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Big Little Lies episode 2, “Serious Mothering”: what the show tells us through its driving scenes

Plus: Hippos!

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 warning: Because of the Oscars airing the same night, HBO made this episode available to watch on HBO Go and HBO Now ahead of Big Little Lies’ usual airtime of Sundays at 9 pm. Accordingly, this article contains spoilers and discusses the plot of the second episode.

“Serious Mothering,” the second episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies, makes you forget the show will involve a murder at some point. It’s a dive into the politics of parenting in Monterey, a pulpy look at how high school melodrama can carry on into adulthood. The episode really leans into its Heathers/Mean Girls nastiness.

Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Renata (Laura Dern) have the showdown that was set up in the show’s premiere: Renata’s daughter Amabella is having a birthday party but doesn’t invite Jane’s son Ziggy. Madeline (who is protective of Jane and Ziggy) plans a counterattack, an outing to Disney on Ice on the same day as Amabella’s big party.

Meanwhile, in the moments between the clashes of Monterey’s motherly titans, we witness the strangling, violent relationship that Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) call a marriage. We watch Jane (Shailene Woodley) grow distraught, distracted by her violent flashbacks. We learn that free spirit Bonnie — who’s married to Madeline’s ex-husband — helped Madeline’s daughter Abigail obtain birth control, which coaxes out an intra-family drama. And a weird kiss at school between Amabella (Ivy George) and Ziggy (Iain Armitage) brings all the parents together for one combustible confrontation.

But some of the best parts of the episode happened in smaller, quieter moments. Here are five that stuck out by showing that Big Little Lies has a lot of depth beneath its surface:

1) The look between Ziggy and Chloe

Big Little Lies’ children, though most are the same age, don’t all operate on the same level. We got a dose of Chloe’s (Darby Camp) precociousness in the first episode, and in this episode, we get a couple of glimpses of Ziggy’s sweetness. But the most intriguing moment for both characters so far happens in this episode’s classroom scene.

Their teacher introduces Harry the Hippo, the class’s mascot. It’s a stuffed animal that I guess is supposed to help ease the first-graders’ transition away from kindergarten. Each kid will get to take Harry home at some point. Some of the kids are wide-eyed, and cheer. But Ziggy and Chloe make eye contact with one another and then roll their eyes in synchronicity.

The look gives viewers the signal that their friendship is real. Madeline has encouraged Chloe to befriend Ziggy, and previously this was framed as a gesture of kindness to Jane. Chloe’s popularity, Madeline believes, will help Ziggy make friends. But the show has asserted that Chloe is wise beyond her years, and can make her own decisions — she doesn’t have to listen to her mom’s requests if she doesn’t want to. That Chloe chooses to be friends with Ziggy because she wants to be friends with Ziggy, even after Ziggy is accused of choking another classmate (the Amabella drama from the series premiere), indicates that she vouches for Ziggy.

Ziggy and Chloe’s sarcastic shared moment hints they’re too old for this nonsense. This is somewhat expected from Chloe, since the show paints her as aggressively precocious. But with Ziggy, there’s a hint that Jane has really sheltered him (including by giving him the only bedroom in their home while she sleeps on the pullout couch). Seeing that Ziggy is grounded in reality doesn’t negate him from being a good kid, but it does slightly change how we perceive him.

2) Ziggy’s fear of getting into trouble for something he didn’t do

In another small scene in this episode, Ziggy is reluctant to go to school. Jane asks him why, and he says, “They all think I choked that girl.” He’s torn up about being perceived as a monster.

Full disclosure: I’m not a parent and have never raised a child, but I don’t think shame and concern about public perception is the natural reaction of a little boy who actually did strangle a classmate. It’s hard for me to see a kid who’s that scared of going to school being a bully.

The moment, coupled with Ziggy’s friendship with the other kids in class, make his innocence seem true and cast doubt on Amabella’s accusation.

3) Harry the Hippo’s missing leg

Toward the end of the episode, Celeste is with her two boys, and she finds that Harry the Hippo is missing a leg. I know it’s too obvious by half, but the boys were the first kids to take Harry home, and I think we’ve found out who’s hurting Amabella.

4) Keep an eye on who’s driving

There’s a lot of destinationless driving in this show’s opening credits. And it made me notice all the car ride scenes in this episode, who’s doing the driving and who’s sitting next to them.

In particular it’s interesting to look what Celeste is doing, because her car rides become microcosms of her marriage.

We see Celeste with Perry dropping off the kids at school, and he’s doing the driving. He gets mad and then madder — first about her insistence that they see a counselor, and then because he can’t accompany his kids into the classroom. She’s powerless in this situation. She can’t get out of the car because it would cause a scene, and it seems like the only thing stopping him from hitting her is the fact that their kids are in the car.

Later in the episode, Celeste meets Madeline for drinks while Perry is out of town on a business trip. She doesn’t have to tell Perry where she’s going. She doesn’t have to think about her kids because she has a nanny. She has a great time with Madeline and hints about the problems she has with Perry. And when she drives home, there’s a bittersweet sense of seeing her boys, and the freedom of knowing Perry isn’t home, but also dread.

Celeste’s relationships aren’t the only ones crystallized into car rides. We don’t usually see Madeline in the car with anyone but Chloe in this episode (she did have that ride to school with Jane and Ziggy in the premiere), which echoes the single-parent sentiment we find out in the episode, when Ed tells Nathan that Madeline feels like she raised her other daughter Abigail (who prefers to ride with her friends instead of Madeline) alone.

Jane, when we see her in the car after school dropoff, is alone, lost in her thoughts and her flashbacks. And it’s sort of telling that Ed (Adam Scott), the beta husband, shows up to confront Nathan (James Tupper) not in a car, but on a dorky bike.

5) Namaste, bitches

Madeline can’t keep her mouth shut during the yoga class we see her in because Bonnie and Nathan have crashed it. Madeline’s preoccupation with her ex and Bonnie defeats the whole purpose of the therapeutic nature of yoga.

But it also really defines Madeline, in that she’s more concerned with performative displays of goodwill and wholesomeness than she is with being a good person — she wants to get credit.

Madeline quips that she leans into her status as a full-time mom to make the working mothers at the school, like Renata, feel bad. And with the controversy over having Avenue Q be the school’s musical, Madeline isn’t as concerned about free speech and creative vision so much as looking like she’s supporting those tenets. She also loves winning more than both those things.

She’s confronted with this truth when Ed gives her a speech about how he feels like he’s not her “one,” her soul mate. His argument: She’s in a marriage with him, and they look like a great, happy, successful family, but he feels neglected because all she can do behind closed doors (and in yoga studios) is complain about her ex-husband.

He’s right.

At the end of the episode, they reconcile, and she tells him he is the one. They share a slow dance together, and it’s a sneakily romantic scene. But you come away from it not fully believing Madeline’s promises. And you have the sense that this woman who knows how to play everyone doesn’t fully believe them either.

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