Jane and Celeste confront the abuses they've suffered in the past and the present
Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

The screaming guitar that fills so many musical moments of this episode of Big Little Lies, titled “Once Bitten,” couldn’t be more apt. Our three main characters are in pain, either from tackling their demons or seeing their demons coming back to haunt them. Their small lives in Monterey are filled with big stakes: healing yourself so you can care properly for your child, in the case of Jane; trying to save your own life for the sake of your children, as it goes for Celeste; or fearing that a moment of weakness, a moment of staving off your self-induced monotony, could wreck the life you spent so long trying to build, as is the case for Madeline.

Let’s begin our week’s recap with Madeline:

She’s startled awake by a dream that has Renata and Avenue Q puppets pushing her over a cliff. In reality, Renata won’t be Madeline’s downfall, but the puppet master may be. It was really not a good idea for Madeline to make out with Joseph again. We learn quickly that last episode’s moment of weakness wasn’t a one-time thing but an actual rekindling of an old affair that Joseph now wants to make into a real thing.

After her morning drop-off, Madeline meets up with Jane at the local coffee shop, Blue Blues. Jane has just been at the shooting range, where she ran into Nathan. And while Jane espouses the virtues of owning a gun, Madeline condemns them. It’s an interesting moment with Jane, a victim of abuse, saying just the act of holding a gun in her hand helps diminish the effects of emotional trauma, while Madeline condemns it. Though she will admit, as yet another bitchy, gossipy mother enters the coffee shop, “I should get a gun. There is more than one person in this town I’d like to shoot.”

Madeline’s continued quest for perfection extends to her home life, where, after being prompted by Celeste’s provocative texts, she tries to improve her own bland sex life. The ill-timed moment is punctuated perfectly by Ed’s declaration: “Ooh honey do not use that downstairs bathroom. Jesus.” And there you have it. Years of marriage summed up in one comment. Ah, marital bliss!

But being married to someone for a while does give you insight into their moods. And Ed realizes quickly that something’s off with Madeline. She chalks up her strange behavior to being distracted by Jane’s new plan to go with Celeste and Madeline to meet Mr. Saxon Baker, an interior designer living in San Luis Obispo who just might be Jane’s assailant. Ed points out what a terrible idea this group ambush is and agrees to go with them.

That’s nothing compared to the problems Madeline is about to be faced with when Joseph shows up at the coffee shop to declare his love for her. She agrees to go talk to him in his car. He’s pissed that she won’t give the two of them more of a chance, that she won’t blow up her life to be with him when he’s willing to blow up his. The scene is contentious, and both are upset, when a teenager side swipes them while texting. The accident puts Joseph in a neck brace and on a gurney while Madeline is going to have to explain why the hell she was in Joseph’s car. Ed must know the truth at this point, but he really wants to believe her when she says she was just confronting the nervous director ahead of his show. Ed’s back to being a good guy, supporting his wife, running to her side, and what is she doing in return? She’s trying to end this drama with Joseph before the entire thing goes awry.

When Madeline returns to the hospital to explain herself to Joseph, the images of the accident and their previous sexual escapades all come flooding back. But this is a woman who fought back from single motherhood to create a new life for herself with Steady Eddie. Sure, he likes to dress up in weird costumes and he’s still sporting that silly beard, but he loves her and she doesn’t want her affair to destroy all that. She stands at the foot of Joseph’s bed trying to explain this to him, that she’s now afraid he’s going to ruin everything. She agrees to leave the play she’s worked so hard to get produced. And then his wife Tori shows up. And she’s definitely on to them. Madeline runs to her car to cry, and the screaming guitar of Janis Joplin’s “Ball and Chain” perfectly amplify Madeline’s conflict.

Yet Joplin’s screams are nothing compared to Jane’s. The woman’s on a mission from the word go in this episode. She’s clearly tired of feeling like a victim. She’s shooting that gun at the range. She’s making plans to meet her rapist. She’s out to make herself whole again. And then Renata stymies those plans when she finds a bite mark on Amabella’s shoulder, assuming naturally that Ziggy is still bullying her daughter. Of course, this prompts a call to the school, a rashly put together meeting, and Renata begging Jane to “stop abusing my girl.”

All Jane can do is hand Renata a tissue.

Jane later admits that she hoped Ziggy coming into her life would dispel the painful memories of his conception. But it hasn’t, and she realizes that she’s never going to feel like herself again until she confronts the man who abused her. The Janis Joplin guitar screams again, she grabs her keys and her gun, and she jets out of the house.

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After Madeline agrees to pick up Ziggy, Jane pulls out a joint, blasts The Misfits’ “Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?” and speeds down to San Luis Obispo. Is payback in her future? What will go wrong?

Of course, he is Saxon Baker, but is he “Saxon Banks”? Upon close examination, including actually getting close enough to sniff him, Jane runs out of the interior designer’s office. The guitar screams again, and we’re left not knowing whether or not he’s the right guy.

And her pain, while severe, is nothing compared to what Celeste experiences this episode.

Her arc starts with some high-intensity sex on the kitchen counter. Perry rips at her clothing, throws her on the counter top, but nothing about it is sexy, especially since you can still see her bruises from their previous encounters. She’s even given a nice reprieve at the breakfast table, where she can count on Perry to keep her children in line, to roughhouse with them and to play the role of engaged father. I don’t know about you all, but I now find Skarsgard’s “monster” routine with the boys completely repulsive. I know that’s the point, but it’s still hard to watch.

And then, as we all know, the moment of bliss is upended when Perry comes home, finds toys all around the house, and starts raging again. Thankfully director Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t show us the scene as it’s happening but flashes to it throughout the episode, most profoundly when Celeste goes to visit her therapist on her own.

After carefully concealing her newest injuries, she walks into the office, looking innocently for some strategies to deal with the violence.

But we all know that’s not really why she’s there, and that’s when things get real.

The probing questions the therapist asks juxtaposed with Celeste’s horrible memories of his latest attack is a profound distillation of abuse — the scene plays out in a way that shows both the crime and the rationalization. We watch as it’s all peeled away.

Has he left a mark? Are you physically afraid of him? Does he know you’re here? Are you ever afraid you might die? Are there weapons in the house? How does the abuse impact your sons? These are the questions Celeste is forced to answer.

Even in the retelling of these scenes, I find them all so overwhelmingly emotional. You watch Nicole Kidman as Celeste fall apart in front of you, where the rationalizations are no longer working. Where the therapist makes her see that her life and the life of her boys are in jeopardy.

And then just as you’re expecting this scene to prompt some real change, Celeste picks up her boys and drives straight to the airport to pick up Perry — hoping one more time that he will change his behavior. Perry cries into her shoulder, and we watch the cycle of abuse start another go around. So much for a resolution.

This show may be about a murder in an elitist neighborhood, but its examination of women, motherhood, abuse, and love is scintillating. The actresses portraying these compelling, complicated women are terrific, and they illustrate the value of examining women at this age more closely. And why not? We are fascinating. We are complicated. We are successful. We are filled with doubt. We are ambitious. We are shameful. We are bitter. We are insecure.

Life is a process and rarely does growth stop when marriage and children begin. It really just gets more interesting. I thank HBO, writer David E. Kelley, director Jean-Marc Vallée, and this cast for filling these characters with such humanity.

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Big Little Lies
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