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‘Big Little Lies’ Recap: The Great Pretenders

Renata and Gordon give themselves a send-off from the good life, while Celeste and Mary Louise go to war

Meryl Streep as Mary Louise in "She Knows," this week's episode of 'Big Little Lies.'

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

A review of “She Knows,” this week’s Big Little Lies, coming up just as soon as I tell you to stop talking…

The centerpiece event of “She Knows” is the disco-themed birthday bash that Renata and Gordon throw for Amabella. The party occurs only hours after their appearance in bankruptcy court. Both parents understand that this is basically the finish line for their days as rich people, and they throw everything they can into the bash — including hiring Earl Young from The Trammps to help perform his iconic “Disco Inferno.” (Gordon also busts out a replica of John Travolta’s white suit from Saturday Night Fever, which seems like the sort of thing he’s been waiting his whole life for an excuse to wear in public.) Their finances are about to burn, baby, burn, and Renata understandably can’t forgive her husband for it. This ridiculous, expensive party is a fantasy that every adult in attendance can see through, but they go along because that’s how they do in Monterey — and because they know how precarious and illusory their own lives are at any given moment.

Things are hottest between Celeste and Mary Louise, whose intrusiveness turns into legal gamesmanship when she attempts — with the help of top family law expert Ira Farber, played by the great Denis O’Hare(*) — to sue her son’s wife for custody of the twins. This development has clearly been coming for a while. Celeste’s cathartic slap across her mother-in-law’s face — after Mary Louise not only dismissed the idea that Perry raped Jane, but began blaming Celeste for leaving him unsatisfied enough to seek gratification elsewhere — only hastens the ugliness. As Dr. Reisman notes, nobody wins in these kinds of disputes. Celeste’s retort — “I will fucking win” — is what she needs to believe, but it seems as much a bit of willful self-denial as Renata and Gordon throwing that party. Mary Louise is just awful, but Celeste is also spiraling at the moment, blacking out on Ambien and having sex with Joe the bartender, then forgetting he’s there (and shirtless) when Mary Louise brings the boys home.

(*) Farber’s recommended maneuver — that Mary Louise have consultations with every other big lawyer in the area so they’ll be conflicted out of representing Celeste — is a familiar one for HBO 9 p.m. drama: Tony Soprano was advised to do the same when he and Carmela were trying to divorce. At least Celeste won’t have Carmela’s other problem: lawyers being afraid for their lives of going against her opponent.

The acting duel between Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep is the major new element of Season Two, and also the primary justification for the existence of these new episodes. Both have been fantastic — together or apart, like the volumes Kidman’s face speaks when Jane asks if Perry ever raped Celeste, because the question has no easy answer for her — and are doing wonders to cover for some sleepier material elsewhere.

Jane’s tentative romance with Corey is playing out in effectively small increments, here with him reacting with kindness when she tells him about the rape. And there’s enough nuance in Madeline‘s failed attempts to thaw the ice with Ed that it’s entertaining just to watch Witherspoon and Scott work. The Bonnie corner of the series is just a drag, though. Her mother Elizabeth suffers a stroke at the end of Amabella’s party, and Bonnie’s out-of-proportion response to seeing Detective Quinlan at the hospital seems to rekindle local law enforcement’s interest in the Monterey Five. But the season seems to have no idea what to do with Bonnie besides showing her isolated and wracked with guilt over Perry’s death. The energy level drops precipitously whenever she or most of her family are the focus. (Nathan has stayed afloat because his juvenile rivalry with Ed remains so amusing.)

“She Knows” marks the midway point of another seven-episode season. More is working than isn’t, but there’s also a degree to which the season itself is just as much an illusion as that birthday party — fun in the moment, but perhaps not the best use of available resources.

 

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