Big Little Lies Is Having the Tough Conversations About Sexual Assault

Jill Gutowitz
The women portraying these complex characters are doing some important work.

*Warning: This piece addresses sexual assault and domestic violence, so those triggered by these topics should avoid reading. There are also spoilers of the second episode of season two.

Since the beginning of the #MeToo reckoning, I'm constantly wondering what happens next. Once we’ve internalized the reality of how pervasive sexual abuse is in our culture, how do we move forward? How will the mothers of sexual abusers look at their sons after hearing allegations against them? How will siblings and best friends and significant others talk to the people in their lives who have been accused or convicted of sexual assault? The first season of Big Little Lies featured one of the most nuanced storylines about sexual assault in recent TV memory, and it's continuing the conversation in season two—and going deeper. Sunday night's episode is proof.

To give some quick context, we found out in the season-one finale that Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman's) abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), was actually Jane’s (Shailene Woodley's) rapist and therefore her son Ziggy’s father. In the episode's final minutes, we see Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) shove Perry down a flight of stairs to stop him from further beating Celeste, and he dies from the fall. Season two premiered last week, and all the people who were lodged in Perry’s orbit—Celeste, Jane, their sons, and his mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep)—are now grappling with the aftermath of his death and the trauma he’s left them with. No one person is dealing with it the same way, and on Sunday night’s episode, there were numerous difficult conversations about sexual assault, ones we should be witnessing and having ourselves.

In one particularly tough scene, Celeste finally opens up to her late husband’s mother about his abuse. Her twin boys found out through the grapevine that Ziggy is their half-brother, and this news sends Mary Louise spiraling. When Celeste reveals that Jane was raped, and that’s why Mary Louise didn’t know about Ziggy, Mary Louise deflects, blaming Jane and questioning her honesty. “She could’ve been drugged. What if she got it wrong? Aren’t you desperate to know that she got it wrong?” She then adds, “He wasn’t capable of doing the things she said.” And when Celeste tells Mary Louise that Perry also physically abused her during their marriage, she says, “I don’t believe you. Why wouldn’t you go to the police?”

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Hearing that your dead son was a serial abuser is a lot for a mother to process; hopefully after having some time, Mary Louise will be less reactive and defensive with Celeste. This scene made me think about a terrible experience of my own. In college, a man at a party asked me to stay and sleep with him; I refused, but he followed me into the hallway, pinned me against the wall, and forced his hand inside me. When I escaped his grip, I walked home crying.

To this day I’m still friendly with his sister, who often calls her brother her favorite person and holds him in the same high regard as Mary Louise holds Perry. I often wonder what my friend, the man’s sister, would say or think if I ever opened up to her about what happened with her brother. I know it wouldn’t be pretty, and I also know she wouldn’t believe me. Why believe someone you barely know over the person you grew up with and love with your whole heart? So I was very affected by this particular scene.

Another gutting moment in Sunday’s episode transpired when Jane tells Ziggy about his real father, Perry. Like the twins, Ziggy also found out at school that his real father was Perry. When Jane confronts Ziggy about why he didn’t ask her about it, he says he figured she wouldn’t tell the truth. Ziggy then says he heard Jane was “salted." Through tears, Jane tells him she thinks the word he heard was assault, and proceeds to open up about her experience.

Woodley told Vanity Fair that she didn’t consult experts about this scene, but rather went in somewhat unrehearsed to see what emotions poured out of her. “For me in that scene, it really was, How do you allow yourself to be in complete shock and be an adult in a situation where you yourself feel like a vulnerable child?” Talking to a child about rape isn’t something we often see on TV; Big Little Lies infused this scene with empathy, juxtaposing childlike innocence with adult trauma. Jane's decision here is layered and realistic, and one that many survivors and mothers have had to make in their own lives too.

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Both Jane's and Celeste’s admissions cause them trouble later in the episode. Mary Louise says she’s going to the police with what Celeste has told her, as it’s pertinent information that wasn’t disclosed during investigations. Jane’s confession puts her at odds with Celeste because they made a previous agreement not to tell their children the truth about Perry. Celeste’s twins ask their mother if Perry was a bad man, and she chooses the opposite path of Jane, saying that Perry made mistakes but was a good man. It’s another thorny issue: Jane was tired of lying to her son, which created distance between them. But Ziggy’s knowledge is a threat to Celeste’s sons, who could easily find out that their father was a rapist and abuser. That’s a lot for children to comprehend.

So far this season Celeste seems to be having the most complicated reckoning with Perry’s death, which makes sense. At one point she loved him, and that haunts her as much as the darkest parts of him do. Throughout the episode we see the embattled mother tormented by flashbacks of them happy together: having (consensual) sex, bonding with their sons, going on romantic dates. We also see Celeste in therapy, and her therapist—plagued by Celeste’s fond memories of Perry—has her do an exercise in which she envisions Perry abusing Madeline the way he abused her. Tortured by the images of Perry beating her best friend, Celeste cries out “NO!” Her therapist then asks, “Did Madeline deserve that? Should Madeline stay in that relationship?”

Sunday night’s episode was triggering for me, and I imagine it was for many women—women who’ve survived sexual abuse and domestic violence. Women who have been married to, related to, or parented an abuser. Women who are friends with people who’ve endured any kind of similar situation. Violence against women isn’t just pervasive in today’s culture; it’s woven into the fabric of our lives. Sexual violence is a constant threat to women (and men too). This is why these conversations are so important to have, both on TV and IRL. I’m glad Big Little Lies is continuing to address these issues in difficult, nuanced ways. I think it's necessary for viewers, especially those who haven't been affected by abuse, to see not only the infinite ways that assault changes the course of women’s lives but also how it affects everyone in the abuser’s orbit. Big Little Lies and the women portraying these complex characters are doing important work.

Jill Gutowitz is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @jillboard.

Originally Appeared on Glamour