On this week’s episode of Big Little Lies, titled “Tell-Tale Hearts,” the waves crashing against the coast of Central California can’t really compete with an absolute tsunami of tears. Our Misery Index—in which we rank the residents of Monterey from least to most tragic every week—was rife with stiff competition. As Gordon Klein might wonder, what becomes of the brokenhearted? And yet it was still one of the funniest episodes of the show ever. What a marvel of a television program! Let’s take a big gulp of red wine and dive in.
Corey, Jane’s hot co-worker at the aquarium—which really is incredible, this recapper highly recommends a visit—munches on a sustainable seaweed salad and asks her out for a “practice date.” Jane thinks he’s weird, but his technique is solid. “You’re really tolerant,” he tells her. “And you’re friendly. And you’re really pretty, you look good in waders.” Romance is in the salt-scented air.
But later on things take a turn, and Shailene Woodley is handed the most gut-wrenching scene of the episode. Thanks to Madeline’s almost willful carelessness, her daughter Chloe has informed Jane’s son, Ziggy, that his missing father is actually Perry Wright. When Jane finds out her face instantly falls, breath caught in her throat. She goes to Ziggy’s room to speak with him as she holds back tears and turns her head away, barely able to look at her child. It turns out that he’s known the truth of his parentage for weeks and kept it from his mother, figuring she’d just lie to him about it. Chloe told him Jane was “salted,” and he asks what the word means. The most heartbreaking detail: he refers to his father as “Mr. Wright.”
Children on Big Little Lies are often used as obvious expository devices (kids are perceptive, but they’re not mind readers). But this scene between Jane and Young Sheldon is incredible. Iain Armitage is very, very talented; Ziggy feels like a real kid, not a vehicle for overly sophisticated soundtrack selections. As he lies against his mother’s chest, contemplating the ugly truth of his conception, your heart cracks open. Happy Father’s Day?
The whole thing is agonizing. But Jane wins Least Miserable for the second week running because she is finally, finally free of a lie that she’s been telling throughout the entirety of her adult life. She tells Celeste that she just couldn’t keep the truth from Ziggy any longer. A giant squid-sized weight has been lifted.
Mary Louise Wright
When Madeline drops Celeste off at home, fresh from an Ambien-fueled car accident, she and Mary Louise argue once again. Mary Louise brings her cross necklace up to her chin and strokes it, like she’s warding off the devil. “On your awesome days, I suspect you are a godsend,” she says. “But on your bad days, decidedly less so.”
This woman is really stressing me out. Mary Louise gets more suspicious about Perry’s death with each passing week, eyeing Celeste’s every move. She offers to rent her own apartment in Monterey so that she can continue to help with the boys without being in the way, saying, “I want to be here when you need and not when you don’t.” It’s a seemingly kind gesture that, coming from Meryl Streep's mouth, sounds like foreshadowing of a custody battle.
Max and Josh tell their grandmother that they have a brother, and so Celeste is forced to tell Mary Louise about the rape. Big Little Lies doesn’t pull any punches here, taking a far more realistic tack than a standard progressive line. Of course Mary Louise, a conservative lady in her sixties, doesn’t automatically reach for a feminist analysis of her precious son’s behavior. She refuses to believe that Perry could have possibly assaulted Jane; Celeste has to say “rape” twice for emphasis. Mary Louise suggests Jane could have had multiple partners, made the whole thing up, gotten it wrong. When Celeste reveals that Perry abused her, Mary Louise is agog that she didn’t go to the police.
“You were planning to leave him, the very night he died,” she says. “You left that out. You learned of his infidelity just 10 seconds before he went falling down a flight of stairs to his death.”
Her gears are positively whirring. It is not great.
Renata and her husband, Gordon, last seen impotently playing with a model train set, leave a yoga class, and he promptly gets arrested by the FBI for securities fraud (Detective Quinlan watches from a nearby car). Renata shrieks and an agent tells her to relax, a rather fruitless exercise. And so begins a series of Laura Dern’s consistently meme-able moments. She keeps setting off the security scanner at jail, and responds by groaning and making rubber band grimaces. And then when Gordon reveals that he has lost all of Renata’s considerable fortune in an idiotic stock-shorting scheme, she gets her big GIF of the week: “I will not, not be rich,” she says, jabbing the glass between her and her husband after every word.
In court, Renata imagines that everyone is laughing at her, howling at her misfortune. Growing up, her family was broke, and the loss of status enrages her. When driving Gordon home after he makes bail, she snaps, turning off the radio in the middle of the titular Jimmy Ruffin classic. “You used to like that song,” Gordon says.
“I used to like to sit on your face, too,” she replies. “You think that’ll happen again?” Another meme is born. An anthem for us all. And then she kicks him out of the car. She shrieks at oncoming honking vehicles, yelling to “give a woman a moment!” It’s all quite amusing. But BLL still takes Renata’s pain seriously—in her final shot of the episode she cuddles her daughter, squeezing her eyes tight enough to shut out the world.
