Review: Better Call Saul, Season Three, Episode One – “Mabel”

Many reviewers have noted that this season of Better Call Saul feels like a slow burn–or at the very least, the first two episodes feel as such because that’s all that was released to critics in advance. After the first episode I can agree with my contemporaries, and, although the particularly slow nature of “Mabel” should be acknowledged, Better Call Saul has always taken its sweet time in giving the audience what it wants, and expects.

This is a show that spends the first five minutes of each season with black and white shots of a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, following a balding man named Gene as he performs menial tasks. In the cold open for this episode, Gene (the future Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk) eats a sandwich on the second floor of his mall when a kid runs by, DVDs falling out of his oversized coat that screams “I have stolen electronics.” Gene watches silently and, like always, there’s some very complex acting going on as Gene debates whether or not to protect the kid or to rat him out to the police. Ultimately Gene’s too scared to defy the police and tells them where the kid is, but Saul peeks out from behind the apron just a tad as Gene yells at the kid to get a lawyer. Show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have teased that these flash-forwards of Gene could become more frequent, and I would actually be surprised if we did not see more of black-and-white Omaha this season.

The rest of the episode can be summed up in a few sentences. Chuck plans to do something ominous with the tape of Jimmy confessing to altering the Mesa Verde documents. Jimmy faces trouble from the marine featured in last season’s “Fifi” and Kim’s perfectionist nature is contrasted with Jimmy. Mike tracks down the mystery person who left the “Don’t” note on his car in last season’s finale. Mike’s time in the episode–almost half, which has become the norm for this series–is especially slow, and often features Mike sitting alone and waiting for something to happen, with very little dialogue making the final cut. Jonathan Banks gets plenty of time to be methodical this episode, and I am monumentally impressed with how much he can convey through his body language. Vince Gilligan obviously thinks the same thing and this episode, which he co-wrote and directed, showcases the beauty of the simple acts of Mike’s life.

I was particularly attached to Kim in this episode as well, although she too is given relatively little to do. Burdened with the knowledge that she’s advancing her career because of an illegal act, Kim tries to draw as little attention to herself as possible, even making the preliminary paperwork for her Mesa Verde casework perfect down to the punctuation (should she use a semi-colon? I’m fond of the dash myself.) This season will not be an easy one for Kim as Jimmy comes closer to Saul Goodman. Although Rhea Seehorn has mentioned in recent interviews that it’s possible for her character to have a relationship with Saul Goodman during the timeline of Breaking Bad, I don’t see that happening. Kim can’t handle Jimmy’s antics, and every day she’s reminded of the ultimate burden that he will bring on her career–in “Mabel,” she takes a few of his elderly clients, although she hadn’t planned on it. As we’re accustomed to, Rhea Seehorn is tremendous even in the little amount of screen time she gets. If I had had a blog last season, it would have been non-stop ranting about Seehorn because she is truly remarkable in this role, and I’ve often described her as the best female character on television.

More so than ever Better Call Saul is building to something. It’s common knowledge that we’ll meet a younger Gustavo Fring in the next episode, yet this show does a great job of not letting that fact define the season. “Mabel” is a bit of a filler episode, yet one that avoids “filler” stereotypes by being a very solid hour of television in its own right, and one that successfully has its audience asking for more.

A-.

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The Ever-Changing Rules of the Academy

Apparently unable to keep a homeostasis for very long, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet again changed its rules of eligibility, effective for the 90th Academy Awards next February.

Numerous categories were affected as the changes were announced on Friday, yet most notably changed was the Best Documentary Feature category. Despite O.J.: Made in America winning Best Documentary in February as a film and also serving as a TV documentary mini-series, the Academy has now ruled that documentary series are now longer eligible for the award. Although O.J. was not mentioned in the press release announcing the rule change, this alteration feels, to me, like a direct response to a film which met Academy qualifications last year by premiering in theaters before it aired on television. This rule seems to make it unnecessarily difficult for worthy films to be nominated for Oscars, and the Academy seems to be limiting their own goal of finding the year’s best films (O.J. topped my best-of film list for 2016, as well as numerous critics). Traditional, theatrically released docs are not the only way to make an exceptional film, although the Academy seems to be preserving some sense of superiority by limited the category in such a way. ESPN’s latest documentary We the Fans, which premieres on April 11th as the first part of an eight-part series is now no longer eligible for the Academy Awards, yet may be eligible for the Primetime Emmy Awards comes September.

