“Big Little Lies”: Domestic Violence Therapy

The current and highly rated HBO comedy/drama mini-series Big Little Lies, a suburban murder mystery starring such notables as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård, and Adam Scott, is based on Liane Moriarty‘s 2014 bestselling novel.

The Washington Post said of the book, “Big Little Lies tolls a warning bell about the big little lies we tell in order to survive. It takes a powerful stand against domestic violence…”

One way the TV series differs from the book is that creator David E. Kelley has placed more emphasis on a certain delicate and challenging situation being addressed in therapy. According to Carolyn L. Todd, Refinery29, the series in this way helps “make a very unlikable character more sympathetic.”

That character is Celeste (Kidman), an abused spouse. Although she first enters therapy with husband Perry (Skarsgård), this changes when he has to go out of town.

But in the book, Celeste sees the therapist alone from the get-go. Having Perry participate in therapy makes him seem like a better guy: he’s a domestic abuser, yes, but he knows he has a problem and is willing to work on it. It indicates he knows his behavior is unacceptable and wants to change. Celeste and Perry seem like more of a team. Plus, the tense dynamic of the therapy sessions is riveting, as is watching the pair negotiate in the moment how much truth about their marriage they want to share with the counselor.

Although therapists on TV are often portrayed sketchily or negatively or unfairly, there’s a general consensus that this isn’t so in Big Little Lies:

Caitlin Flynn, Bustle: “Therapy isn’t often depicted on TV and, when it is, the scenes tend to be brief and lack depth. The therapy sessions on Big Little Lies don’t just break that mold — they shatter it.”

Maria Elena Fernandez, Vulture: “Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert) and Celeste and Perry Wright (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård) are so realistic they’re draining.”

Melissa Dahl, New York Magazine: “And you know who else loves the therapist on Big Little Lies? Actual therapists.” Some of the highlighted factors: the realism, Dr. Reisman’s apparently advanced knowledge regarding domestic abuse, and her astute ability to pick up on subtle cues from the client.

Regarding the advisability of seeing Celeste alone considering that it was supposed to be marital therapy, it’s the existence of domestic violence that allows for this. For the optimal care of the victim, an experienced therapist is aware of the need to further assess the circumstances without the direct participation of the abuser.

Flynn expands on how the therapy in Big Little Lies proceeds:

It was only when Celeste began seeing Dr. Reisman on her own that she very, very slowly began to shed her facade. These scenes hit the nail on the head because Dr. Reisman successfully strikes a balance between needling the truth of Celeste without pushing her too hard, which could cause her to shut down and never come to another appointment. The scenes are lengthy, which allows Big Little Lies to flesh out what therapy really looks like — especially for abuse victims. Celeste can’t bear to speak the truth out loud, and her strongest moments in these scenes are conveyed through facial expressions, body language, and eye contact.

By the way, the seventh and final episode airs on Sunday. Time sums up the arc: “…The dreamy miniseries opened on a mysterious murder at the most glamorous trivia night ever. But six episodes in, we still don’t know who died and who the killer is.”

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