There's a reason television critics are buzzing about "Big Little Lies": HBO's limited drama series highlights complicated women who are perpetuating a facade of perfection while their interior lives fall apart. Nowhere is this complex dynamic more present than in the tumultuous marriage of Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) and Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård).
The gorgeous couple has it all: They live in a luxurious home. They're both highly accomplished in their respective fields, though Celeste has left the courtroom to raise their sons. Their twin boys are so popular in school that their absence at a birthday party sends one mother into hysterics. However, something sinister is lurking beneath the illusion of perfection.
It comes to the surface in episode two. An argument over their sons escalates and Perry slaps Celeste across the face.
He then has unnecessarily rough sex with her. It's the audience's first peek into the tumult of their relationship, but it isn't the last. In a subsequent episode, Perry gives Celeste a diamond necklace, though the peace offering doesn't curb the violence.
From that point onward, their relationship is inextricable from the abuse Celeste endures at the hands of her husband.
It's in every interaction she has with her friends Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley).
She covers her bruises with concealer and strategically placed clothing. Her husband dictates her schedule and pops up on her to reinforce his control. Even as Celeste sneaks off to see a marital counselor, she's still mindful of how she speaks about her husband. She realizes that one wrong word or gesture will trigger her husband's abuse, so she makes herself intentionally small and unnoticeable in his presence.
It's one of the most authentic depictions of domestic violence to ever be on television.
The authenticity of the portrayal is what drew Kidman to the role.
"There's enormous amount of [domestic violence] in the world, it's insidious, it's not understood, it's very aligned with shame and secrecy and obviously pain and sacrifice and blame," she said in an interview with Vogue.
Even Perry's role as an abuser is nuanced. He's apologetic, but still continues to exercise his control by bruising and battering his wife.
"You have domestic violence counselors who are analyzing the relationship and saying how authentic it is just because he's capable of falling into his knees and crying and apologizing and saying he's going to change," Kidman explained. "He's a mix of control and possessiveness and shame and repentance. It's a very dangerous and toxic relationship, but as they both like to say, 'they love each other.'"
In recent episodes, Celeste begins the difficult work of recognizing her husband's abuse and placing the blame squarely on him.
It's a realistic scenario for abuse victims, which is what Kidman wanted to capture:
"It's the way in which Celeste has to unravel herself. What is so important for her is that when she goes to seek help she doesn't want the relationship to be destroyed, she just wants it to be fixed. She knows these things are unhealthy, but she's not willing to delve any deeper than 'I just need some tools.' That's where it starts, and then slowly through this extraordinary therapist — who immediately knows the minute she sees them as a couple what's going on — she knows it's going to be a very hard road. Celeste is living in a very dangerous place."
Domestic violence is an issue that overwhelmingly impacts women.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that about 20 Americans per minute are abused by an intimate partner, which accounts for more than 10 million victims per year. At least one in three women will experience intimate partner violence within their lifetime.
Although Kidman said that this role will remain with her for a long time, she also portrayed a character who is putting domestic violence in front of millions of eyes on primetime cable television.
HBO partnered with Safe Horizon, a victim assistance program, to make Celeste a relatable and real character.
"It's uncommon to see [this kind of] portrayal on a popular TV series. It's accurate and emotional. I think having a popular actress portray domestic violence is something we don't usually see," Kimberlina Kavern, senior director of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon, told ATTN. "But seeing it [weekly] on a big HBO show is bringing this conversation to light."
For that reason, "Big Little Lies" is must-see television.