Celeste searches for a way out as Madeline struggles to keep her life together
Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

It’s the penultimate episode, and “Burning Love” feels like an apt title. Jane’s quest for revenge, lit by Madeline’s suggestion they try and find Ziggy’s father, is making her mad. The sparks from Madeline’s affair are gaining power, and Celeste and Perry are, let’s face it, combusting. We are almost finished with this epic series, so let’s get to recapping.

We will start with Jane. Police lights flash in the background of the opening scene. Jane escapes her drive home from San Luis Obispo with only a bruised ego and a speeding ticket. That’s pretty lucky considering she went down there with a tin full of joints and a loaded gun. The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” will provide the majority of the soundtrack moments for this episode, and it feels like the perfect fit considering these three women are dealing with the consequences of men’s behavior in one way or another. Jane’s quest to find Ziggy’s dad is deeper than revenge. It’s her remote hope that somehow this man who provided half of her son’s DNA is not the evil person she thinks he is. That delusion is not making her every day much easier, especially as the school continues to portray Ziggy as a pariah. First she learns that stupid Harper — and yes, I will call her stupid Harper from now on — starts a petition to get Ziggy expelled from the school. But then she’s forced back into the school, where she gets into perhaps the lamest physical altercation between women I’ve ever seen.

I love this show, but come on guys. Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley deserve better than this. The two women know each other well. They already played mother and daughter in The Fault in Our Stars. So to leave them with this really lame choreography where somehow Renata gets her eye gouged out by Jane in a really bad fake punch or push or shove or whatever it was feels like a cheat. They could have done so much better. Still, the moment ends with Renata threatening to sue Jane and Jane finally confessing to Madeline that she did in fact bring a gun to her meeting with the wrong Saxon.

Jane then plays the bigger woman and goes to apologize to Renata, a moment when Renata finally feels human and not nearly as big as Dern has been playing her for the entirety of the series. Dern shows her humanity as a frustrated and futile mother with a daughter who keeps getting hurt and is hiding the perpetrator of the abuse. Hmm, that story line sounds familiar.

The writers also give Jane a moment to tell her son the truth — not about his father, but about the birds and the bees. Prompted by Madeline’s Avenue Q play, the first graders are curious. In this moment we see Jane’s approach to motherhood, and it’s only solidified when she gets to watch Ziggy’s final dance number when he sings “Rollin’ Stone” to his devoted audience of one. Yes, he sings with extra gusto the line, “Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth.” Sure, it’s a little on the nose, but if you were putting this series together with this kind of soundtrack and you got hold of this song, you’d be hard pressed to leave it out of a key number. With one episode left, perhaps Jane will get the opportunity to tell Ziggy the truth.

While Jane fights with little success, Celeste is really making headway in coming to some serious realizations about her husband and her marriage. Perry has to leave town again and the first thing he utters in the episode is the ironic line, “You’re gonna kill me,” because he’ll miss Madeline’s opening night. He then of course turns it on Celeste, begging her to come with him to Phoenix and miss the play so they can be together. She pushes back and you see her wrest a little bit of control away from him.

Her situation truly coalesces at the therapist’s office when she explains the power struggle in the marriage and how Celeste holds on to the power longer and with greater force the worse Perry abuses her. But, she describes, inevitably the bruises fade, he gets angry, and the violence starts again.

The therapist, played terrifically by Robin Weigert, doesn’t let her off easily. She challenges Celeste to confront how and when she is going to change her situation. She urges her to rent an apartment, stock the refrigerator, set up the beds and have an escape plane so “we can at least remove the ‘Where on God’s green earth will I go?’”

She tells her to document her injuries, tell her friends, and be aware of what’s coming because Perry is a man with a big enough ego that he will try to take custody of the children. The whole scene is an intimate look at how the details of spousal abuse play out and I’m so fascinated by how this series is being received by women who have been victims. To me, it feels like the most truthful telling of the psychology of both being in a relationship like this and what it takes to get out.

