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Big Little Lies episode 3, “Living the Dream”: is anyone in Monterey a good parent?

Dads will always disappoint you.

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 recaps the third episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies and discusses specific plot details at length.

On Big Little Lies, behind every strong woman is a pretty terrible spouse. “Living the Dream,” the series’ third episode, gives the dads of Monterey a sliver of the spotlight. And each one does his best to disappoint.

The war between Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Renata (Laura Dern) has ramped up, and the episode spends a lot of time on Madeline’s brigade ditching Amabella’s (Ivy George) birthday party to spite Renata.

Meanwhile, Renata’s husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) and Madeline’s husband Ed (Adam Scott) are pretty checked out. And behind closed doors, Jane (Shailene Woodley) has a breakdown about Ziggy’s father while Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) unleashes more abuse on Celeste (Nicole Kidman).

It seems like most of the dads in Monterey are liabilities — but also like the moms aren’t angels, either.

The dads at Amabella’s birthday party are embarrassing

Our world is built on universal truths: Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, gravity holds things to the earth, and children’s birthday parties are really for adults. In fancier social circles, as Big Little Lies shows us, they’re opportunities to flaunt wealth, advance your status, bolster your ego, and/or have someone else watch your kid for a few hours.

Amabella’s birthday party overlooking the Pacific is no exception.

Gordon, who has at times been completely oblivious to Amabella’s bullying at school, uses the opportunity of his daughter’s party to get high. Marijuana is legal in California, and Gordon can do whatever he pleases. But throughout Big Little Lies’ first three episodes, he’s shown only a superficial concern for his daughter and her party.

Gordon is also part of the group of dads ogling Bonnie when she starts dancing. The scene isn’t designed to totally implicate the men. It’s supposed to show the jealousy brewing among the other mothers of Monterey. But that the dads can’t keep it together at a children’s birthday party underscores what the women of this town are working with — or, rather, thriving in spite of.

Big Little Lies is telling an interesting story in its segues

In “Living the Dream,” something jarring occurs in two of the episode’s early scene transitions.

The first involves Gordon and Renata talking about Amabella and either Ziggy or her mystery bully (depending on whether you think Ziggy is guilty). Gordon talks about how they couldn’t invite Ziggy to Amabella’s party because they believe he’s choking Amabella. Then as soon as the scene wraps, the episode cuts to a scene that begins with Perry and Celeste talking and escalates to him choking her.

It’s a beguiling little moment, one that makes you want to figure out what director Jean-Marc Vallée is trying to hint at.

Since I’m totally convinced one of Perry and Celeste’s twin sons is harming Amabella, the segue seems to implicate Perry and Celeste even further. Someone is choking Amabella, Perry is choking Celeste, and Perry and Celeste’s boys are a connection between the two. I also wonder if it’s a way to signal that if adults can’t even keep an eye on the abuse that happens to children, they sure as hell aren’t going to notice what’s happening with Perry and Celeste.

The episode’s other curious transition is in the segue after Bonnie’s dancing scene. We hear that some of the men are aroused, and someone mentions how hot Bonnie is. Then there’s an abrupt cut to Ed looking at his stepdaughter Abigail. He quickly snaps out of it, but that weird, slightly lustful hangover just lingers. It makes you do a double take and think about their relationship.

Are any of the parents in Monterey doing a good job?

While “Living the Dream” exposes Big Little Lies’ dads as less-than-ideal role models, it also takes no pity on Jane. She loses Ziggy’s class mascot, Harry the Hippo, and then forgets that Ziggy has a family tree project due. Naturally, as anyone in her place would, she calls Madeline for help with the assignment. And in trying to help, Madeline asks about Ziggy’s dad, which sets Ziggy off and causes him to have a temper tantrum because his mother won’t tell him who his dad is.

It’s a hefty moment that manages to get at one of the core ideas of this whole episode: that fathers are seen as integral, important parts of their children’s lives even if they’re not present. Gordon and Nathan aren’t as harmful or as awful as Perry, but all three men seem kind of useless when it comes to raising their kids. Given what we know about Ziggy’s father — that he’s a violent rapist — having him in the picture would do more harm than good.

The outburst, coupled with the familial disarray throughout the episode, also makes you think about whether any of Monterey’s mothers are doing a good job parenting.

Jane’s trauma is manifesting itself in other parts of her life, and though she has the best of intentions, she lets Ziggy down. Renata and Madeline are fierce advocates for their daughters, but won’t hesitate to use said daughters as weapons against each other. Meanwhile, Celeste is too busy dealing with being abused to really be present for her children.

With all that in mind, it’s not much of a surprise that Madeline’s oldest daughter Abigail decides to move in with her dad, Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan, and have Bonnie as her parent of choice.

Big Little Lies never promised to be a “real” story about what it’s like to live a gilded life. It traffics in sudsy moments that feel a world away. Yet it also trades in a sober truth: that everything parents do affects their children’s lives in some way. It’s also boldly unafraid to show how men can harm women.

It feels strange for a show to be audaciously pulpy while occasionally diving into the sober and somber. But perhaps that’s the point: So many people in this world are out of touch regarding the perks and benefits of their affluence and privilege, and that often means they’re not aware of how their actions can have devastating consequences.

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