Of course the Academy is not shy about changing its rules in one way, sometimes directly after changing them in another way. The best example of this in my lifetime is the recent rule changes for the Best Picture category. In 2009, before the 82nd Awards, the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominated films to ten, although it only stayed that way for two years. A response to populous films like The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) not being nominated, many now think the rule change was a failure mainly due to films such as The Blind Side (Hancock, 2009) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Daldry, 2010) receiving nominations. The category now hovers between five and ten, and very few films with mass appeal, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015) make the cut despite original intentions from the Academy.

I’m on the fence about the rules myself. I thoroughly believe the Oscars should do their best to honor the best films possible, yet their near-constant dismissal of films that received critical and commercial acclaim is baffling to me. Yes, some films that meet both qualifications have received nominations–Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010), Inception (Nolan, 2010), Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), and others. Still, the middle ground is irritating. There are far more than ten films released every year that deserve Best Picture nominations, and I see no harm in giving the Academy a minimum/maximum of ten to nominate. I do see the dilemma when films like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud get nominated, though. For the record I enjoy those films, yet calling them Best Picture-worthy feels odd to me. Perhaps the Academy is better being exclusive, live it was for decades upon decades, and only nominated five, often incredibly-worthy, films.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Seven – “You Get What You Need”

(As I wind down my reviews of Big Little Lies, I realized I have never given a proper spoiler warning at the front end of any of these posts. Here we go, for the first time and the last, SPOILER ALERT.)

The last shot of the last episode of Big Little Lies implies room for a sequel, one which probably will not and should not exist. While Reese Witherspoon is seemingly all for it, director Jean-Marc Vallée is not, likely because he realizes that it would be quite difficult to top the seven essentially perfect episodes that he and the show’s wonderful cast and crew have created. I’ve mentioned before that this show feels like the pinnacle of event television, and I stand by my claim after watching last night’s finale.

“You Get What You Need,” named after the Rolling Stones song and this beautiful cover of it, which played over last night’s credits, manages to push the drama to 11 and appropriately conclude the show’s core mystery: who killed whom and why? The majority of the finale’s third act is set at the fundraising gala that this show has so concerned itself with, and the tension that builds is palpable, at the same time as it is startlingly brutal, particularly when it comes to Celeste and Perry.

Celeste continues her move out during this episode, and things seem to be going to plan. Perry has yet to find out and the apartment is slowly becoming furnished and ready for her and her children to move in to. This changes the night of the gala when, in a fleeting moment, Perry picks up Celeste’s phone to find a message from Celeste’s realtor. Skarsgard’s cold delivery of his lines in this scene is subtle and easily the most bothersome aspect of his character. Later, on the way to the gal, he erupts, telling Celeste he has these demons inside of him and acknowledges that he’s a flawed husband. The audience knows he’s not going to change, yet this scene still serves as a ribbon on top of what has been an incredible seven episodes worth of performances from the Emmy-worthy Alexander Skarsgard. I didn’t go into this show thinking that it needed a villain, yet I’m happy it did because Skarsgard is wonderful.

