This article contains spoilers through Season 2, Episode 2 of Big Little Lies.
In the fall of 2017, in response to the expansion of the #MeToo movement, a series of articles sprang up advising parents how to talk to their children about sexual assault. Start the conversations when the kids are young, the articles commonly advised. Acknowledge that the conversations might make the kids feel uncomfortable, but don’t let the discomfort be an excuse not to have the dialogues. The advice varied, but one thing they shared was an air of resignation about the topic at hand: Parents might not be able to protect their kids from the world, the articles suggested, but at least they could help to prepare them for its sad realities.
On yesterday’s episode of Big Little Lies, viewers saw that tension in action—in one of the show’s most quietly magisterial moments to date. The single mother Jane Chapman (played by Shailene Woodley) found herself talking to her son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), one of the second-graders at Monterey’s Otter Bay elementary school, about sexual assault—because another secret, in a city where coastal fog doubles as a metaphor, had been revealed: Ziggy had learned that Perry Wright, a parent at the school who had died at the end of Season 1, is his father. Ziggy had heard this news not from his mother—Jane herself had only recently discovered her rapist’s true identity—but rather through gossip. Chloe, the precocious daughter of Jane’s friend Madeline, had overheard her mother talking to Jane about Jane’s assault. And Chloe, being a girl fashioned fully in her mother’s image, had passed the information along to Ziggy.
And so, in Sunday’s episode of Big Little Lies, the revealingly titled “Tell-Tale Hearts,” Jane finds herself required to do what she has for so long been desperate not to: tell Ziggy the full truth about how he came to be.
The scene that results is subtle and spare. Jane finds her son in his bed, its pillows decorated with humpback whales, its frame painted with a soccer ball—a setting full of the cheerful iconography of childish refuge. Ziggy tells her that he’s known since August that Perry is his father. He tells her that he heard the news from Chloe.
“Did Chloe tell you anything else?” Jane asks.
The camera moves shakily, framing mother and son, close-up, in the light of Ziggy’s bedside lamp.
“She said something about Mr. Wright giving you salt. That’s how I happened. He salted you.”
Jane takes in this bit of heartbreaking confusion. She shakes her head, turning away from her son so he won’t see her cry. Ziggy studies her face intently. The camera halts and hovers. “No,” Jane says, finally, wiping her eyes with the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
“Then what’d she mean?”
Jane lies down next to Ziggy, cradling his head in her arms. The camera keeps its gaze on Ziggy’s face as his mother gives him a reluctant lesson about the world and its workings. She draws in a breath. “I think what Chloe said was the word assault.”
“What does that mean?”
We never hear Jane’s answer. Instead, the camera cuts away. The flashbacks that have become so familiar in the show—the hotel room; Jane lying face-down in a bed, her face streaked with mascara and tears; the assailant slamming the door—flash on-screen once more. A wave crashes.
Big Little Lies is a show that is deeply concerned with questions of publicness and its opposite, of surveillance and its consequences. Its decision to allow Jane privacy with her son at the end of this most intimate and difficult of conversations is in one way a gesture of respect for her (she is one of the few characters on the series who doesn’t come in for some kind of subtle mockery). But it also means that the viewer is left to do the work of filling in the chilling blanks. Not “give you salt.”Assault. The mother having the talk with her son not about birds and bees, but about injustices and violence, in the son’s bedroom, surrounded by the familiar trappings of youthful innocence. The humpback whales swimming merrily on Ziggy’s pillow are characters in the scene as well. They add to its muted pathos.
The moment is made all the more powerful because, in the hermetic universe of Big Little Lies, children are often privy to an intuitive kind of wisdom. In Sunday’s episode, Skye, the daughter of Bonnie and Nathan, asks her mother whether the two are getting divorced; the young girl has sensed that something isn’t right between her parents, as much as both have tried to shield her from their problems. Similarly: “You don’t like to talk about it,” Celeste’s son Josh tells her, as she and the twins, over one of their long and moody car rides, discuss Perry’s death.
“That’s not true,” she replies.
“You like to pretend everything’s okay,” the second grader insists.
“Well, we’re a family,” Celeste says. “And a family is meant to be open and honest with each other.”
Max, Josh’s twin brother, chimes in: “I don’t think we’re that kind of family.”
He is, of course, correct. And his precision makes for a telling inversion: children who understand things more clearly than their addled adults do. The kids in the show often serve as reminders that parents can shield their children from only so much, and for only so long; that is one of the more latent tragedies lurking underneath the show’s bigger ones. Ziggy, too, has a certain clarity of vision (he tells Jane, earlier in the “salt” scene, that he hadn’t told her he’d learned about his true parentage because “I figured you’d just lie”—and he had, of course, good reason to assume that). In his confusion about “salt,” though, Ziggy is tellingly young. He evokes childhood in its most hopeful and fantastical form: brand-new, unbothered, blissful in its ignorance.
Big Little Lies is at once a soap opera and a sitcom and a gimlet-gazed commentary on capitalism and its consequences. But the show is also, humming at its lower registers, a work of horror. It talks often about monsters—in the churning seas, in the foggy skies, in the shadowed spaces where people live their lives. It frightens not through jump-scares, but by way of more intimate invitations to anxiety. On Sunday, viewers watched as a child learned that he exists because of “salt.” And on Sunday, as well, we watched as his mother, tearfully, began to disabuse him of his misunderstanding. What could be more horrifying?