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Big Little Lies episode 6, “Burning Love”: men like Perry aren’t good men

Celeste’s therapist finally gets through to her…

HBO/Big Little Lies
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: This article discusses and recaps the sixth episode of Big Little Lies.

There will be a void in my television schedule when Big Little Lies ends next week.

“Burning Love,” the show’s sixth episode, feels like a completely different animal from the show we met five episodes ago.

What started out as a sudsy, delicious series about affluent women Mean Girlsing around the bluffs and into the public schools of Monterey, California, has slowly unspooled into a weighty, aching, drama.

I’m going to miss Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline and the hollow, dull life she’s trapped in with perpetual plan-B Ed. I’m going to miss Laura Dern as Renata, and the way she mispronounces Madeline’s name and moans about how the world is stacked against her (while sitting in her gorgeous cliff-side glass home). But most of all, I’m going to miss Nicole Kidman’s masterful turn as Celeste — she seems destined for every television award out there for the work she’s done this season.

“Burning Love” is our last look at these women before the finale, where we’ll presumably loop back to the beginning of the show and find out who’s dead and who committed the murder.

Ed (Adam Scott) and Madeline are still struggling with their passionless marriage, and decide going to Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and Nathan’s (James Tupper) for dinner would be a great idea. It’s not, as they find out Abigail (Kathryn Newton) is planning to sell her virginity online — something that would have never happened had Madeline been in charge, at least according to Madeline.

Meanwhile, Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Renata finally have it out. Well, Jane does, as she shoves Renata at school after finding out there’s a petition circulating to get Ziggy (Iain Armitage) suspended. The two finally figure out how to talk to one another, and start a play date with Ziggy and Amabella (Ivy George) — to exonerate Ziggy and find out Amabella’s bully, of course.

But the most riveting story of the episode, and of the season overall, is Celeste’s. It takes breaking Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) urethra to do it, but Celeste seems to finally figure out that she needs to leave him and escape his abuse. And how the show got us to this point is what makes it so special.

Celeste’s therapist doesn’t get through to her until she speaks in a language Celeste understands

The way Big Little Lies has unfurled Celeste’s sessions with Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert) over its past four episodes has been a stroke of genius. Each session is more haunting than the next. The emotional depth of the therapy scenes is astounding, considering how brief they are. And Kidman’s performance in them is thrilling.

In “Burning Love,” Reisman turns up the intensity by grilling Celeste about her exit strategy.

Reisman first asks about the power dynamic between Celeste and Perry, testing out how far Celeste will let her in. Celeste replies that she holds a certain amount of power when Perry recognizes that he hurts her. Celeste then retreats into her shell, reluctant to accept Reisman’s idea that she needs to leave her husband, or the possibility that the abuse might get worse.

What’s brilliant is watching Reisman assess the situation and alter her language to get to Celeste. It’s not about the pain of the abuse, she realizes. Instead, she starts speaking to Celeste like a lawyer, in a language that Celeste is fluent in. Reisman starts role-playing, pretending to be Perry’s lawyer in a faux custody battle. And then she paints a picture, tracing every way Perry will try to undermine and undercut Celeste.

Though Reisman doesn’t fully convince Celeste she needs to leave (that clicks for Celeste later, when Perry tells her, “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you”), it starts the thought process. Seeing her own situation from the perspective of trial, and how flimsy her case would be since she has no witnesses or reports of abuse, gives Celeste clarity. The part of her brain that speaks lawyer sees a losing case, and recognizes the dire situation she’s in. It cuts through her denial to get to the truth that’s obfuscated by her love for Perry.

It’s a brilliant, well-acted moment that really examines the way we talk to each other. So much of Big Little Lies is about the show’s character relationships. But it’s also about how there is sometimes a clash between people’s opinions of their own relationships and how those relationships actually operate. Everyone’s keeping up a façade in Monterey; that’s the credo of Big Little Lies. But in the case of Celeste and many of the show’s other characters, they’ve bought into their own lies.

The constant need to see the best in men

Rubbing up against Celeste’s session is a talk between Madeline and Jane. Jane comes clean about her trip to San Luis Obispo to confront her rapist (though she doesn’t tell Madeline she brought her gun). They talk about the idea that he might be still on the loose and still assaulting other women.