This outburst from Skarsgard leads to the scenes at the gala, where Madeline continues to struggle with her adulterous nature–again playing on the aspect of voyuerism, Madeline watches Joseph and his wife from afar (and vice versa) during Ed’s performance of Elvis’ “The Wonder of You.” Madeline, in her own words, tries to hold on to a false sense of perfection, which makes sense when looking at her character. Witherspoon plays Madeline as someone who has far more to her than meets the eye: underneath the blonde bouncy facade is a tortured woman, one who struggles to not only be the mother she feels she should be, but also a wife who loves her husband deeply, yet can’t show it in a way that feels natural to her. She’s bare in the most realistic way, especially after Jane meets up with her at the often-showed stairs under construction outside the town’s civic center. Madeline reveals to Jane that she was unfaithful to Ed, and she is then joined by Renata, and then Celeste, who has once again escaped from Perry. At the same time, Bonnie picks up on clues that Celeste is in a dangerous situation and follows Perry as he follows Celeste. I truly cannot describe this in a just way: this scene is wonderfully edited and shot, and manages to be remarkably clear, despite the fact that it’s following these five women all at once.

I believe this is the first time, since the premiere episode at least, that the entire cast of women is together at once, but it feels vital that they only appear with one another so often. As Perry walks up and joins them, everything falls into place: like many people had presumed, Perry is Jane’s rapist. The moment of realization on behalf of Jane, Celeste, Madeline, and Perry is so wonderfully done and brilliantly executed that I was beside myself while watching it. The entire series led up to one singular moment, and Valleé, as well as the entire cast, pull it off with flying colors. As Perry struggles with the four women, Bonnie emerges the spoiler and shoves Perry over the edge, killing him. This is the show’s biggest little lie: all five women cover up the fact that Bonnie killed Perry, and, through an ending montage, we see the lives of the women returning to a sort of equilibrium. Still, perhaps not all is well. The aforementioned last shot is through a pair of binoculars, looking down at all five women and their children with the sound of a lighter flicking, Detective Quinlan’s signature move.

Although the finale leaves a possible follow up open I don’t think it’s needed. The open-ended conclusion seems fitting for a show that has so reveled in the lives of these women–nothing will ever be perfect, yet that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to achieve happiness. Even if I don’t think there should be a second season, I understand why Witherspoon and the rest of the cast would: with all the wonderful personalities on set, it had to have been the time of their lives filming. Instead, Big Little Lies can end with a strong sense of satisfaction for the women involved, knowing that they’ve gotten over this bump in their lives, and with gleeful blindness at what may happen next.

In Which Brent Recommends Three Things

The last week of March brought with it a plethora of pop culture, of which I devoured three things–this shouldn’t come as a surprise, right? I mean, I’ve spent the better part of the year reviewing HBO’s Big Little Lies, after all. While much of my week has also been spent re-watching the second season of Better Call Saul, which arrived on Netflix last Monday, I also managed to spend ample time in a movie theater to see two films currently in limited release, Raw (Ducournau, 2016) and Dark Night (Sutton, 2016).

On Wednesday March 29, my girlfriend and I made the drive to Nashville to see Raw at the lovely Belcourt Theatre near the campus of Vanderbilt University. She and I have both been looking forward to Raw since we saw the initial trailer late last year, and it did not disappoint either of us. The feature-length directorial debut for French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, Raw is about a young woman who enrolls in veterinary college, just as her entire family has done before her, including her older sister who is still a student. The student, Justine (the wonderful Garance Marillier in her film debut) is a vegetarian, also like her entire family, yet is quickly exposed to carnivore-ism as a result of the hazing rituals that the veterinary school employs. From there, the film quickly devolves into that of nightmares, and is full of both realistic and disturbing gore, as well as a fair amount of sexual activity. Saying a lot about this film is difficult without revealing too much, and the film actually works better if you go into knowing as little as possible. Still, the film is an impressively shot piece of art, bolstered mostly by Marillier’s performance, as well as Ducournau’s mature script and direction. A coming-of-age film at its most pure, Raw is a tough watch at times, although it is not nearly as graphically horrific as many reviews have claimed it to be. The film concludes as a metaphor for how far we, as humans, will go to be accepted by our peers, and is unflinching in its gaze, which both punishes and glorifies uniqueness and individuality. Raw is a film that will likely get better with every viewing, and I highly recommend it for fans of both horror, and of teen dramas. Check out showtimes and trailers for Raw on its website.

