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Big Little Lies episode 4, “Push Comes to Shove”: everyone on the show needs some therapy

The fourth episode of the series really gets into the heads of everyone in Monterey.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Spoiler alert: This article discusses the plot and happenings in the fourth episode of Big Little Lies.

Last week’s episode of Big Little Lies, “Living the Dream,” felt like a break from the homicide looming over Monterey — it even included a day trip to Disney on Ice. This week’s episode, “Push Comes to Shove,” feels like someone grabbing the steering wheel and getting us back on track.

It’s a bit jarring.

The show tilts into full melodrama as we find out about Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) affair with Joseph Bachman (Santiago Cabrera), the man running the Monterey theater. It’s sudsy, and her extramarital transgression is flanked by her husband Ed’s (Adam Scott) constant leering at other women.

The episode is a bit more serious for Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley). Celeste helps Madeline get her production of Avenue Q approved by the mayor’s office. But Celeste going back to work isn’t smiled upon by her husband, who’s now more of a serial abuser than loving companion. And Jane has to protect Ziggy (Iain Armitage) again, as he’s blamed for bullying he didn’t commit.

What I particularly enjoyed about the episode is how the show really delved into the psychology of these characters, and exposed what really makes them tick.

We find out why Perry physically abuses Celeste

The most captivating line in “Push Comes to Shove” is spoken when Celeste bluntly asks Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), “Are you going to hit me now?”

It’s a terrifying, frigid scene that gets at the heart of Celeste and Perry’s relationship: She doesn’t seem to fully understand why he hits her or what spurs his anger (she’s given murky answers all season). Celeste asking the question point blank (I consider this episode to be the official start of Nicole Kidman’s inevitable Emmy campaign) is so shocking compared to the scary, physical violence that’s inflicted upon her.

But we get an oblique answer to why Perry hits Celeste later in the episode, when she represents Madeline and Avenue Q at the mayor’s meeting. He gets mad when she acts independently and makes decisions without relying on or consulting him. Hence, his sudden desire to have another baby with her, which would make it more difficult for her to work. Perry’s abuse is not a matter of sex (as we were initially told) or anger (which we’ve witnessed from time to time), but of Celeste’s independence.

Big Little Lies’ framing of the men in Jane’s life is very telling

One of the things I enjoy about director Jean-Marc Vallée’s work on Big Little Lies is how he frames and structures his shots to hint at his characters’ interior lives. In “Push Comes to Shove,” this approach especially applies to Jane.

For the past four episodes, Jane has been rehashing her memories to cobble together anything discernible about her rapist. We always see him from behind, because she’s always a few paces behind him. One of the only things we know is that he wears nice dress shoes.

Jane tells Madeline that since talking to Madeline about her rape, she has a new appreciation for men. She points out a man across the restaurant and talks about how attracted she is to him.

When the camera catches up to the man Jane is talking about, we don’t see his face. It signals that we’re seeing him through Jane’s point of view. And like her rapist, we only see him from the back.

This framing reveals that Jane still feels hesitant around men, even though she tells Madeline that she generally feels comfortable around them. And if you look back at Big Little Lies’ previous episodes, you’ll see that the only adult man whose face we see from Jane’s point of view is that of Tom’s (Joseph Cross), someone she feels completely safe with.

Celeste’s therapy session shows that her act won't work with everyone

“Push Comes to Shove” includes two therapy scenes that work in harmony. We find out that Amabella (Ivy George) is still being hurt at school, and Ziggy’s teacher — who might be the least observant first-grade teacher in history — assumes it’s Ziggy. She advises Jane to take Ziggy to a child psychologist, who very quickly determines, after only one session with her new patient, that Ziggy isn’t a bully.

Ziggy’s experience contrasts the episode’s other therapy session, a solo encounter between Celeste and Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert). It’s a beautifully acted, painful scene. Reisman prods Celeste and tries to get her to admit that she’s being abused, while Celeste evades and deflects.

Up until this point, Celeste and Perry have been skirting around Reisman’s questions. First they told her they get angry. Then they reveal that they get violent, but fudge on just how violent. In Celeste’s one-on-one session with the doctor, Celeste is very adamant that she’s not afraid of telling Perry she wants to go back to work. But none of this is getting past Reisman, who clearly doesn't believe her.

If bullying is something Ziggy’s therapist could figure out in one session, it’s possible that Perry’s abuse of Celeste has been obvious to Reisman since the couple first started coming to see her. It made me want to go back and rewatch previous episodes of Big Little Lies to see how masterfully Reisman might be pulling her patients’ strings. The scene between Reisman and Celeste not only illustrates Celeste’s reluctance to admit the truth, but also that there’s help right there — hopefully, for Celeste, it’s not too late.