The scariest part of "Big Little Lies" isn't the murder — it's the familiar storyline of sexual violence

HBO

We were promised top-notch beachside mom drama when Big Little Lies aired on February 19, and we’ve learned over the last three episodes that there’s certainly no shortage of that in Monterey. Last night’s installment of HBO’s new, highly-acclaimed show, entitled “Living the Dream,” is taking us to new places, though, and teaching us that there’s a lot more at stake in the world of super wealthy families and elementary school politics than we might have thought.

Although we are itching to know who died and who’s responsible for this death at the school fundraiser, we’re beginning to see that the scariest moments of Big Little Lies have little to do with the crime at hand. In the glossy Monterey world, there’s a constant, cool foreshadowing of violence at every turn. We don’t just mean violence in the context of the murder, but rather the sexual violence that sits over certain characters like a thick fog you can’t shake. That’s where the real terror lies.

In the first two episodes of Big Little Lies, we caught enough glimpses of Celeste and Perry’s marriage to know that there is a frightening level of dysfunction there. Celeste, played brilliantly by Nicole Kidman, and Perry, portrayed by Alexander Skarsgaard, are a painfully good looking couple whose sex life teeters on the border of “passion and rage,” as they tell their therapist in “Living the Dream.” One second Perry is doting on his gorgeous, soft-spoken wife, and the next he’s slamming her against the closet door until she ends up with bruises all over her back and shoulders. He even grabs her by the throat towards the beginning of the third episode, choking her and accusing her of arranging events for their children in such a way that allows her to dodge spending time with him.

Watching yet another woman survive such manipulative, twisted domestic violence is, at best, infuriating to witness. But viewers this week are taken to an even lower rung of hell, one where abusive men like Perry can make both his therapist and his wife believe that his aggression comes from a place of love. That he is nothing more than an insecure boy in need of affection.

“I think I’m afraid of losing her,” Perry says to the therapist as they’re talking about the aggression that exists between the two of them. He says he fears that Celeste will “outgrow me” or “figure me out.” He even pulls back the veil on the truth and tells the therapist flat out that he was physically violent with Celeste, after she tried to protect him by saying otherwise. When prompted as to why he thinks he’ll lose Celeste he dumbly says, “Look at her.” He says he fears that if he doesn’t keep her happy she’ll have a line of a million men waiting to be with her.

For a moment, Perry’s vulnerability is sweet. His truthfulness is nearly believable. At the end of the episode, he and Celeste slow dance and share the hope that things will get better.

Fans of Big Little Lies are too smart to be fooled by this display, though. We’ve seen three separate incidents in which Perry physically assaults Celeste. Their visit to the therapist did nothing more than explain that Perry’s “love” for Celeste arises out of a sick thought that he owns her (and can’t imagine her belonging to any other man), and that Perry is a violent man capable of fooling everyone, even a professional.

The danger of Perry’s abuse is only heightened by another storyline in Big Little Lies: Jane’s past, particularly the identity of Ziggy’s father. Shailene Woodley’s character sticks out like a sore thumb from the very start. She’s a single mom with no apparent ties to Ziggy’s dad, and she lives a more modest lifestyle compared to the extravagant ways we see from the other families.

In a haunting reveal that we’ve all been waiting for, Jane shares the truth about Ziggy’s dad with Madeline, the uptight yet addicting character Reese Witherspoon was born to play. Jane met Ziggy’s father at a bar, where they drank and flirted. They decided to go to a hotel to spend the night together — and what started as consensual play, though, turned out to be sexual assault.

“He changed,” Jane recalls. She tried to resist him but he was much bigger, and terrifying flashbacks show that he forced himself on her. Jane tells Madeline that he treated her “like he was operating some piece of machinery.” She kept quiet and stopped resisting only because she was afraid he was going to kill her. He left without ever uttering his real name, and she became pregnant with Ziggy.

Madeline — a woman we’ve experienced thus far as calculated, unstoppable, and outspoken — is so affected by Jane’s account that she has to pull over on the side of the road as she leaves Jane’s house to cry. Soft sounds of her sobbing over the steering wheel remind us that sexual assault is never an experience that just goes away. The consequences live on for years after the incident is over.

Although Jane didn’t know that man nearly as well as Celeste knows Perry, the fact that she knew him, felt comfortable with him, and fostered a connection with him proves that, most of the time, women know the men who assault them. After all, studies show that half of the reported rapes by women in the U.S. are committed by those who they considered an acquaintance or an intimate partner.

Nobody utters the word rape in any scene of Big Little Lies. This seems to be a deliberate move on the writers’ part. But it’s become abundantly clear that, even though there is a murder looming in the background, the true danger lies in familiar men like Perry and Ziggy’s father. The only moments of the show that truly scare us, that make us jump in our seats, have nothing to do with the crime that was committed. It’s when Perry yanks Celeste’s arm and threatens her. It’s when Jane imagines Ziggy’s father breaking into her home while she fumbles for her gun.

Initially it seems that Big Little Lies is a show that focuses heavily on the female characters just because they’re the ones who will cause the most drama. Lean in a little closer, though, and you’ll see that the women are the stars of the show because they are the ones with stories that need to be shared with the world. They’re the ones who have experienced the kind of fear that potentially lasts forever.

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