Celeste kicks off the episode by crashing her car, zonked out on sleeping pills. But the accident is really the least of her trials. In therapy, she confesses to only wanting Perry; she has no interest in dating again. Her therapist tells her to remember a time that Perry abused her, and to then imagine Madeline in her place. Celeste closes her eyes and screams.
Over at Otter Bay Elementary, the second grade teacher tells the kids that they can talk to him about anything. And so Josh asks if he can talk about his dead father. Eek. During the car ride home, Celeste suggests that the boys should talk to her about their grief instead of their teacher. “Families should be open and honest with each other,” she says.
“I don’t think we’re that kind of family,” says Max. Spot the lie.
At home, things just get worse. Max and Josh fight on the deck; when Celeste goes to break it up, Max grabs her wrist and tells her to “fuck off.” Celeste throws her son. “No!” she bellows. “You will not be like him.” The idea that her sons could be like Perry is worse than any of her nightmares.
When Madeline calls to tell her that the boys know Ziggy is their brother, Celeste has to come clean. The boys ask if their daddy was a bad person. “He could be weak, like we all can, and he could make mistakes,” she says. “But your daddy was a beautiful, wonderful man.”
The beautiful part is incontestable. “Wonderful," less so.
It’s all pretty miserable. But the episode ends on a helpful note for Celeste and her sons. They walk into Jane’s apartment, shyly smiling and waving at Ziggy. It’s a family brought together by violence, but they’re going to try to love each other just the same.
Chloe Mackenzie overheard Madeline talking on the phone, and so she told Max, Josh, and Ziggy closely guarded secrets about their lives. It is insane! And Madeline had failed to tell Ed any of it. When he finds out that Perry is Ziggy’s father, he’s crushed that his wife has kept this information from him, and that she was foolish enough as to let their daughter find out. “Are we people who keep secrets from each other?” he asks Madeline. “Is that our thing now?”
Madeline always kept secrets from Ed. But he doesn’t know that, until he overhears her chatting with her even worse child in the kitchen. “You were fucking the theater director last year,” Abigail tosses off to her mother. Enter Ed. Brutal.
Madeline weakly tries to justify things to her husband, suggesting he “misheard.” Ed may have overlooked some of his wife’s more annoying qualities, but he’s not stupid. He is devastated that she kept this a secret for a year, that she didn’t trust him enough to tell him about Perry, and that Abigail, who he raised as his own, knew of this humiliation before he did. “You asked me what I’m thinking,” he says to Madeline. “I’ll tell you. I think we’re done.”
Bonnie wins again! In her first shot of the episode, Celeste and Madeline spot her forlornly walking by the highway, clad in a very 2007 Sienna Miller–esque long boho cardigan. She claims to be hiking. Madeline asks if she’s on drugs. “Are you on drugs?” Bonnie yells. “I’m just walking! Can I not walk?”
After enduring some extremely on-the-nose dialogue from her daughter, Sky, who is worried that her parents are getting divorced (“Who are you mad at?”), Bonnie faces yet another trial: an unexpected visit from her mother, Elizabeth, whom Nathan has summoned to Monterey. Bonnie is not pleased, and asks her husband why he couldn’t bother to just try and talk to her. When Elizabeth reaches out to comfort her daughter, Bonnie jolts, as if her mom's touch burns.
Bonnie and her mother walk through the woods, Elizabeth opining on the wonders of nature. “Tell me what’s going on, Bonnie,” Elizabeth begs. “Nathan is a complete dolt. When it comes to emotional, social intelligence, he’s as dumb as a rock. But I often wonder if that’s why you married him. You are out here surrounded by people who don’t even look like you. They don’t look like you. I haven’t seen one other black person since I’ve been out here. Is that why you’re here? Because we all know how fond you are of your walls.”
It’s a good speech, though they’re really dragging out Bonnie’s backstory. But it is nice to see BLL finally point out the obvious: that Bonnie is a black woman surrounded by a sea of white people who lack the ability to relate to her.
At a family dinner, things just get worse. “I’m here because you are ill-equipped to connect with your wife,” Elizabeth rightly tells Nathan. But Bonnie jabs at her mother, implying that she’s an alcoholic. She flees the table, and Elizabeth states the obvious: that Bonnie clearly has PTSD from Trivia Night.
Elizabeth leaves a crystal, a wishbone, and a feather on Bonnie’s bedside table as she sleeps. But the next day, Bonnie returns them. She doesn’t want “that shit” in her family’s life. But Elizabeth says she’s been having visions, images of drowning bodies. “I see you drowning right now, in a way,” she says. “What have you done this time?”
Honorable mention: Alexander Skarsgård’s insane back tattoo.
In a flashback, Celeste sees herself having sex with Perry in his car, and thus we learn that apparently the man had a truly heinous back tattoo. It’s massive! Is this Alexander Skarsgård, or some kind of sex double? A cursory Google search for “Alexander Skarsgård back tattoo” reveals ink on his leg (drawn by Margot Robbie!), but nothing on his back. What is this mystery?