‘Big Little Lies’ Recap 1×02: Dance This Mess Around

Kathryn Newton as Abigail Carson, Darby Camp as Chloe Mackenzie, Adam Scott as Ed Mackenzie and Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Martha Mackenzie.

Kathryn Newton as Abigail Carson, Darby Camp as Chloe Mackenzie, Adam Scott as Ed Mackenzie and Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Martha Mackenzie. Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

This episode starts with Madeline staring out into the vastness of the ocean and contemplating what’s out there in the great unknown: “monsters, maybe. Dreams, sunken treasure…?” The sentiment is kind of obvious and feels too general to connect with anything at first, but maybe it speaks to the narrative itself: Big Little Lies is a story about bullying, the various ways kids and adults alike do it to each other and why. But bullying is kind of a hot-button issue to the point of cliche these days, something YouTube stars like to use to feel brave by vaguely taking a stand against. I think the story of Big Little Lies adds up to something larger than its individual parts. And I think sometimes that if I lived somewhere like Monterey, where I would be confronted by the incomprehensible beauty and terror of the sea all the time while still having to focus on my own petty problems, I would go nuts like these people, too.

Jane gets Ziggy ready for school with a poignant mantra: “Every day we’re gonna be brave.” Madeline yells at a guy on the phone about the news that her school production of “Avenue Q” is about to get shut down: “I’m a lady and I’ve never said this to anybody, but… you can go fuck yourself on the head!” David E. Kelley is back, baby!

Amabella distributes invites to her birthday to everyone but Ziggy. Madeline and Celeste encounter Nathan and Bonnie at yoga. The yoga teacher scolds Madeline for whispering about it and implies she should go to an older person’s class, where the rules are more relaxed. Madeline says she’s never coming back. She can’t handle the idea that Nathan likes to improve himself around Bonnie when he only ran from his responsibilities with her. This episode is kind of all about Madeline being a nightmare.

The kids’ kindergarten teacher assigns them the care of a stuffed hippo. Perry gets mad because he doesn’t get to meet the teachers at the first day of school– how does he think school works? He slaps Celeste and she slaps him back and he pushes her shoulder. Then they have wild sex.

Abigail mentions Bonnie at the dinner table and Madeline storms out. Ed confronts Madeline about her apparent jealousy of Bonnie. Maybe Madeline and Perry are alike in that they both have inherent cruel streaks, but also understand the full extent of their privilege and live in constant fear of seeing everything they have slip away, which makes them tyrants in their own lives.

A pretty obvious song about having a FIRE INSIDE YOU plays as Madeline contemplates Ed’s rage and drives to a bar to meet Celeste. The fire motif continues at a drinking establishment with tasteful little fire pits– Madeline and Celeste are each in the hell of their own denial. Celeste sounds more like a therapist than a friend talking to Madeline, but reveals that her and Perry’s fights often end with sex. Renata approaches them in a friendly manner and invites them and their husbands to a VA benefit she’s throwing and Madeline takes the opportunity to confront Renata about the birthday invites. “Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday,” Renata says.

Abigail is on birth control and Madeline is hurt she doesn’t want to talk about it with her extremely approachable mom. Ed talks to Nathan, trying to rep where Madeline is coming from, but the conversation turns dark and the two men threaten each other. Madeline goes to the guy she told to go fuck himself on the head earlier to talk about Avenue Q and she rails against the “morally superior” people of the town and ironically echoes Jane’s mantra: “be brave.” The guy says he will talk to the mayor, who’s pulling funding, about it. Imagine being the mayor and having to deal with the controversy over a school puppet show.

The thing about all these storylines is that Madeline is right, more or less: it was tactless, probably intentionally, of Renata, to so visibly exclude Ziggy, and Avenue Q is a smart play that has a lot to say about a lot of important issues, and high-schoolers and their parents should be mature enough to handle its irreverence. But her entitlement and her hangups about being left a single mother by Nathan make her such an asshole that even when she’s right it makes her seem like she’s railing only against things like moral superiority and a child’s right to safety from strangulation.

Shailene Woodley awakens from her slumber to dance around in a sweaty rage. Meanwhile, something is transpiring at school with Ziggy and Amabella that seems sure to end in disaster. This all-too-brief sequence is set to the insanely good “Dance this Mess Around,” by the B-52’s. It seems Nathan and Bonnie’s daughter, Skye, along with Chloe, set Ziggy up to try and dance with Amabella as an attempt at reconciliation, and it went as well as you can imagine.

The main couples both make up– for now!– and the final shot of the episode is of Celeste, performing a sexy dance for Perry via Skype, upright on her knees, masturbating on a bed in front of a laptop with the ocean behind her. It’s a sublime image, a microcosm that joins the rest of the episode’s juxtapositions of menace and joy, turmoil and peace, to transcend the articulable themes and plot points and create something more powerful.

Other great stuff I didn’t get to mention: the school guidance counselor taking credit for having coined the term “helicopter parent;” a citizen being interviewed saying of Ed, “Scratch the surface of any Jimmy Stewart? Charlie Manson;” Renata’s Lynchian moment yelling, “I SAID THANK YOOOOOOU” at her sycophant, Harper.

‘Big Little Lies’ Recap 1×02: Dance This Mess Around