How Big Little Lies Captures Children's Quiet Stress

In the fifth episode of its new season, the HBO series homes in on the burdens kids bear in times of familial distress.

Amabella (Ivy George) questions why Renata (Laura Dern) would keep her home from school. (Jennifer Clasen / HBO)

This article contains spoilers through Season 2, Episode 5 of Big Little Lies.

Of the children on Big Little Lies, Chloe (Darby Camp) has always been one of the more perceptive ones. In Season 1, she tried to mend fences between Ziggy (Iain Armitage) and Amabella (Ivy George). In an earlier episode this season, she braved her mother Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) wrath by calling her “unhinged,” a harsh burn from a second grader. And last night’s episode sees her wordlessly hugging her father, Ed (Adam Scott), prompting him to break down in tears.

There’s no way Chloe knows that Ed and Madeline had just had another devastating conversation about their crumbling marriage. But she’s picked up on their pain and is weighed down by their emotional distress.

This far into its second season, Big Little Lies doesn’t have to include moments such as these, considering how much ground the HBO drama still has to cover in its remaining two episodes. But Chloe’s display of affection for her father is a valuable reminder of how children—despite the efforts of the adults around them to protect them from strife—end up carrying a heavy emotional burden in their families. Though they may not know the particulars, their desire for clarity makes them extra sensitive to their parents’ turmoil.

Chloe (Darby Camp) picks up on her father Ed’s (Adam Scott) distress. (Jennifer Clasen / HBO)

The show touched on this theme earlier in the season with Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Ziggy. Episode 5 explores it more deeply, in part through the custody battle between Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her manipulative mother-in-law, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), over Celeste’s twins. The boys (Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti), grieving their father’s death, have been lashing out: They get expelled at school after sending a bully to the hospital, and one of them calls Celeste a “bitch” when she admonishes them for their actions. Big Little Lies has raised the question before of whether the boys have learned aggression from their abusive father, but here they seem more like they’re trying to get their mother’s attention.

The twins’ reactiveness is apparent, too, when Celeste comes to them for help. Needing to prove herself a fit mother to a judge, she explains as she tucks them into bed that Mary Louise is “worried” about her well-being, but that she thinks she’s fine, so it’s important that they say how much they want to stay with her. In response, they pepper her with questions: Why would grandma do this? Should they say they don’t like grandma? And then, in a sweet, innocent scene, they tell her they’ll do whatever she needs them to. “We can protect you,” one of them says. “Yeah,” echoes the other, “we can say whatever you want us to say.” At that, Celeste tries to walk her instruction back: “You do not need to protect me, alright?” she tells them. “You just have to tell the truth, that you want to live here.”

To the twins, such a circular conversation, accompanied by their mother’s apparent anxiety, must be upsetting—even if they don’t show it. And they aren’t the only ones feeling the strain. The episode shows each of the Monterey Five’s children trying to understand their parents: There’s Ziggy, broaching the question of whether he’d grow up to become like his father to Jane. There’s Skye (Chloe Coleman) curling up to and comforting Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) in the hospital, where Bonnie is caring for her ill mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox). (Even the flashbacks that show Elizabeth’s aggression toward her daughter illustrate, in a different way, the long-term strain that parents can put on their children.)

Finally, there’s poor Amabella, once again affected by the circumstances her parents—amid their bankruptcy and fraying marriage—have created. Her mother, Renata (Laura Dern), is stinging from Mary Louise’s vicious comments about her parenting style. “You work, don’t you, Renata?” Mary Louise says. “That must be especially devastating, for a working mom to lose her house, her belongings, because, just to think about the sacrifice and all the missed dinners with kids … so many many moments lost, and for what? A screening room. Maybe a boat.”

Feeling guilty, Renata later keeps Amabella home from school for some “mother-daughter time.” But her daughter intuits deeper troubles. “It’s because we’re broke, isn’t it?” she asks. The question pains Renata, and her answer—that not everything has to be about money even though it does, sort of—fails to clear up Amabella’s worries. After all, she’s missing school to palliate Renata’s sense of culpability, and one day of playing hooky won’t erase the turbulence of their family’s plight.

The adults of Big Little Lies have become entangled in personal crises throughout the second season, but it’s the next generation that has quietly absorbed it all. As Mary Louise’s lawyer tells Celeste, no matter the outcome of their legal proceedings, “the biggest losers would be the children.”