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The Ballad Of Ed And Nathan, The Bickering Boys Of ‘Big Little Lies’


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Meryl Streep and her performance are running away with season two of Big Little Lies, justifiably so. She’s doing so much, with the screaming and the necklace twisting and the passive-aggressive digs at every character on the show. She’s investigating a murder with the faux-aloofness of a wealthy Columbo. It is perfectly acceptable to focus most of your attention on that because it’s an incredible thing that we might not see again for a long time. But please direct at least some of your attention toward the show’s sweet bickering boys, Ed and Nathan, because that might be even better.

The best thing about Ed and Nathan is that all of their interactions play out exactly the same. The setting and topic of discussion changes here and there. Sometimes they’re at lunch discussing their wives. Sometimes they’re dressed like Elvis at a fundraiser and discussing their wives. Sometimes they’re dressed like disco superheroes at a child’s birthday party and… discussing their wives. Okay, most of their conversations are about their wives. But the patterns are the same. Something like this.

NATHAN: Hey Ed, can I talk to you about something?
ED: [sarcastic comment]
NATHAN: [aggressive reply]
ED: [sarcastic comment]
NATHAN: [swearing and threats of physical violence]

It’s my favorite part of the show at this point. It makes me laugh every time, mostly because Nathan appears to go into each exchange with this naive hope that this will be the one that fixes everything and he ends each exchange moments later shouting cuss words at a man who is bicycling away from him. I almost feel bad for Nathan now. He really is trying. It’s a wild swing from where I was in the first season, when I thought Nathan was a meathead and Ed was the only sympathetic character on the show. Screw it. I’m fully Team Nathan. I will not be reading replies.

Perhaps it will help to look at how we got here. To trace back their beef to its origins. To see exactly how two grown men ended up having a childish slap fight in costume at a birthday party. Yes, we should do this. And we should start back in season one.

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HBO
HBO


Context is important. Nathan (ex-husband of Madeline, current husband of bohemian yoga instructor Bonnie) has recently approached Ed (current husband of Madeline, excellent beard-grower) about helping him broker a peace with his ex. It went poorly. Ed accused Nathan of threatening him and started talking about being bullied as a child and Nathan, a man I have previously described as having the most I Played College Baseball And Could Have Gone Pro If I Didn’t Hurt My Shoulder energy of anyone on television, got very confused. Nathan didn’t understand the history, the multiple times Madeline went on and on about Nathan right in front of Ed, the way it drove Ed nuts and played into his insecurity about being the nice, safe option.

This confusion continued season one. Nathan called Ed “a psycho” and told Bonnie he’d love to “pop him,” Ed continued his whole deal, which at this point still appeared to be about him defending Madeline, at least on the surface. It culminated in harsh drunken words between Elvis karaoke performances the night of a fundraiser, as these things usually do.

Cut to season two, where things get hilarious. Their relationship to this point has been a kind of big-brother/little-brother rivalry, with Nathan as the macho star athlete and Ed as the sensitive artsy one who is tired of living in the shadows. It started season two like that, too, as you can see from these screencaps, which, again, depict a conversation that Nathan started in the hopes of solving a problem.

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HBO
HBO


I love it. Nathan really is trying so hard. And he knows he can’t just clobber Ed because this isn’t high school anymore. He has all this aggressive energy and no way to let it out so he finds himself retreating and shouting about people being snide while everyone stares at him. The man is in a hell of his own creation, like a snake who crawled into a cage with a mongoose.

But then Ed found out Madeline cheated on him with the theater director. Ed has not handled this great. He’s handled it… kind of bad, actually. And you are free to debate the finer points of infidelity and the proper reaction to it all you like, but it’s only worth mentioning here for what comes next. Nathan sees Ed is frustrated at Amabella’s party. He asks if everything is okay. He tries an “I’ve been there.” It’s a nice gesture by someone who doesn’t have a great reason to be nice given the bad blood. The timing is bad because Nathan is not good at any of this touchy-feely business, but it’s an attempt at bridge-building, at diplomacy. Let’s see how it worked out.

HBO
HBO
HBO
HBO

Two seasons of tension, building and building, with multiple passive-aggressive threats and a few real ones, the possibility of physical violence always simmering just under the surface, and it all finally bubbles over into… a slap fight at a birthday party that starts with one man messing up the other man’s costume. I laughed out loud when it happened. I laughed again just now when I looked at the screencaps. I love these childish goofballs. I hope Madeline and Bonnie go on the run to avoid the murder investigation and I hope Nathan and Ed go on a road trip together to try and find them. I would watch an episode about that. I would watch an entire season-long spinoff about it.

And, I am pleased to report, my sweet bickering boys show no signs of mending their relationship, because when Nathan popped up to apologize about the fight, well, that conversation took a turn, too…

HBO
HBO
HBO

This is what I was talking about earlier. Somehow my allegiance has totally flipped this season. I see Nathan out here honestly trying — trying so hard, and failing just as hard, but trying — to be a grown-up about things and Ed is responding to it all the way Lex Luthor responds to Superman’s pleas for peace. Am I saying Ed is on the path to becoming a full-on supervillain? No. Maybe. Maybe I am, actually. Maybe this season will end with him harnessing the power of the ocean to destroy all of Monterrey. I can’t wait to see Nathan try to talk him out of that one.

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