Big Little Lies’ fourth episode, “She Knows,” marked the first salvo from Meryl Streep’s menacing Mary Louise, and now its fifth episode, “Kill Me” speeds the show toward its incendiary confrontation and climax: a custody battle between Mary Louise and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) over Celeste’s two young boys.
Though I am salivating at the idea of watching Streep and Kidman go head to head, I don’t know if I totally buy everything the show has been selling this year when it comes to the pair’s rivalry. I’m primarily skeptical of the idea that these women have never really thought about pleading self-defense and that law enforcement wouldn’t be a little sympathetic to Bonnie protecting her friend from her abusive husband who is also a rapist.
But suspending those qualms for now, the fight between Celeste and Mary Louise reflects this season’s bigger story of how disparately and desperately each of the Monterey Five and Mary Louise react when they’re threatened. Madeline cannot solve her marital issues and can’t be trustworthy. Renata’s finances are scorched. Bonnie can’t find any peace with the guilt of pushing Perry. Jane’s having trouble opening herself up to romantic relationships. And Celeste has the thorn in her side that is her mother-in-law, Mary Louise.
The lie about killing Perry has taken, in one way or another, these women’s power and autonomy. And in “Kill Me,” we see how Mary Louise, Celeste, and a confrontation with Renata shows the power play between these women.
The biggest question this season is why Mary Louise wants Celeste’s kids
Mary Louise’s strategy is simple: paint Celeste as a terrible, irresponsible mother and then take Celeste’s children, her grandchildren, away from her. What the show has left a mystery, though, is why exactly she’s doing this — a sentiment voiced by Celeste’s twins in the episode.
Mary Louise doesn’t seem especially attached to the children, and it feels like she doesn’t believe Celeste is as bad as a mother as she eventually wants the court to believe.
From what we’ve seen this season, particularly in episode three with her interaction with Jane and her confrontation with Celeste in episode four, she’s more concerned about clearing her son’s name and exacting her brand of justice on Celeste.
Mary Louise believes these women — Celeste and her friend group — killed her son. Mary Louise also believes that the son she raised could never be a rapist and domestic abuser. Mary Louise believes then that if these women lied about killing her son, then they’re also capable of lying about what kind of a monster he was.
Since law enforcement has been a dead end, Mary Louise is now punishing Celeste the way she sees fit: by taking her kids. That’s the power Mary Louise has over her, and Mary Louise knows if she takes the kids, Celeste’s life will crumble.
Celeste goes to see Renata, who is seemingly her polar opposite: brash, bold, outspoken. And coming to Celeste’s aid, Renata has a sit-down with Mary Louise.
Truly, the confrontation is a fan-servicey moment for us to appreciate Laura Dern and Streep each trying to assert dominance over the other in a fabulous house. But it also shows how exacting Mary Louise can be, pinpointing how exactly to dismantle Renata.
Mary Louise, channeling a bit of Streep’s icy character Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, points out that there’s no furniture in Renata’s house. It’s not a mind-blowing observation, but it could be easy to be distracted by how beautiful Renata’s house is. Even without the furniture, it still has gorgeous views and breathtaking bones.
But Mary Louise wasn’t distracted by the facade of Renata’s fabulous life (the way many people at Amabella’s disco Halloween party were), homing in how little Renata has left.
Renata, in her conversations with her husband and the school principal, connects wealth to power and to stability. She believes her bankruptcy is a temporary blip in the system and that she’s been brought down to earth. Renata firmly believes that when she becomes wealthy again, she will crush her enemies and drink wine on a throne made of their bones. She also believes that if she’s rich, she can make Amabella happy and give her a good life.
Wealth is the way Renata determines whether her life is going well and if she’s powerful. She’s not wrong. The oracle Ariana Grande sang that “whoever said money can’t solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve ’em.”
But Mary Louise’s pinpointing how little Renata has isn’t just meant to insult her or make her feel weak. Rather, it’s to introduce doubt in Renata’s mind — not that she won’t be rich again but that even when she’s rich, the problems in her life will still exist.
Not being able to fix her problems with money is more jarring to Renata than the possibility of not accumulating millions of dollars.
The moment this happens, when Renata’s face sharpens into a barely hidden scowl, Renata realizes that Mary Louise is truly much more ghoulish and calculating than she’d thought her to be. And she realizes that Celeste is in for a fight.