Last night I was lucky enough to catch another independent film in limited release, this time at the brand new Speed Cinema at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. The film I saw, Dark Night, was introduced quite cautiously by a member of the museum and is, as the title suggests, a reflection of the 2012 Aurora shooting at the screen of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Although not a direct interpretation of the attack–indeed, there is a brief mention of the Aurora shooting, which strongly suggests that the attack in this film is a copycat attack of sorts–Dark Night uses the Aurora massacre as a sort of jumping off point to draw its own conclusions and to make its own powerful reflections on American society. The easiest comparison for this film is Elephant (Van Sant, 2003), but even that feels too easy a comparison. Dark Night is, above all else, a film about American desensitization and the physical and emotional distances that we put up to hide ourselves away. Many of the shots in this film are through mirrors, and almost every character expresses some sort of barricade: our ex-Marine is having a difficult time reintegrating into everyday life and is obsessed with guns, our young woman is a selfie queen, yet is hiding much more conflicting feelings about herself, and Jumper, this films eventual antagonist, hates the world and everything around him, only finding control and a place in this world in the film’s understated conclusion. Dark Night is a gorgeous film, and French cinematographer Hélène Louvart manages to find beauty in a dark world, one which she and director Tim Sutton strive to showcase in true colors. In a perfect world, Louvart would be nominated for an Academy Award come 2018.

My last recommendation is one that I won’t spend as much time on because it has already been written about extensively in the past week: the new podcast S-Town from the teams behind Serial and This American LifeS-Town, hosted by Brian Reed, is a glorious and hauntingly lovely podcast that, most notably, centers around the relationship between Reed and his muse, Alabama horologist John B. McLemore. S-Town is often compared to a novel, and that is the most accurate description I can give as well–bingeing through the seven episodes of the series, which were released all at once, is akin to feverishly reading a novel that you can’t get enough of. There are some wonderful articles about S-Town published in The New Yorker here and Vox here.

Spider-Man Thoughts

Spider-Man is easily my favorite superhero and I am an unashamed defender of nearly all of his feature films so far, save for one example: I absolutely loved The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but I did not enjoy Spider-Man 3, and the latter gets worse with each viewing. After the new trailer for the latest iteration Spider-Man: Homecoming dropped yesterday I had to reevaluate my overall thoughts about the franchise–after watching the trailer multiple times, of course.

First and foremost I do think this movie has some potential, and I’ll absolutely be waiting in line to see it on opening night. I was a huge fan of Tom Holland’s portrayal of the character in Captain America: Civil War, and I think the addition of actors such as Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revelori, Bookem Woodbine, and, particularly, Michael Keaton, give this movie a fresh, diverse group of talent. Although I am weary that the film has six credited screenwriters, I am quite excited for this film, apart from its awful title. Still, I don’t think this film needs to exist.

From a financial standpoint I do understand why this film has been made. Sony was desperate to move on from the lukewarm reception of Amazing Spider-Man 2 and their 2014 hack, while Marvel was itching to bring one of Marvel’s most popular heroes into their Cinematic Universe. Mutually, they agreed to co-produce the film pleasing fans almost universally, save maybe for people like me who loved Andrew Garfield’s take on the character. Despite this film’s good intentions, though, it feels like a cash grab to me. As Civil War shot to the top of the box office and the juggernaut of Star Wars continues to be the highest grossing film of the year even when it’s a mostly unrelated spinoff film like Rogue One, Disney and Marvel have proven that they are in it for the money, and we continue to give them ours.

I don’t want to sound cynical. I am monstrously excited for not only Homecoming but for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and I’ll buy my tickets for Star Wars: The Last Jedi months in advance, yet I wish we, America, gave a bit more attention to smaller independent films as well. (On a related note, I’ve bought tickets to see both Raw (Ducournau, 2016) and Dark Night (Sutton, 2016) this week so expect to see a mini-review of both of them in the coming days.)

