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Big Little Lies episode 6, “The Bad Mother,” tries to show why women don’t report abuse

Celeste’s courtroom interrogation is ghoulish. That’s the point.

Celeste in Big Little Lies episode six.
Jennifer Clasen/HBO
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.

It’s been difficult to say what the focus of this season of Big Little Lies has been. A lot has happened — a stroke, a proposed revenge threesome on Madeline, Renata’s bankruptcy, Jane’s issues recovering from Perry, Amabella’s panic attack, Celeste slapping Mary Louise — but everything has felt rather redundant, even inconsequential, when compared to the mystery death of last year.

By accumulating a larger mass of drama, season two has found itself with more detritus, and it’s led the show to lean into its soapier, more satirical side. And that doesn’t always work as well as that propulsive central mystery did in season one, when the show was still a miniseries.

It’s hard to be devastated by Renata’s bankruptcy and her cheating husband when the story is mostly told through moments where she’s spouting off instantly memorable lines like, “I will not not be rich,” or stuffing her husband’s mouth full of paper so that he can’t speak. The same goes for Madeline’s relationship with her kids and her husband Ed, when her daughter Chloe is painting a portrait of her as “unhinged.” Even the moment when Celeste slapped Mary Louise verged on sudsy, with Mary Louise retorting that it was Celeste’s idea of “foreplay.”

That changes in “The Bad Mother,” the sixth and penultimate episode of the season. The individual plot lines careen into the custody battle between Celeste and Mary Louise, shifting the show into a courtroom drama — an ugly, painful showdown between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law.

And it’s with this shift that the show begins to unfurl, revealing a clear and poignant assertion: that with all the melodrama stripped away, Big Little Lies is really about how society doesn’t trust women.

Mary Louise’s lawyer is absolutely nasty, for a reason: to make a point about how society treats victims of abuse

This episode’s most heartbreaking and frustrating moments involve Celeste, who is unable to defend herself against a barrage of attacks from Mary Louise’s lawyer. Celeste’s lawyer Kelly warns her that Mary Louise will try to make Celeste seem like an unstable and bad mother who is a danger to her kids. And headed into the episode, we knew the moments — her car accident, her drunken one-night stand, her Ambien use — that would probably be brought up.

Those instances were just the tip of the iceberg, though. It turns out that Mary Louise has hired someone to spy on Celeste, tracking and photographing her every move. That shocking one-night stand Celeste had wasn’t a rare out-of-character moment — it’s actually become a pattern of behavior.

When she’s called out on this, Celeste stammers as she tries to remember how she met these men, or their full names — or if they even gave them to her. She reluctantly admits that she also had sex in public places, and that some of the encounters got physically aggressive.

As Mary Louise’s lawyer Ira senses Celeste’s vulnerability, any sympathy he may have had drains away. Instead, he gets wicked.

Ira paints these encounters as evidence of Celeste’s unfit parenting. In court, he humiliates Celeste with a slideshow of men she’s slept with. Then, as she tries to explain that her having sex has no bearing on her ability to parent, he flips it and asks her if her children had ever met these men.

Ira also gaslights Celeste into seemingly admitting that Perry’s abuse went both ways and that she inflicted violence upon him too — which is incongruent with what viewers saw in the first season, where it was clear that Perry was the aggressor while Celeste fought back in self-defense. Ira asks if Celeste ever called the police, and then he gets really nasty, connecting Perry’s abuse to the sex they had, and suggesting that Celeste may actually be a masochist who asked to get beat up.

His strategy is simple. He wants to portray Celeste as a sexual thrill-seeker, someone who craved physical violence as a turn-on.

Celeste’s time on the stand is meant to shock, and it comes across as so out-of-bounds ghoulish in order to make a bigger point: that victims like Celeste, and particularly women, don’t come forward because society (as represented by Ira) will make them relive their abuse, constantly doubt them, paint them as liars, and make them feel like what happened to them is their fault. For viewers who saw Celeste’s abuse firsthand in the first season, watching her suffer through these horrible paces again feels frustratingly hopeless.

It’s hard not to see the reflection of the #MeToo movement and those women’s and men’s stories — like Christine Blasey Ford’s widely televised hearing about her claim that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her — crystallized within Celeste in this episode. It also seems to explain why none of the women making up the Monterey Five claimed self-defense after Bonnie pushed Perry. After all, who would have believed them?

In Big Little Lies, justice bends away from its women.

Yet the episode ends with a glimmer of hope. Celeste, who is a lawyer herself and has a consort of powerful friends and money, finds the resolve to challenge Mary Louise. It seems as though we might get a happy ending — and find a skeleton or three falling out of Mary Louise’s closet.

If that happens, it would feel a little bit too tidy and lucky. And perhaps that’s Big Little Lies’ sneakiest, most underlying point: that being a rich, powerful white female lawyer with the truth on her side can somehow achieve justice, but even then, it’s a miracle.