Through five episodes, Big Little Lies has taken its premise of warring power-mommies in a posh community and splintered it out into topics that matter: censorship, social status, parenting and more. But the storyline that has been the most riveting — and all too real in this drama that once featured a war over Disney's Frozen on Ice — is Celeste's (Nicole Kidman) personal prison of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard).
Things came to a head for Celeste and her storyline in "Once Bitten," when she continued on with her couples therapy sessions even when Perry was away in Chicago for work. The solo session was the most powerful scene of the series so far, and it's also Kidman's ticket to an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries.
She's spectacular in the show and especially in this scene, playing Celeste as two beings simultaneously: the housewife unable to accept that she's being abused and the strong woman who is ready to stand up to it. It's the first time we see Celeste openly admit her problems to someone else who isn't Perry, who only hears it during one of their episodes of abuse. A lot of credit goes to David E. Kelley for writing the scene and Jean-Marc Vallée for his direction, but it's Kidman who realizes the pain and takes the first step towards defeating it with a nuanced performance that speaks louder than her words and could never come just from the page.
In the scene — which is several minutes long and broken up in halves by checking in on Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley's characters — Celeste sits on a couch opposite Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert) just as she has in a few sessions before, but Perry is absent. And with Perry not there to shield the reality from Dr. Reisman with his half-truths about his anger issues, it's up to Celeste to field the questions on her own.
Dr. Reisman, already suspicious of what is really going on between Celeste and Perry, seizes the opportunity to dig deeper and it's not long before Celeste feels uncomfortable with the direction of the interchange and lauds Perry for wanting therapy in the first place. Kidman handles the emotional cycle of abuse victims with care, and educates us on the deep-seeded anguish and schizophrenic emotions they feel.
Celeste is telling two stories in this scene — she's crying for help while protecting her husband at the same time ("We have a very volatile relationship, and I've left the occasional mark on him"), something all too common with victims of domestic abuse — and the conflict that registers in Kidman's performance, through quick smiles, fidgeting and eye contact, is astounding. Even when she slips into her native Australian accent at brief moments, the acting is too impressive for us to care. We're witnessing a character on the brink of freedom but too afraid to take the first step and all we can do is encourage her to keep pressing forward, and Kidman is up to the task while Vallée's lens challenges Kidman by resting on her.
As a conversation between two people, it's clear that Dr. Reisman is steering the discussion but it's Kidman who commands the scene. Reisman holds a monotonous good doctor tone and the rest of the audio is starkly silent, leaving the subtle flourishes to come from Kidman by raising and softening her voice, tripping over words, replying with a sheepish "maybe" when the truth is too hard to admit, changing her delivery when it's apparent that she's lying (as she does when she's asked if Perry's ever hit her or if she's ever been afraid for her life with him) and being overly demonstrative when she's telling a clear truth (as when she's asked if Perry has ever hurt the kids, which she vehemently denies).
And as the scene progresses the fighter within Celeste emerges through Kidman's eyes after Reisman finally presses hard enough to squeeze the truth out. The internal struggle Celeste is going through remains even as acceptance creeps over her face — she's still his wife, and they've gone through so much together, she reasons. "The idea of breaking away from him is like tearing flesh," she says after Reisman finally gets her to admit she's considered leaving him, and we're crushed as the version of Celeste who is so determined to make her broken marriage with Perry work emerges once again.
But it's impossible to not see the fire in Celeste's eyes and know that seeds have been planted for big things to come for her. Kidman gives us that glimmer to hold on to even as we later see Celeste surprise Perry at the airport to greet him with the kids, and it changes that scene entirely. She doesn't appear to be welcoming Perry back, but starting her difficult goodbye.
Come Emmy time — depending on who submits themselves where — Kidman will have the usual competition from actresses in limited series such as Fargo and American Crime (American Crime Story is skipping a year), but based on her performance in Big Little Lies and this scene in particular, she should be the one holding a trophy at the end of the night.
Big Little Lies airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO. The finale airs next week.
If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic abuse, please call the domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the site for more information.