You can check out the (very good) second trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming here.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Six – “Burning Love”

At the beginning of this episode I fully expected that, by the end, we would finally have an answer to our burning question: who killed whom? I falsely assumed that next week’s final episode would depict the fallout of our series-long mystery and our characters would have to pick up the pieces, yet I mistook Big Little Lies for other television shows. Had this show went the route of the often-comparable How To Get Away With Murder or even The Walking Dead but setting up a cliffhanger for its finale I wouldn’t have been surprised, yet thinking about it now I realize I likely would have been disappointed. Each and every week, even as the show has wavered between a solid A+ and a solid A-, I am amazed at how much this series is taking its time. I’ve mentioned in these reviews as well as amongst friends that Big Little Lies is the perfect excuse for a limited series and that HBO is the perfect network for it to call home. HBO affords this show immense liberty–for example, Witherspoon’s Madeline gives the greatest f-word laced tirade since Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in this episode–and this show has truly premiered at the perfect time and place. I predict this show will be endlessly re-watchable once it receives a home video release.

As of yet, things have still not come to a head for out characters, although long awaited plot developments have come to fruition, specifically regarding Madeline and Celeste. For episodes we know that Madeline/Ed and Bonnie/Nathan will have their dinner party, yet it finally happens in this episode with stellar results, excusing the show for dragging out the plot line for so long. The dinner scene is so interesting, I think, because it doesn’t really revolve around Madeline and Nathan like many expected it to–instead, the attention of the adults is drawn to Abigail, who has revealed that her super-secret senior project is to sell her virginity online, the proceeds going to Amnesty International. I can’t put my finger on it, but this shocked me. Although the whole of the show feels incredibly realistic, I at first did not think this seemed real, and it seemed too cartoonish for a show that dwelled in realism. After mulling it over the past couple of days, though, I have come to understand just how real it feels. In this time of armchair activism and faux-charity, Abigail’s disillusionment makes sense: she’s seen her mother exhibit these characteristics as well and, although deeply flawed and über-hip, Abigail thinks she’s making a difference. Of course the only reason for this story-line is to draw Madeline and Abigail close together as Madeline reveals to her daughter that she had an affair the year prior. (I also want to point out that Madeline’s vomiting reaction at the dinner table was by far the funniest and best used vomiting I’ve seen in the past decade, perhaps ever. Props to Witherspoon and Vallée for playing it so well.)

Another key turning point comes for Celeste, who seems to be finally breaking away from Perry. While all eyes point to the theatre as Madeline’s production of Avenue Q debuts, Celeste attacks Perry before the show and breaks his urethra after another attempted marital rape. We’ve come a long way since the production was almost shut down, but the musical still manages to be a key plot point and meeting point for the main characters, who are all there–even Bonnie and Nathan for some reason–except for Perry and Celeste. Perry lurks in the background of every scene he’s in like Jason Vorhees in the Friday the 13th series, and his injury feels more than justified yet terrifies us for what’s next. Just what will Perry do to Celeste in retaliation, especially if he discovers that she’s been quietly apartment hunting at the behest of her therapist?

Jane, meanwhile, manages to continue her self-doubt in a very interesting scene where she is trying to convince herself that her rapist might indeed be a good man and not someone worth shooting. This line of thought exudes Jane’s character who struggles with this all along. Although she doesn’t outwardly believe her son is an abusive bully, part of her still thinks he is due to the circumstances of his conception. Her nurturing wasn’t enough to combat the nature of his father. Even as she tries to make amends with Renata in this episode after poking her in the eye, this self-doubt is still there and the audience questions if Ziggy is a bully, too.