But then there’s a curious shift.

Jane talks about how her rape could’ve been a mistake — something out of character. She throws out the idea that her rapist could be a “nice guy” who slipped up. She proceeds to give her rapist the benefit of the doubt.

A lot of that has to do with Ziggy. This is the man she believes is Ziggy’s father, and she wonders how such a sweet boy could have a father who is a terrible human. There’s also something there about Jane’s own fears and insecurities. This year in Monterey has been a struggle for her, and she feels like she’s dropping the ball in a lot of facets of her life. It makes sense that she wants Ziggy’s father to be good, especially if she’s worried he might inherit her failures and shortcomings.

Jane’s conversation made me think about Perry and Celeste.

Throughout the season, Perry is shown as a good father. He plays with his kids. He wants to be present for their first day of school. He goofs around with them while they chew on cereal at inappropriate decibel levels.

But he also hurts Celeste.

When Celeste defends Perry to Dr. Reisman, she sounds a lot like Jane in her moment of “nice guy” wishful thinking. She insists Perry’s abuse is a slip-up and that he isn’t normally like that.

Reisman says the phrase “men like your husband” in her session with Celeste, and she could very well be talking to Jane. It’s a startling moment — a realization that men who are capable of abuse and rape aren’t good men. And that they are more likely to be like abusers/rapists than they are to be good guys who had a one-time slip-up.

And that brings me to…

Who killed whom? Who raped Jane? Who’s hurting Amabella? Here are my best guesses.

This is the last episode before the series finale (unless there’s a surprising renewal, Big Little Lies was only ever supposed to be seven episodes long). And we’ve seen a lot happen: a war over a birthday party, Perry having his urethra shattered, Ed threatening Nathan and pedaling away on his dopey bicycle, Renata and Jane patching things up, and Madeline barfing on Bonnie.

That said, the show’s central mysteries still haven’t been solved. And I can’t think of a better time to speculate on them than now. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel Big Little Lies is based on, so please don’t laugh if these are dead wrong.

Perry raped Jane. Celeste’s last session with Reisman and Jane’s talk with Madeline has me convinced that Perry is Jane’s rapist. Reisman makes clear that rape or abuse isn’t the case of someone slipping up, but rather a symptom of a larger issue. There are tendencies and patterns of violence and abuse. It wouldn’t surprise me if Perry — who goes away on a lot of business trips — raped Jane and is Ziggy’s father.

Perry’s kids are hurting Amabella. The kids’ first-grade teacher is worthless and can’t protect Amabella or Ziggy. Her hunches have been wrong this entire season. I don’t understand how so much school tuition in Monterey is paying for such a substandard teacher. I’m gonna say we find out that it’s Perry’s kids who are hurting Amabella because they’re copying their father. They’re the only kids this dummy teacher hasn’t really talked about this season (she brought everyone in when Ziggy kissed Amabella), so I’m guessing the kids she isn’t paying attention to are hurting Amabella.

Perry is dead, and I have no idea who killed him. I think Perry hurts Celeste after finding out she is setting up an apartment so she can leave him, and that he does it at trivia night. Reisman tells Celeste that Celeste needs witnesses, and I think trivia night, in front of all those parents, would suffice. And once there are witnesses to Perry’s abuse, there’s more motive for other people to get involved.

I just don’t know who killed him.

Throughout the season, every one of Big Little Lies’ main characters has had a moment where either they say they want to kill someone or a fellow parent describes them as wanting “to kill so-and-so.”

Nathan wanted to kill Ed, and vice versa, after that bicycle confrontation. Renata wanted to kill Madeline, and Jane and Madeline have both said they wanted to end Renata. There’s a voiceover in “Burning Love” about how everyone is ready to kill everyone, and it bleeds over into a scene with Celeste. And, of course, Perry tells Celeste she’s lucky he didn’t kill her.

I think these are all red herrings.

The only people we’re left with are that idiotic first-grade teacher or peace, love, and sunshine Bonnie. I will be so happy if it’s Bonnie who kills Perry. I’ll be even happier if the teacher makes herself useful for once and kills him. But I’m probably wrong, and it’ll be Madeline killing Perry to protect her friend.

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