Some names don't belong on the family tree
Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Ooh, it’s getting real in Monterey, and not even your favorite Disney characters are safe. It’s the third episode of Big Little Lies, titled “Living the Dream,” and those perfect little lives are unraveling, and quickly. Let’s go character by character to break down this episode. And we’ll start with Jane.

Shailene Woodley’s Jane has been hiding a lot. We’ve gathered glimpses of her backstory through flashbacks, and we understand the toll they’ve taken on her. It’s still not clear why she fled to Monterey with a 6-year-old, running to a new town with no support system, no friends. But at least now we understand what she was running away from — a brutal rape where she thought her assailant was going to kill her.

But let’s back up a bit.

Jane’s moments of joy with her son are overshadowed by the memories she’s trying to outrun. She stares off into the ocean, forgetting that it’s time for dinner. She spends a day with friends at Disney on Ice, only to completely freak out when she realizes she’s left the sacred class hippo somewhere along the journey (“Why does this f—in’ shit keep happening to me?” she screams in front of Ziggy and Chloe), and then, when she’s celebrating Ziggy’s first T-ball home run, his reminder that his family tree is due in class the next day forces yet another awkward conversation with her son: He wants his father’s name on the tree, and she sends him to his room.

Iain Armitage, the kid who plays Ziggy, is a great little actor, adding some depth to his relationship with his complicated mother. His outburst, in front of Madeline, finally allows Jane to tell her story — for the first time! We learn it was date rape, we learn she feared for her life, and now we understand that when that shade comes up at the beginning of each episode, it’s Jane flashing back on that fateful night in the hotel room. We also learn her rapist’s name: Saxon Banks. Though there is no trace of him on Google, be sure we will learn his identity. Woodley is terrific in this part. The pain feels real, and her commitment to creating a good life for Ziggy, as difficult as it may be, feels genuine. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, the king of the flashbacks, does a great job getting inside her head, like the moment she thinks someone’s breaking into her modest apartment and she’s killing her assailant. The damage all feels so real.

Meanwhile, while investigators are still trying to put together the pieces of the Otter Bay Elementary School murder — poor victim experienced a lot of broken bones — Celeste and Perry’s fraught relationship is coming to a head. Perry, back in town and trying to have a peaceful glass of wine by the fire with his wife, turns on her once he learns he wasn’t invited to attend Disney on Ice with his family.

Really Perry, you love Elsa that much?

He grabs Celeste by the throat, and from the petrified look in her eyes, you know what he’s doing isn’t only leaving physical bruises. Once he backs off, she screams at him: “I will leave you. You touch me like that again and I will fucking leave you.” It’s the one thing he can’t hear. For embroiled in all his rage, we learn from their appointment with the shrink that his base fear that she will do exactly that — leave him. He’s always felt she was too good for him, and even though she’s given up her career, her friends, and her family to move to Monterey with Perry, it’s not enough for him. He’s twisted, and despite the extravagant diamond necklace and his obvious sexual prowess, it’s doubtful the relationship can sustain itself.

The final scene between the two, Kidman’s Celese in a puritan-style skirt and top, dancing with Skarsgard’s Perry to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” feels so fraught. Yes, the two of them love each other, but unless there’s some serious change happening — and let’s be real, who really changes — can they really stick it out together?

NEXT: Madeline’s eldest daughter makes a big decision

Now let’s move on to Madeline. Reese Witherspoon has traded in the two-dimensional professional mother number for a fully fleshed-out woman trying to figure out her place in the world while those around her continue to evolve. Yes, she’s still a bitch, but now she’s a complex, interesting bitch, and I kind of love her.

How she holds it together when Renata calls her to threaten her after she won’t back down and cancel their Frozen-on-Ice jaunt to San Jose. How the one thing she has just for herself, her production of Avenue Q, seems to be imploding because of her vendetta with Renata, and she admits how much she needs this one thing. And then, how she turns on the guidance counselor who has inserted herself into her complex relationship with her teenage daughter Abigail. For a woman who’s dedicated her life to raising her children, only to have her teenage daughter say she wants to move out because she feels too much pressure living at home, that’s got to be crushing. Witherspoon’s face says it all. I appreciated how the production didn’t turn it into a hysterical moment for the character, but one she takes somewhat in stride.

Yes, she pulls over on the side of the road to cry when it all gets too much. But then she moves on. I found one of the most poignant moments to be when she sits on her daughter’s bed in the empty room, starring at the empty closet. This isn’t a moment of pride, as if the drawers were empty because she successfully launched her kid into the world and she was leaving for college, but rather a moment of quiet agony. Her kid doesn’t think she needs her anymore and has made the choice to live with her ex-husband, the guy who wasn’t around when she toiled through the early years alone, and she still hasn’t recovered from that.

I love when she turns to her husband Ed (Adam Scott), definitely the best dad of the show, and says, “She wouldn’t leave if she knew I had cancer.” “But you don’t have cancer,” he says. “I would be willing to get it.” Hah!

So let’s go to one the part of this episode that didn’t really make sense to me: Renata Klein. First, I find it hilarious that Renata (Laura Dern) and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) are arch rivals, especially since the last time we saw them both together they played mother and daughter. Amazing. And also absurd since they are nine years apart.

Despite Vallée and Co. correcting that error, I’m having trouble understanding Renata’s character. She’s both absurdly broad and quietly relatable. When they flash to her daughter’s birthday party and she’s dancing with Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie, I understand her. I even understand her hyper-attention to her only daughter. That makes sense to me. But then her sex scene with her doofus husband Gordon seems completely out of the blue and totally undermines her role as this high-powered corporate women. There are moments when I love her — when, for example, she is telling said doofus husband, “Don’t honey me” — and it’s fine for her to want spontaneous sex in her office bathroom, but the noise? Come on, that would never happen to a woman who’s made it that far in her career. It would diminish everything she’s taken so long to earn. She would never be so reckless.

If we could make Dern’s character as real as Witherspoon’s, this miniseries will feel fully realized. I have faith we can get there.

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