HBO’s miniseries “Big Little Lies” is a story about the complex inner lives of privileged women, wrapped up in a murder mystery set in a wealthy seaside town. Amidst the stunning vistas and unraveling whodunit plot line, viewers are witnessing something rarely seen on screen: A thoughtful portrait of an abusive relationship. (Note: Spoilers ahead.).
The show’s abuse plot line centers around Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, a lawyer who gave up her career to raise twin boys. To the outside observer, her life appears picture-perfect: She has a stunning home, healthy children, and a gorgeous husband whose adoration for her is obvious to all. But as the show progresses, the facade crumbles. Celeste is deeply worried about her marriage. She uses the word “volatile” to describe it, but the more accurate label is abusive.
While her charismatic husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård, can sometimes treat her “like a goddess,” he is more often possessive and controlling. He is quick to physical aggression, choking, slapping and throwing her against the wall. Celeste hits back at least once in an act of self-preservation, bucking the traditional role of passive victim.
Their fights typically conclude with rough sex scenes, which are ambiguously consensual. It’s unclear to the viewer (and perhaps to Celeste herself) if she is engaging in sex because she desires Perry, or because she feels she has no choice. Afterwards, he offers apologies and gifts, at one point anointing her bruised body with a sparkling necklace.
In the most recent three episodes of “Big Little Lies,” (episodes 3, 4 and 5), the couple goes to marriage counseling. The resulting scenes offer a profoundly nuanced look inside an abusive relationship and the complicated landscape a couple in a similar situation might navigate.
In the couple’s first therapy session, Celeste, looking extremely uncomfortable, talks about their issues in the plural, constantly glancing at Perry for approval. “I just think things can get a bit volatile,” she explains. “We fight a lot, we yell, we scream. We just have a lot of anger that we need some help controlling.”
Of course, it is not really her anger that needs controlling, it is his. At its core, domestic violence is about maintaining power and control over another person. It is clear that Perry’s need to dominate Celeste is at the root of their problems.
Later, she sees the therapist alone. When she is asked directly about the abuse, she continues to insist she is equally at fault. “We both become violent sometimes, I take my share of the blame,” she says. “I’m not a victim here.”
It is a startling moment. As she asserts her autonomy, Celeste unabashedly rejects the label of victim. It’s debatable if she does this because she has internalized negative stereotypes about the type of people who end up in abusive relationships ― weak, damaged women, not independent, accomplished ones like herself ― or if she truly does not see herself as abused.
Marium Durrani, public policy attorney at The National Network to End Domestic Violence, said it could be a mixture of the two, noting that it’s common for victims to take time to process their situation before accepting it.
“A victim might wonder, ‘Doesn’t everyone fight?’” she said. “It’s hard to know what’s normal in intimate relationships.”
They also need to be emotionally ready to deal with the consequences, she added. Once they recognize they are in danger, the next logical question is, what are they going to do about it? Celeste might not be ready to tackle that yet, she said.
Celeste may also be repeating what Perry has long told her: That she is the cause of the violence. Like many abusive partners, Perry is a master of projection, blaming Celeste for anything that goes wrong.
In episode 3, the couple is drinking wine in front of a fire, a portrait of domestic bliss, when Perry finds out that Celeste and the kids are going to Disney on Ice without him. He accuses her of purposely excluding him, and grabs her roughly by the neck.
When she protests that he is hurting her, he flips the statement around. “Oh, I’m hurting you? he scoffs. “Can we talk about how much you hurt me?”
It is her fault, he means. She hurt him first. He is the true victim.
Perry later tells the therapist that his rage stems from his fear that he will lose Celeste. “I always had the sense that the day would come where she would just not love me anymore,” he says. “I think I’m constantly looking for evidence.”
He admits that he is insecure, and that is driving his controlling behavior. But while his confession appears sincere, it’s subtly manipulative. He implicitly blames her ― it is because Celeste is unhappy that he is acting out. The underlying message: If you loved me more and showed me better, I wouldn’t have to hurt you.
The show takes pains to not flatten Perry’s character. Some of the actions he takes are surprising: It is he who discloses the abuse to the therapist, not Celeste, who tries to protect him. As he puts it, “there’s a line between passion and rage, and sometimes, maybe, we cross that.”
In a particularly resonant scene, the family is having dinner. He starts joking around, and pretends to be a monster, lurching around the table. The kids, who are delighted, giggle and run away.
As viewers, we know that to Celeste, Perry can be an actual monster, but here he is being a fun and engaged father. That symbolism and duality reveals a frightening truth: Abusers are not shadowy monsters devoid of feeling or compassion ― they can be fathers and lovers and husbands; beautiful men living in beautiful neighborhoods with beautiful wives.
“We don’t ever really know what domestic violence looks like from the outside.”
Celeste wordlessly answers the question, “why don’t you just leave,” in almost every scene. We see her fear as a constant undercurrent to her interactions with her husband, as she weighs what to say and calculates how to defuse tense situations. We also see her hope and desire to keep her family intact.
In one scene, the couple dances to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. Perry, staring in her eyes, whispers, “don’t give up on me baby.” Celeste glances at some drawings done by their children and it is clear where her priorities lie.
When the therapist asks her why she doesn’t want to leave, she talks about focusing on what is profoundly right in the relationship instead of what’s wrong.
“I think about what we have, and we have a lot,” she says. “We are bound by everything we have been through.”
Brian Pacheco, director of public relations at Safe Horizon, a domestic violence victim assistance organization, said that reaction is common.
“Domestic violence is complicated and many survivors are conflicted by the good times―and there are good times,” he said. “Often survivors may just want the abuse to stop, not necessarily to end the relationship.”
He said that HBO’s Corporate Social Responsibility team reached out to Safe Horizon to create a plan in case a viewer had a personal reaction to the depictions of domestic violence in the show.
“I was very impressed with HBO’s commitment to accurately portray the realities of domestic violence, and in sensitively responding to the needs of their viewers should they need support,” he said.
Durrani applauded the show for opening up a much-needed dialogue, and challenging stereotypes about who experiences abusive relationships.
“I think one of the lessons to learn is that we don’t ever really know what domestic violence looks like from the outside,” she said. “People don’t think that someone rich and beautiful in a seemingly idyllic life would be facing something like this. There’s a really dark cloud over her that isn’t visible.”
Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline .