Madeline’s response is self-aware, but unsatisfying to him: “There wasn’t a problem with us, Ed. There’s a problem with me.” Their daughter, Chloe, has noticed the problem with Madeline, too. For a homework assignment about pairing opposites, Chloe contrasts a picture of Madeline with a drawing of a door. The door is hinged, she explains; her mother is not. That Madeline would act out in her marriage registers to Ed, to their couples therapist, and to Chloe as a sign of a deeper dissatisfaction.
When Ed dances giddily with Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) at the party later, it’s enough to send Madeline reeling—especially because he’s rebuffed her attempts to be affectionate. Bonnie, meanwhile, faces her own marital disconnect this season. Following the death of Perry and the lie she agreed to tell about it, Bonnie became estranged from her husband, Nathan (James Tupper), who in turn—in a desperate attempt to bridge the distance between them—had called Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth, to visit.
Read: ‘Big Little Lies’ ponders what makes a man
The relationship between Nathan and Bonnie’s mother (Crystal Fox) is an icy one; she finds him “ill-equipped to connect with [his] wife,” and doesn’t hesitate to say as much. In navigating her mother’s arrival, Bonnie must attempt to correct rifts between Nathan and herself. The stakes are both immediate and intergenerational: Is she doomed to replicate the chasms that clearly exist between her parents, a free-spirited black woman and a comparatively uptight white man? Again, Big Little Lies questions its characters’ inheritances.
Perhaps most distressingly, the sustained, unwelcome presence of Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), Perry’s mother, keeps Celeste tethered to her late husband. Mary Louise insists that Celeste relitigate her marriage to Perry. After Celeste admonishes her for moving into the same residential building as Jane, Perry’s rape victim, Mary Louise implies that Celeste must have been an inattentive partner to Perry: “There are many questions that I still have. For instance, why was he even with her that night? What was he looking for, perhaps seeking refuge from?” After Celeste balks, Mary Louise doubles down: “How many other women did he go to? If there’s one, there are others.”
The encounter ends with a shocking physical breach, one of the season’s most thrilling moments. But the show also introduces a new layer to Mary Louise’s fixation on Celeste and how she parents the twins following Perry’s death: After Perry’s brother died (in a mysterious car accident that still has yet to be fully explained), Mary Louise’s husband left her alone with Perry and with her own grief. That Mary Louise is now fighting, however reprehensibly, to protect her two grandsons after having lost her own two boys is understandable if also jarring.
The core of Mary Louise’s judgment of Celeste seems rooted in the latter’s apparent distance—from the boys, from Mary Louise, and, more and more, from Perry. In her constant critiques of Celeste, Mary Louise acts as a surrogate for her son. She also seems to espouse a retrograde assessment of marriage: You stay, no matter what. The revelation of Big Little Lies remains how thoroughly it complicates that premise.