There is some wonderful music in this episode, especially the continued use of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations and the titular Elvis song. There’s only one more week for me to be amazed at this show, and I anticipate next week’s finale to do just that, while still defying expectations that its genre has placed it in.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Five – “Once Bitten”

More so than ever I am amazed at how remarkably well Big Little Lies pulls off the dynamic of the American family, something it has been doing throughout the entire series, but something that it does particularly well this episode. Despite the fact that these families are lofty and obviously very wealthy, they feel incredibly whole and authentic, a large step in the right direction for “slice of life” television. While television shows such as Fargo and (more darkly) Breaking Bad have also touched on family dynamics in recent years, Big Little Lies uses the family as the entire basis on which the show is situated. The family, specifically the relationship that mothers have with members of their family, remains the focal point of the show, and the central star that the solar system of the series revolves around. These women are flawed, dark, complex, and, above all else, whole. The characters are remarkably well written and fleshed out, with most of the praise falling on the shoulders of their tremendous actors, as well as the tremendous editing of the show which I notice more and more each week.

In such a short amount of time this show has given us so much about our main characters, specifically Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, each of whom get ample screen time during the episode. The hour runtime of each episode helps the audience attach themselves to these characters, but the limited nature of the show also attributes to this–in the age of “event television” and the limited series, none more so than Big Little Lies cement themselves so firmly in their truncated series order. Each episode feels the perfect length and, although it would be quite easy to binge these episodes should they have been released all at once, releasing them once a week makes the feel more special, more justified. With only two episodes left, there isn’t much time for our characters to reach a homeostasis and each slowly advance towards the inevitable.

Nicole Kidman steals the show this week as Celeste travels to the therapist by herself unlike in last week’s episode where she and Perry went together. Triggered by yet another horrific incident of violence, which the audience is brilliant made privy to through the glorious editing, Celeste comes very close to revealing the true extent of Perry’s abuse before pulling back at the last second, hiding her bruises both physically and emotionally. Kidman is fabulous with the very tough and heartfelt dialogue written by David Kelly. I can’t even begin to understand Celeste, but I think that’s the point. It’s difficult to understand her motivations, yet they feel solely real, and Kidman solidified herself as an Emmy frontrunner for her performance this week.

Elsewhere, Jane inches closer and closer to violence by driving to meet up with the man that she and Madeline believe might be Ziggy’s father and the man who violently raped Jane. Gun in tow, Jane drives and faces him head on before scrambling out of the office with no clear indication to the audience what happened inside. Although her penchant for violence has been teased previously I still don’t yet think that Jane is ready to commit such an extreme act of violence, mainly for Ziggy’s sake. Perhaps Jane is the aggravator in the violence that this story has been framed around–indeed, one of the talking heads says “Jane Chapman? She’s crazy, too,” this week–yet something must put her into direct danger to literally pull the trigger.

We get our first real glimpse at the PTA fundraiser where murder is committed during this episode, and we get a further, very brief, shot of our lead detective played by Merrin Dungey but I remain surprised we haven’t seen more of after she’s given so much screen time in the pilot episode. Two weeks remain in Big Little Lies, so I expect our two timelines will intersect with bloody abandon very soon.

The Dramatic Comedy of Bob Odenkirk

With his show Better Call Saul about to enter its third season, Bob Odenkirk recently gave an interview to actress Anna Faris for her Unqualified podcast in promotion of both his television show and a new film he released to Netflix, Girlfriend’s Day. While the latter mostly dominated the conversation, Odenkirk touched on the upcoming season of Saul and revealed that he’s not a huge fan of being asked to define himself into one of two broad terms: comedy actor or drama actor.

Beginning his career in Chicago writing and performing improvisational comedy in the city’s thriving comedic sector, Odenkirk began writing for Saturday Night Live in 1987 and continued there until 1991 before leaving to pursue performing in his own right. Later writing for The Ben Stiller Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Odenkirk and David Cross created the sketch series Mr. Show which aired for four seasons on HBO in the late 1990s, earning him four Primetime Emmy Award nominations. From there, Odenkirk went on to act and write in television and film before landing the role of Saul Goodman in Breaking Bawhich remains, arguably, his best known work. For his role as Saul/Jimmy in the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, Odenkirk has received critical acclaim as well as two further Primetime Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, adding fuel to the fire for the question that he ever so dislikes.

