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Big Little Lies episode 5, “Once Bitten”: the show’s best episode yet is also its most jarring

Nicole Kidman forever and ever, amen.

Celeste, Jane, and Madeline running along the beach in Big Little Lies.
You can run, but you can’t hide
HBO

Spoiler alert: This article discusses the plot and happenings of “Once Bitten,” the fifth episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies.

Now that we’re getting toward the conclusion of HBO’s Big Little Lies miniseries, it’s time to stop pretending this show is merely guilty pleasure TV.

Yes, it centers on rich white ladies drinking wine and staring out at gorgeous sunsets. Sure, it features the kind of sprawling, spotless mansions that any Real Housewife would kill for. And okay, there have been plenty of times when the script makes it seem like writer David E. Kelley has never actually heard two women speak to each other.

But after watching “Once Bitten,” I have no idea why some critics who saw six out of the miniseries’ seven episodes ended up dismissing Big Little Lies as “a soapy melodrama” or the TV equivalent of a “beach read.” While I was admittedly skeptical of the show after watching the pilot — the script was just so clunky — the show has gotten sharper and bolder with every episode.

And “Once Bitten” is straight up fantastic, reining in some of the show’s most self-indulgent tendencies to further a story just as tense and compelling as that of any critically acclaimed drama anchored by a “brooding” (and, yes, melodramatic) man. This is an hour that makes some forceful arguments for why Big Little Lies is more than the affluent California lifestyle porn some have made it out to be.

So let’s break them down.

Old stories get new life with sudden, smart breaks in the show’s usual format

Here is Reese Witherspoon in a kitchen! (This is not the break in format.)
HBO

Big Little Lies is built on one of TV’s favorite bedrocks, namely, “not everything is what it seems!” And the dirty (big) little secrets kept by the show’s photogenic Monterey citizens have included everything from domestic abuse to infidelity to murder.

“Once Bitten” doesn’t exactly shed new light on any of that. Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is still scaring the shit out of Celeste (Nicole Kidman), except for the sporadic moments when Celeste decides his control issues and abuse turn her on. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is still grappling with her feelings for Joseph (Santiago Cabrera) — or, maybe more likely, her lukewarm feelings for her actual husband, Ed (Adam Scott). Jane (Shailene Woodley) is still trying to move on from the night of her rape, and learning it won’t be nearly as easy as shrugging it off, as she keeps trying to do at casual breakfast with her new girlfriends.

And Renata (Laura Dern), bless her furious heart, is still storming around in fringed sweaters demanding answers for why her daughter is still being mysteriously hurt at school, without a care in the world for whether the scenarios she throws out make any sense. (This week, Amabella got bitten, but the identity of her bully — or bullies — remains a mystery.)

The way these stories progress in “Once Bitten,” paired with the way director Jean-Marc Vallée frames each conflict, makes them feel more pressing and all-consuming than ever.

Madeline kicks off the episode by peering over the cliff Jane keeps sprinting to in a mad dash to escape her own problems. It’s a dream sequence, but doesn’t reveal itself as such until — in a moment that made me both jump a foot and laugh a lot — Renata pops out of nowhere to scare Madeline over the edge with a leering Avenue Q puppet. (I didn’t know I should’ve had “Laura Dern startles Reese Witherspoon off a cliff with a puppet” on my Big Little Lies wish list, but what a godsend to us all.)

It’s a ridiculous sequence, but it also signals the shocks to come throughout “Once Bitten.” The episode steadily escalates its own drama with smash cuts that jump between scenes and memories to get us into the characters’ heads.

There’s Madeline, remembering fragments of her steamy, supposedly dead affair with Joseph. And when in the present, he convinces her to take a drive to hash out their persistent feelings, some kid T-bones Joseph’s car and sends the two literally spinning. In the chaos that then unfolds, the camera focuses on Madeline trying to breathe through panicked slow motion and blown-out sound, her mind all a blur.

There’s Celeste, squinting at her therapist (Robin Weigert) while visualizing (and not disclosing) the full truth of what’s going on with Perry at home, reliving the dual humiliation of enduring her husband’s wrath for something as silly as telling him to pick up their kids’ toys, and then feeling so turned on that she wants to fuck him on the floor.

And then there’s Jane, trying desperately to both remember and forget the night of her rape. When she secretly goes to San Luis Obispo with a joint in her hand and a gun in her bag to confront the man she and Madeline think might’ve been the culprit, the realization that it isn’t him crashes around her in exactly the same way the car accident did around Madeline.

Though the flashes between these women’s darkest thoughts and the present day all happen at different times and under different circumstances, they’re all startling and even suffocating. That’s what makes “Once Bitten” so good: Its depictions of paranoia and trauma are exactly as startling and suffocating as those topics deserve.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée constantly finds ways to make his characters’ inner lives not just visual, but visceral

Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyer’s Club) outdoes himself in this episode with a series of meticulous, gorgeous, and even chilling sequences that build on and intensify what his characters are feeling.

On the most obvious level, the way Vallée’s camera tracks the gray, sweeping vistas and the luxury of the homes in which melancholy characters moodily swish their wine offers a glimpse of what a Nancy Meyers movie would look like if it were suffering from depression.

But Vallée isn’t satisfied to just let his beautiful actors and scenery do all the work. Throughout Big Little Lies and “Once Bitten” in particular, he tracks everyone’s steadily mounting dread through revealing shots of the women’s reflections in their rearview mirrors and coffee shop windows, or vertigo-inducing dips over cliff edges. When Jane runs down the beach with grim determination — and then when Madeline and Celeste join her — he has them run straight at the camera, then pans around to show them all in a row, three incredibly different women nonetheless pumping their arms and legs in unison.

Some of Vallée’s best choices in “Once Bitten” are ones he must make with the episode’s editor, namely the sharp cuts that emphasize when people are feeling particularly passionate or vulnerable. That beautiful running shot, for example, takes a dark, jarring turn when it cuts to Jane slamming her fist down on the breakfast table and screaming, “Fuck!”; when Madeline and Celeste jump, it’s hard not to do the same.

Then — as he’s done in every episode so far — Vallée elevates Kelley’s scattershot writing for Perry and Celeste through careful staging and strategic cuts. As soon as Perry grabs Celeste by the neck in “Once Bitten,” Vallée cuts to them frantically fucking (despite Celeste telling her therapist it’s “lovemaking,” there really is no other word for it).

And when we see Perry throwing a tantrum at Celeste in flashbacks, we only get glimpses, but every single one is staged to show us exactly how strong he is, exactly how scared she is, exactly how much — or little — it turns her on. With Kidman and Skarsgård willing and able to dive into the twisted depths of this relationship, Vallée can fine-tune exactly how he films it to achieve a more devastating, human effect.

And now, a word about Nicole Kidman crushing every scene she’s in

HBO

Speaking about the greatness of Big Little Lies’ cast is the most obvious comment to make about the show at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less true — especially as the show sprints toward the impending reveal of Who Killed [Insert Whoever Died Here]. Witherspoon is — as she always is at her best — a tensed-up ball of crackling fire, while Woodley has shifted into a whole new acting gear now that Jane’s pain and fury are starting to seep through the cracks.

But Kidman is tasked with portraying a woman who wants anything but to reveal what she’s truly feeling, even in therapy, where she’s supposed to be able to do exactly that. That she manages to wear about 12 emotions on her face at once, ranging from sadness to terror to steely anger, is a true feat.

Opposite Weigert in the therapy scenes — some of Kelley’s best work on the show, probably because he writes them like he writes courtroom or investigation scenes — Kidman is a quiet, constantly vibrating force. When Celeste goes to therapy in “Once Bitten,” she defends her relationship, reveals that she and Perry were “bound” together after she had four miscarriages, and finally ends up admitting that she has feared for her own life in her own house. Her eyes leak tears, as if her body’s too tired to fend them off forever. Every downward glance, every tiny head shake, every sudden narrowing of her eyes says more than Celeste probably ever will out loud.

Big Little Lies has so much going for it. But no matter how it ends and who ends up dying, Kidman’s Celeste will always be the fragile, bruised heart of the show — the one that reminds you it isn’t about sunsets or spotless kitchens, but pain.

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