Sex is not easily defined in the world of Big Little Lies. At times, it is titillating and gossip-worthy, à la HBO's Sex and the City. At times it is violent, as it is too often on Game of Thrones. For other characters, it's a meaningful attempt at connection with another human being, like the dearly departed Looking.
Big Little Lies' approach to sex is more complex than any other HBO show, and it's that three-letter word that takes center stage in the miniseries' fifth episode.
Madeline calls Celeste early in the fifth episode, receiving a text in response: "I'll call you back." When Madeline jokingly asks if her best friend is in the middle of a hot sex session, laughing as she types it, she gets back a quick response that says, "On the kitchen floor." Madeline is instantly deflated, and only gets more so when her husband, Ed, emerges from the bathroom in ill-fitting jeans and a flannel, talking about his bowel movements.
Even an attempt to spark a flame — having a quickie in their kitchen — feels awkward for Madeline and Ed, going wrong when their daughter Chloe gets back from a playdate early. Their connection is a nonstarter, despite having been married for years. As one mom in the Otter Bay Greek chorus notes, it's nearly impossible to envision them having sex. So it's understandable, if not defensible, why Madeline felt a need to kiss the Avenue Q director in the last episode. She wants to feel something, she says, even if she knows it's wrong.
That connection — including their affair a year prior — backfires on Madeline when she and the director get in a car accident together. She's unharmed, but he takes a few days to recover. Meanwhile, while Ed is deeply concerned for his wife, he also become skeptical of why the two were driving together. She comes up with an explanation, but he doesn't seem to quite believe her.
Her flirtation ultimately isn't worth the pain, but Madeline's error is pitiable. After all, hearing about her best friend's hot sex life while she and her husband share no sexual chemistry would make many people act irrationally.
Of course, Madeline doesn't know what Celeste must endure for that sex life. Celeste's husband, Perry, weaponizes his sexuality against her, using the pleasure of rough intercourse to put an ill-fitting mask on the physical and emotional abuse of his wife. Even in therapy alone, Celeste can't stop defending Perry and blaming herself for their violent connection.
Nicole Kidman does some of the best work of her career in Celeste's therapy scenes this week. She morphs from anxious to defensive to upset to hopeless, the camera rarely leaving her face. When it does, it focuses on Dr. Reisman, played with terrific steeliness by Robin Weigert. Weigert proves the perfect scene partner and opponent for Kidman, who works her way through every twist, grimace and glower in her face. The actress marries the internal work she's been doing all season with physical distortion, and it pays off in spades.
The Jane story is once again the most underwhelming, and it's unfortunately some fault of Shailene Woodley's. She's good in this, but her role is arguably even more internal than Kidman's. This week, Woodley has to sell us on the idea that, tormented by Otter Bay Elementary School's constant suspicion of her son Ziggy, Jane would go so far as to drive up to San Luis Obispo with a loaded gun to kill her assumed rapist, Saxon Baker. He's innocent, of course, and not the man who attacked her, but Jane is supposedly blinded with rage at this point.
Unfortunately, that requires a masterful balance between internal and external that Woodley doesn't deliver. She plays the emotional peaks of the character well, including a great primal scream and a thrust of her phone off a cliff. It's the quieter moments when Woodley's performance goes almost blank.
One scene involves Jane manipulating Madeline over the phone into picking Ziggy up from school, distracting Madeline from her concern for Jane by giving her friend buttery compliments ("You're totally my masterpiece," she says too sweetly). It's a mind game, and perhaps acting opposite Reese Witherspoon in person, it could have worked. The two have shared great scenes in the past. But Woodley doesn't play the scene with any hint that Jane is merely performing for her friend, which drains the moment of significance.
Again, Woodley is solid, but she's going up against two other actresses at the top of their game — not to mention Laura Dern as Renata, who is at her most fiery in this episode. Additionally, Jane's story feels the most disconnected from the overarching theme of sex in this particular episode. Renata's story is relatively spare, but it's at least related to the theme. She learns that her daughter has been bitten by someone in her class, and flies off the handle. She blames her husband for not listening to her concerns two episodes prior and seducing her in his office instead.
For Celeste, sex is violent. For Madeline, sex is a desire to connect. For Renata, sex is the problem. But for Jane, a violent sexual assault haunts her every move. The execution of these stories might vary, but the central thread that connects them all is remarkably strong.
A few random thoughts about the episode that have nothing to do with sex:
• The use of music in this show is so inspired. Vulture has a great interview with the show's music supervisor that explains a lot of the process. Consider how often these characters listen to the same songs: Madeline with Alabama Shakes' "This Feeling" this and last episode; Jane with Martha Wainwright's "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" in multiple running sequences. It's a fascinating approach to music, to make it character-centric as opposed to just non-diegetic.
• Even the absence of music is funny: When Madeline is caught swearing by her daughter Chloe, she shoots back, "Why are you never playing your loud music when it's a good time?"
• Witherspoon as Madeline gets all the best lines this episode. Her response to being offered a CAT scan after her accident: "I'm not gonna expose myself to unnecessary radiation just to keep your premiums down."
• The Greek chorus of Otter Bay parents device is still working, particularly in how director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley occasionally show their cluelessness. These gossips think they know everything about everyone, but when asked if they know a "Saxon Baker," they're befuddled.
• That phone absolutely would not have been functional after Jane threw it off a cliff.
The next episode of Big Little Lies airs Sunday, March 26 at 9 p.m. Eastern.
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