The thing is, according to Mr. Odenkirk, the answer is never that simple, and the typecasting, sometimes, can be quite difficult–still, Odenkirk doesn’t think it should be. Every year, he noted, a comedic actor receives rave reviews for their performance in a drama (I thought about Steve Carrel’s Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher, as well as Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back), but acting is acting. Although comedy and drama both have their distinctions, Odenkirk says that acting comes naturally, and brining different talents to the table is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing for someone to make their way up the acting pantheon. Odenkirk is often hilarious as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodmanyet his performance is also great enough to compete in the dramatic categories among heavyweights like Kevin Spacey and Rami Malek.

Better Call Saul season two arrives on Netflix on March 27, while the third season of the show will premiere April 10 on AMC.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Four – “Push Comes to Shove”

After being pushed to the background in a way in last week’s episode, “Push Comes to Shove,” thankfully, brings Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline back to the forefront, and the entire show is better as a result of it. I could write an entire blog dedicated to my love for Reese Witherspoon and, specifically, my love for this character of Madeline, but this is not the time or place so I’ll keep my adoration brief: Witherspoon is phenomenal in this role. Every week she adds something new, creating a multi-faceted character who, very easily, could be one-note. If she isn’t at least nominated for an Emmy come September, there’ll be another blog post debating why that is–simply, she’s wonderful week-in and week-out.

Other than Madeline’s renewed prominence, the fourth episode of the seven-part series also managed to bring sex/sexuality into the narrative, and I was surprised at how long it took for HBO to do so. Although underlying themes of sex were essential to the series before–Celeste and Perry’s uncomfortable and abusive sessions, for example–“Push Comes to Shove” managed to make sexuality an important plot device for just about every character. Logically this makes a ton of sense as we inch towards our bloody conclusion: sex is power, and murder and pain is also power. The two are tied together in interesting ways during “Push Comes to Shove.”

Jane, after revealing to Madeline in the previous episode that she had been raped, expresses lukewarm interest in dating again, much to Madeline’s surprise and approval. Still though, I don’t believe the audience is supposed to buy this. After three episodes of foreshadowing that something very bad and sex-related happened to Jane, it’s obvious that Jane just wants to move on, which she cannot do, not yet. As Madeline and Celeste attempt to track down the man who raped Jane, Jane deflects, saying that she’d rather just start dating anew and forget about the entire situation. For Jane it isn’t easy either. Because of Ziggy’s continued prodding over his father’s identity–Jane takes him to see a child psychologist in this episode to qualm some of her worries about her son’s mental state–she cannot let go just yet, and indeed we see her looking up the man’s identity as well as the episode draws to a close.

On the other side of the situation, the previously asexual Ed and Madeline explore their sexuality in this episode, just not with each other. The episode opens with Madeline and her ex-husband Nathan meeting for lunch where Nathan proposes a couples dinner between he and Bonnie and Madeline and Ed. Hyper masculinity illustrates itself again in Madeline’s ex husband. Attempting to make sacrifices for his wife but only to make himself look good, he stresses intently that he’s doing everything to be a good husband. Ed, meanwhile, seems to actually enjoy being a husband, putting on an impromptu Elvis impersonation when she comes home: “I’m your nut job.” This meeting of Madeline and Nathan prompts Ed to meet Bonnie at her studio where awkward sexual tension ensues, casting a bit of a shadow on the previous “all-American husband” persona that Ed exuded. Checking out other girls and saying point blank to Bonnie that he only came to gyms because sweat turned him on, the seed of doubt is placed in Madeline and Ed’s marriage, a seed which grows and grows with each passing minute of the episode, culminating in the reveal that Madeline has had an extramarital affair with the director of her play.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. Although Madeline and Ed seem very much in love, there isn’t much sexual tension between the two of them and very little actual physical affection. After Ed’s odd tension with Bonnie, Madeline’s make out session with her director, which is prompted by their successful defense of the play against Renata, makes sense. Madeline’s affair is revealed later which, again, almost makes sense in contrast to the characterization and Witherspoon’s performance. Is Madeline hiding something else? Is Ed? There isn’t much time to find out–three weeks left.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Three – “Living the Dream”

