instruct her daughter to kill her (!) — and of course, Renata attempting to bolster morale post-bankruptcy with an impromptu mother-daughter bonding day.
Even Madeline herself has emotional heavy-lifting to do: She’s road-tripping to Big Sur with Ed in tow, in desperate hopes of repairing the marriage she damaged with infidelity. It’s a bust: The marriage retreat entails an awkward hugging exercise straight out of a high school theater class. For the woman who snapped, “Don’t touch me!” to her yogi, hugging strangers is clearly not the hoped-for emotional detox she intended. Instead, she opts for a surprisingly lucid bit of psychoanalysis (maybe Dr. Reisman’s sessions finally rubbed off on her), confessing that her own personal hang-ups about marriage led her astray. “I wanna be the destroyer, not the destroyee,” she tells Ed, who’s still salty about being his wife’s pragmatic choice, not her impassioned lover. “If I fuck up again, it will not be with infidelity. All my future mistakes will be brand new ones.”
But history is doomed to repeat itself. Madeline might find herself more of a destroyee than she’d prefer, as the episode closes with a few sizzling final images. Seated at a bar (the same one where Celeste picked up the bartender?), Ed encounters Tori Bachman (Sarah Sokolovic), who’s clearly looking for more than a tête-à-tête. Both cheated on by their partners — with the other’s partner, no less — they survey each other inquisitively. Meanwhile, Madeline remembers bits of the affair through erratic flashback, which seems to be director Andrea Arnold’s signature cinematographic choice this episode. Madeline just might get a bitter taste of her own medicine.
That’s not all, in the way of last-minute plot twists. As Bonnie loiters outside the police station again, ostensibly contemplating turning herself in, she comes face-to-face with none other than sweet golden boy, Corey (Douglas Smith), shadily exiting the station. Et tu, Corey? With the quirky sartorial choices and fun facts about marine life? If Corey really is a police informant, it’s all the more brutal considering that Corey is Jane’s first re-entry into sexual intimacy after her traumatic rape. It would take a seriously cold (little) heart to ignore the severity of that betrayal.
With only two episodes left in the season, writer David E. Kelley and director Andrea Arnold have a relatively limited two hours or so to tie off a handful of loose ends. Though Madeline delivered a convincing speech, it seems that Ed’s vindictive infidelity might ruin any chance of salvaging the marriage. Meanwhile, Renata will learn to navigate proletariat life (put that Gucci fanny-pack collection up for sale) and Jane will eventually learn about Corey’s suspicious extracurriculars. Bonnie’s vision of drowning might transition from psychological to real. It would be a convenient, if predictable, finale if Celeste’s custody case manifested in an explosive final courtroom trial, during which everything came to a head. Whether truth will out is anyone’s guess.
— Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com.