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Can ‘Big Little Lies’ Revive the Old Celeste?

The first season gave Nicole Kidman’s character some cathartic, if rushed, resolution. Season 2 is an opportunity to let Celeste heal.

HBO/Ringer illustration

The only time fans of Big Little Lies have seen Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) be truly self-possessed is in a meeting. The reasons for the gathering are objectively petty and ridiculous: high-powered Renata Klein (Laura Dern) has lobbied the mayor of Monterey to shutdown a community theater production of Avenue Q produced by her archnemesis Madeline Martha MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon). The mayor can barely help himself: “The puppets are fucking!” he squawks, oblivious to the total commitment of the women around him.

Celeste, meanwhile, keeps her cool. A former corporate lawyer who left the profession to raise her twin sons, she’s broken out a sleek designer suit for the occasion. Her attitude is serious, though never histrionic, flattering the mayor for Monterey’s progressivism while firmly reminding him he’s about to violate the First Amendment. She wins, leading to a giddy postgame celebration where Madeline famously declares she “wants more” and Celeste immediately reverts to her shy, self-deprecating, uncertain norm. Slowly, the viewer starts to realize what made Lawyer Celeste so different, and so welcome: it’s the only version of the character we’ve seen completely outside the context of her abusive marriage.

Apart from the shamefully underwritten Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), every member of Big Little Lies’ core ensemble contributes something essential to the tone of the show. Renata provides comic relief and social satire of Bay Area tech wealth. Jane (Shailene Woodley), a working-class single mom new to Monterey, instigates conflict and acts as an audience surrogate, though she brings a history of violence that gives her more in common with her new friends than they might think. Madeline is arguably the skeleton key to the whole show, combining comedy and surprising pathos in one ferocious package. Celeste’s story, on the other hand, is almost entirely a tragedy.

Big Little Lies offers a host of themes it might otherwise be easy to write off as trivial, lightweight, or not particularly urgent. Projected perfection versus hidden insecurities; work-life balance; the existential plight of the wealthy stay-at-home mother—all feel decidedly, even refreshingly, disconnected from so-called “real problems.” As the series’ location scouts and costume designers well know, escapism is one of Big Little Lies’ many valid pleasures. But Celeste’s subplot also grounds the action in visceral, undeniable, life-or-death stakes. Granted, there’s already the murder mystery that serves as the show’s plot hook and framing device, but in the first season’s finale, the two were revealed to be one and the same: After learning Celeste plans to leave him and laying eyes on Jane, whose son he fathered by raping her during a one-night stand years before, Perry explodes. A violent confrontation ensues, ending with Bonnie pushing Perry down the stairs.

Outwardly, Celeste presents as the most contented of Big Little Lies’ major characters. She doesn’t have the barely suppressed rage that makes Renata and Madeline spiritual siblings as well as natural enemies, nor the class consciousness that isolates Jane or even Bonnie, an exercise instructor who provides other women with a transactional service. Celeste actually seems to be happy with her lot in life, caring for two photogenic children while Perry, an unspecified sort of wealthy businessman, drops in every once in a while to sweep her off her feet. In a rare concession to vanity—Celeste is too blessed and too WASPy to feel the need to flaunt her privilege—she posts carefully curated images from life in their seaside fortress to Facebook.

Rather than clumsily characterize Perry as a Prince Charming by day, Prince Joffrey by night, Big Little Lies presents Celeste’s abuse as Celeste herself experiences and perceives it. Perry and Celeste are a “passionate” couple, a euphemism that encompasses both their vigorous sex life and the arguments that almost always lead to violence, sex, or some combination of the two. Such a framing lets Celeste see the problem as a mutual one: The issue is with her and Perry’s relationship, not Perry himself. That the abuse feels so linked to sex also illustrates another reason Celeste finds it so hard to recognize Perry as an abuser; her feelings for him are genuine, and frequently expressed. Class plays a role, too. Perry and Celeste are the kind of sophisticated, modern couple who voluntarily see a counselor together. Would a real wife-beater do that?

Slowly, Big Little Lies peels back the layers. Perry and Celeste have Skype sex until Celeste peels back her nightgown, uncovering a nasty bruise; immediately, she balks. Perry grabs her arm, only for the two to end up getting hot and heavy in their enormous walk-in closet. Some of Perry’s controlling tactics are easy to miss on first viewing, like when he frames his reservations about her renewed interest in the law by cruelly invoking her past struggles with mental health. Kidman plays Celeste as guarded, as anyone would be when their partner could assault them at any moment. Yet her character is as wary of violations from outside the home as within. Scenes in which Celeste’s gentle-yet-firm therapist pushes through her psychological barriers are nearly as tough to watch as the encounters with Perry, because Kidman shows how threats to Celeste’s sense of self feel as dire as threats to her physical safety.

It’s only late in the first season’s seven episodes that we see a more cut-and-dry kind of abuse, with Perry punching Celeste while their sons play video games downstairs. It’s not because such incidents are a new occurrence, but that Celeste has only just started to acknowledge who Perry is, and how he’s affecting their children. Just as Celeste finally starts to reassert her agency, though, Perry dies—minutes after revealing himself to be a serial predator, not just a shitty husband. Jane spends much of the first season processing the aftermath of her trauma through seaside jogs and trips to the gun range. Before, Jane’s past had been just one more problem for Madeline and Celeste to middle with. Now, Jane is a harbinger of Celeste’s future, having already spent years in recovery from the same assailant. Both women have to compartmentalize their pain; both women share the fear their children’s father might influence their character.

Prior to Big Little Lies’ official renewal, Perry’s demise was an abrupt, if cathartic, end to Celeste’s story. There was still plenty of healing to be done, but it would presumably happen offscreen. With the prospect of more episodes, the fallout from a school fundraiser turned deadly has gone from vague implication to a real set of problems for writer David E. Kelley to sort through. Inevitably, the vast majority of open questions fall directly on Celeste, especially with the revelation that Meryl Streep will play Perry’s mother.

Many of these questions are pressing matters that promise to directly impact the plot. What is Celeste’s home life like now? Has she gone back to work? How is she adjusting to single parenthood? Will she tell the boys about their father’s behavior, or the half brother who’s a result of it? All of this feeds into the overarching question of the entire new season: Will the five women continue to escape legal consequences for what happened? But a disproportionate share of that conflict, as did Season 1’s, falls onto Celeste. On a show that so capably navigated the grey area between guilty pleasure and grounded storytelling, the nature of Celeste’s circumstances always kept her firmly on one side of that line, occasional cracks about Kidman’s accent work or wig aside.

The more intriguing challenges for Celeste are also the ones that present an opportunity for the character to define herself outside the context of her toxic marriage. Having only just come to terms with Perry’s illness, will Celeste instinctively take on the blame for his death? How will Celeste and Jane navigate their surprising connection and redefined relationship? Can Celeste balance some measure of relief with genuine mourning? Finding answers would integrate her with the rest of the cast, no longer literally or tonally sequestered by the presence of Perry. Big Little Lies admirably avoided cliché in its portrayal of abuse, whether through Celeste’s chronic degradation or Jane’s single, brutal attack. Hopefully, it can do the same for its aftermath, and bring Celeste further out of her shell and closer to the woman we saw save Avenue Q.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.