Without the risk of sounding like a certain green animated character, Big Little Lies is like an onion. Like many other “peak television” series, Big Little Lies is not afraid of showing you the end result of its tedious reveal and revels in the twist and turns that lead to its ultimate end: who is dead and who killed them? This week, even more is revealed and hinted at–at the end of the episode I had a clear theory about the shows mystery–yet even more is left in the dark to keep the audience coming back for more. Although “Living the Dream” doesn’t contain as much sheer drama as the previous two episodes, Big Little Lies continues to impress and remain surefooted in its execution.

Shailene Woodley’s Jane, the couple of Celeste and Perry (Kidman and Skarsgard, respectively), and Renata (Dern) take center stage this week after sitting in Witherspoon’s Madeline’s backseat in the last episode, and all four actors are wonderful–this will come up again and again, these actors are great and I’m continually amazed at what they do with this script week in and week out. Last week I was remiss to have not mentioned Celeste and Perry very much, yet it would be impossible to do so this week. As Perry continues his physical and emotional abuse of Celeste, the two decide to go to a marriage counselor. A lengthy scene ensues–one that it shot almost completely from two different angles, a clever attempt to keep the audience’s focus on the words being said–and, despite Celeste’s desire to keep it hidden, Perry eventually reveals to the counselor that he is physically abusing his wife. Skarsgard is terrifying creepy in this role and the tension in his scenes with Celeste is almost unbearable. Entitled and overbearing, he shares characteristics with the other characters in the show, yet goes one step further due to his use of violence, which few of the other characters have done so far. He’s insecure and overaggressive, yet not quite to the point of melodrama. Celeste too though feels easily swayed and easily impressed. In this episode she is manipulated with Perry’s gift of a bracelet and his insistence on performing a sex act on her in the shower, while in the previous episode she performs a striptease via the computer. Sex is powerful, yet those dull purple bruises are powerful, too, and I wonder when the pain will be too much.

We learn more about Jane as well in this episode, which occurs organically and realistically thanks to David E. Kelley’s teleplay. The first grade class is assigned to create a family tree which naturally leads to more father talk from Ziggy. It’s finally revealed that he is the product of a particularly violent rape, and one that we are shown in fairly graphic detail. Jane again withholds this information from Ziggy, remaining strong in the face of continued prodding, and not letting this traumatic experience shape her in an outward way. Although we see flashes of sadness and despair in flashbacks, Jane remains sturdy in the present, especially in front of her son. This performance is refreshing and exceptional on Woodley’s part, who commands most scenes she’s in–especially one that she shares with Madeline on the porch late in this episode–and I can only hope that her appearance in Big Little Lies will feed Woodley a wealth of more dramatically meaty roles.

The series-wide theme of popularity and the incessant need to be liked is again developed in this episode in quick scenes of Renata at her daughter Amabella’s birthday party, which was first mentioned last week. The night before the party Renata calls Madeline, who has bought many of the kids tickets to see Disney on Iceand essentially begs her to not go but to no avail. Renata needs to not only be liked herself, but for everyone to like her daughter, further emphasizing the class drama at the heart of this show.

(Oh, I haven’t forgotten about Madeline. Witherspoon continues to be excellent and her head-butting with Renata is a highlight of any scene the two of them share. Her eldest daughter, Abby, moves out this episode to live with her father, Nathan, and Bonnie. Will this drive Madeline and Nathan/Bonnie/Abby further apart or bridge the ever-developing gap?)

The show continues to steamroll towards its inevitable finale with a clear trajectory and precision, a technique not shared with other similar whodunnits in recent years–looking at you How To Get Away With Murder–and I can only hope that it will continue to do so with four episodes left. Still, I selfishly wish it would slow down a little, Big Little Lies is easily the best part of my Sundays.