When Celeste admits to not telling anyone about what’s happened to her, admitting that “my self worth is made up of how other people see me,” you understand that for even someone with significant financial means like Celeste, admitting the truth must be terrifying.

“I’m amazed by my patients who harbor such self-awareness under the hard shell of denial,” says the therapist. She hits at the multiple layers at work here. It’s great television.

Celeste gets her moment. Perry returns early from Phoenix as her surprise plus one to the play. But then he tries to make them late. She won’t have any of it. But he’s ready to get down and dirty. I mean he’s really ready. And we get a close-up shot to prove it. (Yes, I rewound the tape to make sure they did in fact show it. You guys can thank me for taking one for the team.) Celeste insults him by suggesting he might have taken a Viagra, he pulls her hair back, and then she smacks the hell out of him with a tennis racket. It makes sense that she broke his urethra in two spots. Finally, some appropriate revenge.

Of course, when they return home from the hospital, Perry says, “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you.” And there it is. The final straw. She realizes the power exchange has not shifted and she has to escape this brutal relationship. She finds an oceanfront apartment and begins to imagine what her new life could look like.

And now we turn our attention to Madeline. I feel for Madeline. The woman is really having trouble keeping it all down. She’s got the pressure of dinner with Bonnie and Nathan weighing on her. Her marriage to Ed is being threatened by her past life coming back to haunt her. She feels like she’s driven Jane to a bad place. And her daughter is keeping secrets from her. It’s no wonder the woman wants to take the edge off with a little Xanax.

First comes the night of the play, and despite Ed’s adoration, the debut she’s worked so hard on is ruined when after the curtain call Joseph’s wife Tori (Homeland’s Sarah Sokolovic) confronts her for being the other woman. Madeline wants so badly to be perfect, and her denial to Tori illustrates how well she deflects who she really is with the image she has so carefully cultivated. The night only goes from bad to worse when news of Perry’s broken urethra prompts a discussion between Ed and Madeline that highlights just how sexless and mundane their marriage has become. It has to kill her when Ed says, “You’re a fiery person, which makes your tepidness for me more conspicuous.” You can see Madeline struggle here. She wants to tell Ed the truth, and she even tries. But he asks her to stop. Does he know? Does he not want to hear it? Are some secrets too hurtful to reveal? In the case of Madeline and Ed, they may just be.

What isn’t too big of a secret to share, though, is Abigail’s secret project. And boy is Madeline not prepared to hear this one. Her self-medicating has made her loopy for her dinner with Bonnie and Ed. She loves everything about Bonnie’s dinner, from the exotic Sade playing over the stereo (“I love this music. Is this Adele?”) to the red wine and the oysters. Yet everything feels on the edge of disaster. Thankfully, Nathan is there to drop the bomb that Abigail is in fact planning to prostitute herself on the Internet in the name of Amnesty International and sex slaves everywhere. It’s not enough for Madeline to get angry at Nathan for terrible parenting; she literally must puke out all the anger, disgust, guilt, and green food she’s been collecting for what feels like years. She pukes on the table, she pukes on the ground, she pukes on Bonnie. It’s like that awesome scene out of Stand By Me, and like that scene, I could have watched this over and over.

Of course, once she’s cleansed herself of all that haunts her, she finally levels with Abigail. And rather then lecturing her, Madeline admits her own failures to her daughter, specifically her affair. It’s a stunning moment for Abigail, who probably for the first time sees her mother has human and flawed. It’s not a big moment, but it feels real and helps the audience return to some great drama after Madeline’s epic puke-fest.

Madeline and Celeste’s story lines really carried the show this week. Jane and Renata feel less pivotal to action, as does the murder we are supposed to be following. I know I’ve said this before, but I’d be more then fine sticking with these characters without a big murder investigation framing the whole conceit. With drama this good, we barely need it.

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Big Little Lies
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